Times of Malta, 24 March 2009 – Talking Point

The 1960s brought a rapidly expanding tourism industry to Malta, with many large hotels built in pristine locations. Tourism is a main pillar of our economy but times have undoubtedly changed radically with respect to the land still available for new tourism developments.

Many of the hotels built in the 1960s and 1970s have already been either demolished or extensively remodelled. A recent trend is the changing of established tourism developments built on prime sites into residential accommodation or commercial complexes.

Does this trend mean that we are likely to need fewer hotels in the future? Surely not. Tourism is one of the bastions of our economy and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

However once tourism sites are changed into accommodation with multiple ownership, it will be practically impossible to reverse their use back to tourism.

So where will any new hotels of the future be built? Nobody knows. One thing that we do know for certain is that precious little unspoiled land is left. Is anyone planning for the future land use of the tourism industry? Probably not, and unfortunately this is likely to result in planning decisions and policies drawn up to fit into applications, instead of vice versa.

What is the current thinking on change of use for developments which were originally granted permits due to the needs of the tourism industry? The Malta Environment and Planning Authority is not being clear enough on this point.

To ensure sustainable planning, a policy must be drawn up to address this issue. We would like to see faster reactions from our planners.

A similar case is planning for high-rise buildings, which is another recent trend. Once again, we have no policy considering where high-rise buildings might be constructed. A large number of tall buildings would have huge consequences on this small and densely populated island.

They have a big visual impact and wide-ranging effects on the surrounding community. They are also practically impossible to reverse when they involve multiple ownership. Just think of the familiar difficulties in taking decisions about the selling or redevelopment of apartment blocks or properties when only five or perhaps 10 owners are involved, and transfer those difficulties to a building with hundreds of owners.

Clearly, once a high-rise block is constructed, it will be around for a very long time. Sustainable planning can only be achieved if economic, social and environmental goals are linked. Unambiguous and informed decisions must therefore be taken about whether high-rise is suitable for Malta and, if so, then where? The details are crucial and make all the difference. As things stand, it is possible to construct tall buildings in locations all over Malta, including the most unsuitable places.

It is essential that a national policy is drawn up to address this issue before it becomes even more complicated than it already is. Din l-Art Ħelwa has been saying this for some time, yet we have heard no word from Mepa, whose duty it is to ensure that adequate planning policies are in place to address current building trends. Again, the reactions from our planners are too slow.