The direct action carried out by Movement Graffitti and Kamp Emerġenza Ambjent on Thursday at the Planning Authority was a timely protest against the Authority and the way permits are issued.
Lurking beneath the surface is a deep rooted and widespread anger about the use (or abuse) of Malta’s scarcest resource – land. And no amount of spin will reverse the damage being inflicted on the country.
Fourteen applications for new petrol stations in Outside Development Zones (ODZ) have been submitted, four of which have already been approved. This would eat up 46,500 square metres of land. An area the size of some 10 football fields.
“We believe that destroying all this natural and agricultural land for mega complexes that include petrol stations, in a country that is by far the most built up country in the EU, is pure madness and should be halted immediately,” the activists said.
Unsurprisingly, developers did not take much pleasure. The Malta Developers Association accused the activists of exerting “illegal pressure” and said decisions need to be taken ‘in serenity’.
This would be very true if policies and decision makers acted as guardians of the environment. But the Planning Authority is issuing thousands of permits in ODZ land and the authorities are constantly unwilling or unable to defend the environment.
After all, the protesters sensibly demanded to put all petrol station applications on hold until the policy is revised, as promised by Environment Minister José Herrera.
The protest took place because activists and citizens do not have the same access to the State as developers and entrepreneurs do.
Anger is growing and the few who care about the country’s wellbeing are left with no other option but to protest. Otherwise, the situation will only get worse.
The annihilation of the little unbuilt land that remains can only be stopped by a radical change in policy. The uglification of Malta can only be stopped by policies designed to protect our natural heritage and quality of life.
The roots of the excessive amount of built-up land in Malta are to be found in its abysmal land use planning and not in its overpopulation. The creation of the Planning Authority in 1992 was intended to bring in proper controls and planning.
But not only has more land been lost, leaving fewer and fewer open spaces, but the Authority has been reduced to a political tool used by the two mainstream parties to win votes (and make some people richer).
Given the size of the Maltese islands, land use should be of paramount concern. However, successive policy makers seem oblivious to the growing public demand for more open spaces.
If the Labour government’s vision for Malta is implemented the landscape of the country will be changed into an even bigger (and higher) concrete jungle. More countryside lost to roads and buildings. Fewer open spaces for children to play.
What was once a bare island will be transformed into an ugly and congested metropolis.
There is a limit to how long people will continue to accept being sidelined in favour of economic and electoral interests. But the temptation to join the frenzied orgy of unsustainable development may be too strong for many.
By the time the majority stands up to this madness, it will be too late and no amount of money, bitcoins or credit agency reports will reverse the damage inflicted by greed and short sightedness.