Martin Saliba, the Planning Authority’s executive chairman, has attracted sharp criticism for a recent interview. He all but said that the opponents of the government’s planning policy are nostalgics who are out of touch with the country’s needs and lifestyle.
But he should be given credit. Buried in his remarks is the explanation of how the current devastation — of both the urban and natural environment — comes to be seen as the juggernaut that everyone, seemingly, accepts as ‘inevitable’.
Saliba, of course, did also turn things on their head. Some of his critics may be nostalgics, but the majority criticise in the name of the future. They’re not resisting modernity; they protest in its name. They look at Europe’s green cities, built around environmentally sustainable urbanism and social well-being — and they can’t understand why the PA is run by someone whose idea of modernity is 50 years out of date.
It’s out of date even by the standards of government ministers — at least, if we had to take them at their word. Only yesterday, Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi, the junior minister for EU funds, wrote of how he attended a ‘ministers of the future’ conference and told his European counterparts that the only metric of economic success was social well-being and quality of life.
Good thing he told them; they might have missed it. But he should also have a word with Saliba.
For Saliba told us that development is dictated by the market, which is a kind of machine that, good or bad, we just have to accept as fate. His idea of ‘equilibrium’ is the 2016 levels of development and, in those terms, it is ‘controlled’.
Interesting. Two ministers in Robert Abela’s cabinet, Carmelo Abela and Aaron Farrugia, have spoken on sustainable development before Zrinzo Azzopardi. All have spoken about the model of previous years, including the Year of Equilibrium, as having got the balance wrong.
They may warble about social well-being but Saliba has other ideas. He was asked about people who complain about the value of their homes being slashed when the adjoining properties suddenly sprout upwards.
His reply: No, the value of the home goes up because you have the potential to develop it, too.
In short, the value of a home — which is multifaceted and includes non-material values — gets narrowed down to a real estate price. You get to enjoy your house’s value only if you join the development rush (or console yourself that your heirs will). Otherwise, you and your house plants have to gasp for light.
The planning chief who says that critics are out of touch with modernity is himself out of touch with what goes into the value of a home. For him to be right, you have to catch gold fever and join the stampede to the river with your own gold-digging pan.
Saliba’s defence is that there are thousands of applicants for development permits — ordinary people, not just entrepreneurs — who are frustrated about not being given all they ask for. True. For him, that shows the PA is responding to demand. That’s only partly true. The PA is creating the very demand that it then uses to justify how the market is rigged.
The market is not a neutral machine. It’s not impersonal. It’s people sharing and acting on information, then putting a price on it in an attempt to second-guess the future.
In Malta’s case, the market is certainly not ‘free’. When government critics blame it for laissez-faire (a market free of government intervention), they get it exactly wrong. We have a government that has repeatedly rigged the market for cronies.
People know this — and act on it. The juggernaut is a political machine, not a neutral market. The political masters call the tune and ordinary people have to dance to it. They rush to get a permit approved because they know that early entry reaps higher profits — before there’s a property glut or a clampdown on permits.
It’s rational behaviour — in a rigged setting. Modern? It actually feeds the clientelistic system. The policy creates a gold rush and the politicians adjudicate who gets a permit. Even if everyone gets a permit in the end, it will still be a favour granted, not a right that’s exercised.
I’m not saying all this is a well thought-out conspiracy. Politicians are well aware of its advantages, cynical manipulation plays its part, and no doubt the politicians sometimes feel they’re the ones being put upon by their constituents. But mistaken ideas and unquestioned assumptions about ‘modernity’ also play their part.
Truly modern European cities — modern in the 21st century sense — are those that see urban living as a solution to environmental problems. But that’s only because they have governments that have the idea of equitable sharing (say, of public transport and recreational spaces) at the core of their policies, which help generate resilience and economies of scale.
Our planning chief says he’s bowing to economic logic. In fact, he’s assenting to a narrow range of options of what is economically possible. He thinks he’s overseeing the building of economic strength. What we’re getting is a recipe that undermines social cohesion and weakens economic resilience.