How Malta is losing its charm

The proliferation of dull concrete boxes with no aesthetic merit does not enrich the landscape in housing and the Mediterranean charm of the past


The Gozo ministry decreed last May that all new facades built in Gozo shall make use of local stone, but only a few kilometres up the road from Mgarr harbour sports a massive corner structure challenging the rule as it is designed in an all-concrete structure.  This is very puzzling as the current Gozo minister was recently endowed with a Planning ministry. 

The Development Planning Act states that “It shall be the duty of the government to enhance the quality of life for the benefit of the present and future generations, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, through a comprehensive sustainable land use planning system”. A decision by the P. A that allows additional floors to be built as a result of a change in practice and policy is, in my opinion, a senseless one from an economic and social perspective.  Focusing only on the economic element, there is no economic reason to justify a decision that would allow another building boom.  Notice how the charm of past houses in the picture provides streetscape logic, rhythm, and proportion. Quoting, the Chamber of Architects, they rightly pointed out, any reform of the planning system needs to be done in the context of current circumstances.

This is why, with sensible planning, the value of terraced houses should shift away from redevelopment potential and instead recognize their unique status as a residential typology within certain zones.  Context in planning is crucial. The discretionary nature of Maltese planning law, where plans and policies are not legally binding blueprints but allow deviations based on material considerations, proves fallacious and is abused by unscrupulous developers.  Readers may be inundated reading comments in social media by bloggers who in their opinion, construction and the environment are among the most crucial issues facing the country and individuals at the moment.

Therefore, a decision such as that of P. A approves permits for many terraced houses to be pulled down to erect a five-storey replacement; this policy needs to be reassessed.  It looks like the planning boffins were guided by architects/commercial lawyers who wish to quadruple the number of abodes irrespective of the risk of marring the skyline.  This results in an abomination in street design.  It destroys the harmony of a classical row of traditional terraced houses, which in the past graced most villages.  

Consider and reflect on the importance of context as a material consideration, aligning with the context-based approach promoted by the Strategic Plan for Environment and Development.  Do we all agree this Wild West and free-for-all does lead to further deterioration in the quality of life of the population?  Quoting The Chamber of Architects, it argues that it is of the firm opinion that the planning system requires a major reform to move away from its dependence on development control policies to be replaced in favour of master plans that produce comprehensive, researched and thorough strategic plans for each town and village.

Yet, nostalgically, ever since the welcome of the Knights of St. John in 1530, the latter, over two and a half centuries, built Valletta resplendent of baroque gems and why not some rich Knights even indulged in building quaint hunting lodges in remote corners.  Hey, back to the 21st Century, and presto, a fund of over €700 million for road upgrades and other embellishments was launched under the unwavering ministry of Hon Ian Borg.  Over the past three years, this ministry has been active in a positive way, primarily to upgrade The Triton fountain and improve its ambience (remember the glitzy show in Triton Square temporarily leased to a team of personnel from an insurance firm and a travel agency).  

Other positive measures taken by the government are an extensive renovation of the Grandmaster’s Palace in Valletta, the new Caravaggio Wing at St John’s Co-Cathedral and the augmented reality experience at the Mediterranean Conference Centre. These attractions enhance Malta’s cultural offerings, somewhat enriching the tourist experience. But is this enough? Taking into account how the national debt ballooned by over four billion euros over the past four years, there are regular complaints from the general public about the state of the roads and other amenities, leading to popular bays and the ever-increasing noise pollution from construction.  

Granted, the Malta Tourist Authority has introduced new excursions and culinary experiences, demonstrating its commitment to innovation that benefits both tourists and locals. The situation in Valletta is exacerbated by noise pollution from all-night bars and restaurants, which diminishes the experience of this city built by gentlemen. Negative behaviours, such as the encroachment of public spaces for tables and chairs, are among the worst deteriorating effects to date. Sadly, the island is on the verge of losing its shine.  Some say it is too late to address this rot in ambience. Our main export market is tourism which this year MTA expects to generate a gross revenue of €3.2 billion so by right, it merits a lot of attention.

Can we ever measure the net contribution this industry yields annually, given the deterioration in congested roads, contaminated bays, noise pollution by landing aircraft, the low-budget tourists and a lack of quality shows that feature in the summer calendar? A stunning 84% of visitors live in rented accommodation, yet surely, not everything is doom and gloom as sound principles of sustainability and quality tourism, as championed in the ‘Rediscover’ vision, could provide a clear roadmap.  

Can we try to redress our faults and start afresh? Certainly, revising policies and enforcing regulations could address some of these issues, ensuring public spaces remain accessible and enjoyable for everyone. It is illogical to invest in five-star attractions while allowing the commuting experience to be marred by crowded and noisy environments. To conclude, in this current social reality, the focus on the potential for redevelopment has made terraced houses financially unfeasible for prospective young families. The proliferation of dull concrete boxes with no aesthetic merit does not enrich the landscape in housing and the Mediterranean charm of the past.   

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