Construction and its effect on the Environment and the Economy

It is estimated that the construction industry accounts for approximately 11% to the Economy’s Output and this increases to approximately 18% if one adds the indirect effect. This means that one cannot simply ignore this sector but on the other hand, it does not mean that one must succumb to whatever this sector demands, especially when it is directly impacting the environment.

The construction sector does not only include full time developers and contractors but also many homeowners who may decide to redevelop their home. During my time at the Housing Authority there were hundreds, if not thousands, of Home Ownership Scheme (HOS) plots that requested our permission to redevelop their house into a block of apartments. Surely these homeowners do not classify as developers or contractors as listed with MDA but they still account to a vast chunk of the development that takes place.

In Malta’s context, when one refers to development one is not only referring to development by developers but also by many individuals who can be classified as employees and who are not businessmen. I am highlighting this point so that one may understand that changes in the local plans, planning regulations etc. will not only affect the developers but also the thousands of families who own property that has the potential to be developed.

Presently the construction of small terraces and plots being developed into a block of apartments is creating a nuisance to neighbours and to the environment in general. One must also mention the issue of major projects which very often trigger protests from environmentalists. One must be objective in saying that Government has introduced new policies to protect the environment but there are many other initiatives and areas that the Government needs to seriously address to better safeguard the environment from construction.

The Ministry for the Environment, Climate Change and Planning is doing its utmost to improve the environment in the country, and one cannot ignore initiatives such as the changes made to the fuel stations’ policy which received positive feedback from environmentalists. The setting up of a robust Building Regulation Authority with an anticipated work force of around 300 employees augurs well. Although, a word of advice to the new CEO of this Authority would be that whilst there are serious short comings that need to be resolved with immediate effect, such as unlicensed operators on site, one needs to tread carefully and not go to the other extreme and shock this sector with huge bureaucratic procedures during a time when we are already witnessing a mild slowdown in this sector.

One has to also mention the revision of the ODZ which was in desperate need, and which protects the rights of the genuine farmers. Furthermore, one must also mention other initiatives instigated again by the Ministry such as the revision of Strategic Plan for the Environment and Development (SPED), the launch of the national strategy for the environment until 2050, the strategy for carbon to reach the Paris 2050 targets, the ECHOHIVE project and many others. All of these evidence the Government’s honest and determined commitment to reach established targets and protect the environment. However, safeguarding the environment requires constant attention and a consistent mindset so there is still a lot more that one can do. 

Safeguarding the environment requires constant attention and a consistent mindset.

Many are saying that the 2006 local plans need to be revised for example by rethinking the height limitation amongst others. Here, one must be realistic and practical and when one says that the Government will reduce the height limitation this will mean that a lot of working families, and not only developers, will suffer financial consequences by this new legislation. Some might argue that this can happen if the two major political parties agree on such a measure, but this is dreamland since that Government that passes such a legislation (irrespective of the agreement with the opposition party) would mean that it has accepted not to be in power for the next 30 years or so besides creating inequity among property owners. So let us stop dreaming since this never leads to tangible solutions.

There are several other practical and realistic initiatives that can be done to further safeguard the environment from the side effects of construction. Let us start from the Planning Authority. Case officers need to be more creative and flexible rather than rigid technicians and they must be trained to view architecture as an art rather than a simple ticking of boxes exercise. Needless to say, the vision and direction for such a move must come from the top management within the PA and permeates downwards. Planning should be a means to produce aesthetically pleasing surroundings, and this should serve as the basis for the guidelines being given to case officers. This will avoid having ugly blocks and pencil flats that literally ruin the landscape always with the excuse that the building has ticked all the planning authority boxes.

An area of concern is the situation in Gozo. Gozitans must learn from the mistakes made in Malta and in view of this I suggest that a new commission is set up specifically to handle (or process) Gozitan applications. Employees within this new commission, including case officers, should be Gozitans because they know best the Gozo character. Furthermore, I feel having a new branch will bring with it new planning processes that will not repeat the same processes that failed in Malta.

It is pivotal to separate the Environment function from that of the Planning function. Unfortunately amalgamating the two functions under one Ministry will reduce ERA’s strength to oppose projects. There should be a distinction between applications that have minimal environmental impact and those that have major environmental impact such as opening a small shop as compared to building a huge block of apartments, this will serve to create a more efficient and effective process. It is for this reason that some applicants feel aggrieved when applying for example to make changes to their small garage and the bureaucracy this application has to go through. One wonders whether the PA treats this application with the same rigour as an application for a block of apartments or so?  There are many more initiatives and measures that I can list but it is not the scope of this article.

Planning should be a means to produce aesthetically pleasing surroundings, and this should serve as the basis for the guidelines being given to case officers.

Coming now to major projects one must immediately point out the good work that environmentalists are doing in this area. Highlighting deficiencies in the planning process is of utmost importance however even here one cannot protest simply because there is a major project because major projects are important to the economy and to the environment if the project respects the surrounding environment. For example, today, nobody complains about Radisson Bay Hotel in Ghajn Tuffieħa even though it is a major project and is situated in a very sensitive area because the height and design respect the surroundings. Another good example is the collaborative efforts that the Local Council of Gzira and environmentalists approached the Manoel Island Project whereby today the developers are happy albeit not getting everything that they wanted and the Gzira residents are happy as well. The upside here was that the Local Council acknowledged the fact that the developers had a contract in hand which they had to respect, and the developers had to accept that they could not steamroll over the residents without any respect for the surrounding.

Collaborative efforts accept that all parties are playing an important role such as for example the MDA is giving good advice to Government to sustain the construction sector. In fact, during the COVID-19 pandemic this is one sector that kept the economy going even due to the several initiatives over these last 7 years proposed by the MDA itself, such as the reduction of taxes on the property contracts. Government is also doing its best to safeguard the environment given the several restrictions it has such as the local plans of 2006, the highly polarized political system in Malta, and the need for the planning authority to assist as many families as possible with their applications.

Can the Government do more? The answer is always a yes. Government can start first from the quick fixes some of which I have already mentioned above but also to try to reach a wider consensus (including environmental lobby groups) when presenting a long-term strategy.

Finally, one has to acknowledge that the environmental lobby groups are doing an excellent job in highlighting oversights or even irregularities in the planning permits to further safeguard the environment.  Could this group improve? In my opinion, yes, since such lobby groups could be more credible if they do not put extreme arguments and complain about everything that the PA approves. This group needs to be cognisant that whilst they are 100% correct on some of their issues, there are other issues where they are not, especially if they factor in sustainability. For example, arguments such as for the Government to buy the land instead of letting the owners develop such land within PA policies is illogical because Government will end up buying most of the land in Malta and it has limited resources since money does not grow on trees. Moreover, many times, one has to strike the right balance between what is fair for the owners, the economy and respect for the environment and if all these three elements are factored in, one would mitigate the numerous issues between the environmentalists and the PA and which in the long run aren’t beneficial. After all, Sustainable Development is all about the interdependence of the three pillars being the society, the economy and the environment. This will give more credibility to the protests and lobby groups would be able to focus more on those applications that truly negatively impact the environment. 

Stephen McCarthy is a Financial and Management Consultant

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