By Julian Manduca
2003 was a record year for the issuing in building permits in all the different categories of dwellings. That year saw a total of 6,128 permits issued, 11 percent up on 2002 but more than 170 per cent higher than 1999 and 2000 and 33 percent higher than 2001.
When it announced its statistics in December 2004, the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (MEPA) argued that the high number of permits for apartments – 70 per cent higher than the prior two years - was containing urban sprawl, but it failed to state that during 2003 the number of permits issued for all types of dwellings increased.
The 4,548 apartments approved during 2003 were way more than enough for what Malta ‘needs’ – with the number of new household formations arising every year being about 1,700. But permits for maisonettes and terraced houses were also up. The number of terraced houses increased from 135 to 414 during 2002, and maisonettes were up from 910 to 1,085. In the case of maisonettes these have seen a yearly increase in the number of permits issued, with increases of between 100 and 200 from 1999 to 2003. Terraced houses however were up substantially over the prior years, which had previously indicated a downward trend up to 2002. MEPA had said when announcing its figures that “This means that dwelling types such as terraced houses, bungalows and villas are merely eight per cent of development being approved,” but failed to state that these had actually increased.
The classification of permits issued as ‘other’ was the only one to decrease – going down drastically from 1,016 to 81, but in 1999 and 2000 the number of others were 77 and 67 respectively. MEPA’s claim that it is containing urban sprawl based on the fact that while the number of buildings in all categories are expected to increase the rate of increase for apartments was higher than that for the other categories.
Comparing the 2003 figures with the 1999 figures, the rate of increase for apartments was 313 per cent, for maisonettes it was 229 per cent and for terraced houses 190 per cent.
In absolute terms however permits issued for maisonettes, terraced house and ‘other’ have been increasing as follows: in 1999 a total of 821; in 2000 a total of 896; in 2001 it reached 1523; 2002 it was 2061 and in 2003 down to 1,580.
The statistics for the number of permits granted in 2004 are expected in mid March 2005.
The 6,128 permits issued in 2003 was the highest number of permits issued ever and will add more than 4000 dwellings to our already high number of vacant dwellings which in 1995 stood at more than 35,000. While MEPA claims it is containing urban sprawl, The Malta Financial and Business Times asked how such a high number of permits issued could constitute sustainable development.
MEPA’s Director General, Godwin Cassar told this newspaper: “The increasing rate of apartments and maisonette-type development rather than terraced houses and villas (and other types such as farmhouses) is in line with the [sustainable development] draft strategy’s strategic direction to promote higher densities and mixed uses close to town centres, and to promote urban renewal rather than continued suburban-type development at the edge of the development schemes.”
Cassar explained Malta’s sustainable development strategy so far: “Malta’s draft sustainable development strategy recognises land use as a key issue, and ‘efficient and prudent use of land’ as a ‘determining factor in the future economic and social development of Malta’.
“It acknowledges ‘a relatively high demand for new dwelling units’ as well as the forecasted over-supply for the period for the new Structure Plan period, and the mismatch between supply and real ‘need’ due to the 23 per cent of all homes that are vacant or being used as second homes.
“It recommends that government: ‘Promote higher residential densities and mixed use close to existing town centres and public transport routes to reduce the need for travel’ and ‘Promote renewal incentives to make the best use of the existing urban fabric and reverse the decline particularly in historic cores, specifically through strategic economic and social planning addressing the physical, economic, social and environmental issues in an integrated manner, whilst encouraging the use of vacant property.’”