by Martin Galea

Our environment, both natural and cultural, is under siege. There is a spiralling increase in construction in our outside development zones, demolition of our vernacular historical buildings, and as yet an unnoticed tacit approval of five floors in all our three-floor areas within development zones.

We are told that we need high-rise to ensure that we do not create density elsewhere, at the same time, virgin land is still being destroyed. It is an onslaught of construction, that is ruining our skyline, our towns and villages and rural areas. Speculation is rampant and areas previously closed to development are now being opened up. Where there were development restrictions, now permits are being given.

The Planning Authority appears to no longer have (if it ever had) the remit to control development while protecting our environment – it now has spearheaded development reforms which are so loosely worded so as to give speculators an almost free hand.

This battle for the environment is not new. Din l-Art Ħelwa has participated in street demonstrations in favour of the environment under both Nationalist and Labour administrations. Our members and supporters come from all walks of life and our obligation as an NGO is to environment and heritage protection.

The Nationalist Party has recently issued a document setting out its pledge to protect the built and natural environment. Din l-Art Ħelwa is used to seeing such pledges by the party in opposition and this can be very different to what is implemented once elected. However credit where it is due and this document has much to say for it.

The party has come up with pledges to protect the environment and gives a clear strategy for each aspect of the environment. It does not stop construction but it channels it into where construction, rehabilitation and renewal can be advantageous both to the building industry itself and to the environment. It is high time that we all realise that the two can work in tandem.

We welcome the strategy that will revise the Strategic Plan for the Environment and Planning to ensure that it is becomes a comprehensive strategic vision for the country and that the Policy and Design Guidelines 2015 will be revised to ensure that the current tacit approval of five floors in all our development zones is reversed.

It also states that the ERA will be given the proper tools to act as guardian of the environment. It talks of strengthening the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage to ensure that the current spate of demolitions within our village cores is stopped and that this body has sufficient manpower to deal with applications concerning cultural heritage. In fact, we welcome further thought on how our historic urban clusters can be protected, with further protection of streetscapes and the beefing up of scheduling processes.

Din l-Art Ħelwa notes the importance given to the quality of architecture and the urban environment. We fully support a system which directly promotes improvement of our urban spaces. Malta lacks in quality when compared with the urban spaces of other European cities.

We agree in full engagement with the architects and designers via a National Centre for Architecture and the Built Environment and the drawing up of a national architectural policy. The fiscal incentives in channelling funds directly towards urban renewal are not new but are key.

Din l-Art Ħelwa welcomes wholeheartedly the idea for protecting our skylines. With the onslaught of applications for tall buildings, recognising the importance of Malta’s skylines is of critical value. Protection of such skylines can only be underpinned by a spatial plan. In particular DLĦ commends the policy for directly addressing the current problem of high rise.

The policy document calls for constitutional protection to be given to Outside Development Zone applications which may finally provide the comfort environmentalists are looking for to stop further encroachment into our fast diminishing countryside. The inclusion of a management structure for national parks and the inclusion of protection of bio-diversity is yet another step in the right direction for us all to benefit from our national landscape.

DLĦ welcomes the importance given to climate change, the ideas in catalysing effective environmentally friendly projects for a green economy, the importance given to traffic, mobility and new transport measures, and other ideas such as solar roads. It is only through effective state-of-the-art engineering that we can ameliorate the quality of the built urban area and the infrastructure.

We are pleased to note that due importance has been given to water and that policies will be put in place to ensure that our acquifers are protected, true enforcement against illegal boreholes is put into place and that our precious rain water is harvested.

DLĦ also welcomes the introduction of a legislative framework on noise pollution and recommends that a similar legislative framework, underpinned by research, can be carried out for light pollution.

If this seems like an endorsement of the Nationalist Party by an environmental NGO nothing can be further from the truth. The Labour Party can adopt these ideas or introduce its own reforms which will protect the environment. We can only hope that its supporters push the leadership into taking the right steps to do so.

Many of the proposals in this document are non-partisan, cogent and valid. Yet there are other ways in which the Labour Party can protect the environment – and this it must do. As the party in power it must react. Malta is fast building over the countryside and turning its built landscapes into slums and favelas, devoid of any architectural merit, and for a country aspiring to be first world, it looks increasingly third world.

To conclude, the environmental pledges in this document should be commended. These pledges are underpinned by research and ideas into what truly can make this island surge forward without the destruction of the very environmental qualities which make Malta and Gozo unique.

That is the challenge. Any fool can turn the economy wheels for short-term gains at the expense of the environment. The challenge is to create a successful sustainable economy without sacrificing our environmental qualities.

2nd February 2017