Shops in Valletta will hardly be surprised by the recent survey indicating a drop in sales over the Christmas period. This is hardly the first report to put up a red flag and it is unlikely to be the last unless drastic action is taken.

The downward shopping trend is usually blamed on paving works and online shopping. But the latest study, by the Chamber of Small and Medium Enterprises – GRTU picks up on a theme that is not new: people are put off by the hassle of parking and prefer shopping complexes to individual high street shops.

There have been efforts to resuscitate the capital. Certain events like Notte Bianca and various festivals benefit food and beverage outlets while pavement cafes and Strait Street venues give the capital a vibe it lacked for a very long time. Public gardens and Fort St Elmo are being used for corporate events and boutique hotels are sprouting up, bringing a new tourism segment to life. The night ferry service from Sliema in summer was a resounding success, becoming an attraction in its own right. And Renzo Piano’s City Gate project has given another touch of class to Valletta. But this magic has not spread to all retail outlets, which are far more dependent on opportunistic visits and, therefore, far more dependent on convenience.

Perhaps the problem is that, like most capital cities, Valletta has to be all things to all wo/men – those who live there, work there, play there and shop there – and, therefore, needs a strong vision and a firm hand.

The local council, answerable to its voters, unfortunately puts residents’ needs first, even though the value of property – residential, retail or commercial – would be sorely undermined were the decline to continue. The population fell by about 30 per cent in the past decade, according to UN estimates, and its current population of about 6,000 is a far cry from the 23,000 who lived there in 1901. It remains to be seen whether the influx of people converting dilapidated properties – and the freeing up of tenanted properties for new investment – will reverse the trend.

If the city is not accessible and people no longer go there, it is not only shops that would shutter up and move out but also offices (a process that has already started). And without all these potential patrons, businesses would suffer and, soon, the trickle will escalate to a flood. The decline will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The ferry has given visitors another option – and will be even more convenient if the tunnel to the base of City Gate goes ahead – while the park-and-ride fills the needs of many workers.

Better public transport should help as will more parking at the MCP in Floriana. But to truly encourage those who want to drop into the city for an hour or so for a quick custom no stone should be left unturned to make their life easier and improved access is a good place to start.

What is the solution? Dozens of parking places have been removed over the years, freeing up squares for cafes and fountains. Roads have been pedestrianised, creating a much more pleasant environment. But, you cannot just rob Peter to pay Paul. So there needs to be a well-planned and sustainable plan.

The soul of a city comes from the blood beating through all its arteries, not those of residents, shoppers, workers or visitors in isolation. This is why a proper master plan cannot come a moment too soon.

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