Times of Malta, 8th January 2011

Construction all over the island seems to have slowed down and recently there has been less controversy over planning matters.

Change in the urban landscape is not a bad thing in itself. There has always been change and, as long as the community prospers, it is natural to expect there will always be. People are wary of change, especially if it is fast, however, attempts to resist all change must ultimately fail.

One unwelcome change is the sheer quantity of buildings everywhere. Last December, the National Statistics Office reported that in a 15-year period from 1990 to 2005, the total area of Malta affected by new development grew by 29.1 per cent and outside development zones building permits almost doubled from 4.9 per cent to 9.5 per cent of the total land area.

Here we could add that, in 2006, an extension of the development zone boundaries was bulldozed in. The ensuing public outcry eventually resulted in the ongoing reform of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority, with various new measures due to come into force this month. More efficiency is welcome and better decision-making is vital. The country is littered with unfinished showrooms and empty flats, the legacy of redundant building permits.

It is, of course, essential to support the economic and social needs of the community. However, these were the sort of changes the community did not need and which might have been avoided. Foresight and good planning are not easy and will never be perfect but one hopes to do better than that.

In the meantime, we must live in a landscape of unwanted empty buildings, largely with mediocre designs and finishes, to say the least. These unnecessary buildings often block off the beautiful coastal or countryside views we once enjoyed as we now drive from one built up area to another with hardly a break in between.

Unnecessary demolition and construction puts pressure on two of our important natural resources: land and limestone, both of which are finite and cannot be exploited ad infinitum. For the continued and sustainable enjoyment of both these resources, they must be well managed.

In truth, the use and re-use of limestone has hardly been managed at all and our land is over-developed. This is complicated by the fact that Malta is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, which makes the prudent use of land even more crucial.

Over the last two years or so, we have had new faces at the helm of Mepa and the ministry responsible for the environment and a reform is underway.

The tidal wave of pointless construction also seems to have calmed down. One hopes that a genuinely more sustainable direction will now be followed, respecting the limits and vulnerability of our resources.

It makes no sense at all to be against or for development per se. I am against mindless and unnecessary development, however, I am wholly in favour of quality and intelligent development, which respects its context, is aesthetically pleasing and imaginative and fulfils a social purpose.

We have long been missing an adequate framework to evaluate new proposals. In most cases, if the local plans allowed a showroom or a block of apartments to be built on a site, then a permit was granted without a shred of attention given to quality. And to top it all, the building might even be abandoned for years in a half-built state, like a gaping open wound in the street.

I hope the new route Mepa will take is not to oppose all new ideas or take on a siege mentality, where it is preferable to refuse everything rather than risk being exposed to some heat and scrutiny. Mepa should refuse poor quality development, protect the areas outside the development zones and help safeguard and manage our natural and architectural heritage.

However, Mepa also has a very important role to play in nurturing and encouraging good quality, energy-efficient projects within the development zones. For this it needs the right policies and well-informed decision-making. This must include adequate information about the state of our resources, which is still lacking, and our heritage, as well as the economic and social direction of the community.

The reform is being ushered in – let quality be its watchword.

Dr Bianchi is executive president of Din l-Art Ħelwa.