Every year, Din l-Art Ħelwa submits heritage and nature protection recommendations for consideration in the Budget to the Ministry of Finance. It is satisfying that some ideas were implemented by the previous Administration such as incentives to regenerate urban conservation areas promoting reuse and restoration of scheduled buildings.
Schemes similar to Investi f’Darek (invest in your home) could be extended now to all UCAs (urban conservation areas), not just scheduled buildings, and its fiscal benefits stretched beyond private home owners to businesses and NGOs.
We are thrilled that revitalisation of our old towns and villages seems to be on the cards with this Administration, a fundamental measure if we are to save numerous abandoned properties and attract investment to traditional areas fast becoming ghost towns.
We recommend strong incentives to divert speculating eyes from virgin land and the few remaining beauty spots we enjoy. Boosting the economy through construction, something this Administration seems to favour, is not a sound economic platform apart from causing serious environmental damage.
So far, we have seen facilitation of building permits and sanctioning of construction illegalities with frightening regularity. It is far too easy to sell off our landscape piecemeal with the justification that the economy needs it. The consequence will be to increase the untenable glut of 70,000 vacant buildings on the market.
If one is to go by the current rate of applications approved for development of some 100 a week, this truly makes Mepa a mere rubber stamp for the building industry, its Environment Directorate muzzled even before being moved elsewhere.
Regeneration schemes to promote retrofitting of existing buildings can stimulate the construction industry for years to come by attracting new homeowners, especially first-time buyers of properties in Valletta, for casa bottega-type ownership and for shops in our characteristic urban cores where ugly metal garage shop fronts are unattractive scars on our streetscapes.
The problem of multi ownership needs the imaginative creation of legal vehicles to look after the interests of groups of ‘beneficiaries’. Individual action is difficult in collective redevelopment schemes but with Trust type instruments whole blocks held in common could benefit areas built after the 1980s, where landscaping desperately needs to relieve our eyes from the dismal canyons of cement we endure daily.
We have suggested increasing fiscal benefits above the current 32.5 per cent to corporations that donate over €30,000 to restoration, to lower the ceiling for benefits to €1,000 to encourage small businesses and individual donors, thus widening the circle of sponsors for heritage enhancement as well as granting incentives for legatees or their heirs to encourage legacies to heritage.
We have called for the elimination of VAT for NGOs working in this field and to learn more about the fund for NGOs envisaged in item 20 of the Labour Party’s political manifesto.
It is good that the Budget will further employment through education. This dovetails perfectly with the idea we submitted to the finance and education ministries to give the education sector more resource for development of conservation studies.
Disciplines for the restoration of paper, wood, metal and textiles are to be encouraged as well as stone and canvas art. There is thankfully much to save and not enough hands to do it all. This sector can provide long-term jobs to so many.
While it is good that policy will continue to promote Gozo, we are concerned that wrong development can change the unique rural and scenic qualities that Malta has lost.
Malta’s dilapidated countryside needs far more attention and funds should be directed for upgrading rural areas even outside Natura 2000 sites. Their enjoyment in the off-shoulder months can attract a higher quality visitor. In particular, we need to protect Malta’s southern region where the beauty of the countryside and historic sites remains mostly intact.
Din l-Art Ħelwa concludes that the draft Budget makes some good noises. It makes provisions for Malta to meet its 2020 renewable energy targets, encourages employment by diversifying tourism through the cultural heritage sector, promotes the sustainability of a Green economy and greater environmental protection.
We presume the latter will come about when a new organisational framework to manage our rural resources is announced with the redistribution of Mepa’s responsibilities. However, let us not wait till then.
Let’s face it, if the Government wants to protect the environment, as is its duty under article 9 of the Constitution, it can do so no matter which ministry wears the Green cap. With the revision of local plans in the offing, we want to hear more from the Government on environmental protection, hoping its intentions to fulfill such a grave responsibility will balance the monopoly board-game discourse we have heard so far.
Our Budget recommendations are submitted so that NGOs such as Din l-Art Ħelwa continue to work constructively as part of the national solution.
We are looking forward to hearing more.
Simone Mizzi is executive president of Din l-Art Ħelwa