The surge of proposals for high-rise development in this country provides yet another justification for the need for comprehensive social impact assessments when dealing with large development proposals.
Some social impact assessments have been carried out in Malta, but in my view the existing policymaking process tends to consider such studies as an irritant rather than a tool for holistic management and community participation.
In no way am I suggesting that authors of social impact assessments are incompetent or untrustworthy. Far from it. They are professionals doing their job. The problem lies in lack of political will, incomprehensive terms of reference and lack of critical assessment by authorities.
In a recent document, the International Association for Impact Assessment produced guidelines for social impact assessments which can be very useful in the Maltese context. Here it was suggested that an SIA is the process of analysing, monitoring and managing the intended and unintended social consequences, both positive and negative, of planned interventions and any social change processes invoked by those interventions.
The document explains that social impacts under assessment should include all those things relevant to people’s everyday life. This may include one’s culture, community, political context, environment, health, well-being, personal and property rights as well as fears and aspirations.
It is quite common that communities feel like strangers in their own home when development is imposed upon them without taking their social fabric into consideration. This may lead to a lack of trust towards developers, and increased anxiety on the unknowns related to possible changes.
Social impact assessments can help verify the consequences and impacts of development proposals on communities
From my experience as sociologist and local councillor, I have often encountered such realities. Many residents feel that developers want to make a quick buck with little social concern, and that authorities simply rubber-stamp developers’ wants. In turn, this leads to helplessness and lack of trust. At times, it also leads to protest, which sometimes has significant outcomes.
Social impact assessments can help verify the consequences and impacts of development proposals in relation to the communities involved. Hence, a basic starting point for such assessments should be the compilation of a community profile. A social impact assessment that does not understand the society in question is practically worthless.
This can help bring about genuine processes of engagement between communities, developers and authorities as well as identify and implement mitigation measures and compensation mechanisms. As things stand in Malta, various developers do quite the opposite, often causing huge inconvenience to residents and leaving a mess behind in surrounding infrastructure.
Social impact assessments should not be one-off exercises which are rubber-stamped by authorities without any sense of critical engagement. To the contrary, they should be ongoing processes which engage with various stakeholders and which report back so as to ensure effective policy processes. They should also use complementary research methods so as to ensure reliable and valid data.
Such ongoing processes should also take account of changes in the social context in question, such as cumulative impacts of other developments. For example, a social impact assessment that focuses on one development but ignores another development in the region is not realistic.
Some other factors which should be included in social impact assessments include the consideration of reasonable alternatives to development proposals as well as comparative analysis of similar development proposals and related good or bad practices.
Analytic indicators should be provided and the entire process should be subject to peer review by independent experts in the field. In simple terms, the basic foundations for systematic analysis should not be used just at university, but should also be applied in other spheres: such as the one of planning and development.
Indeed, it is very ironic that whilst Malta’s educational system is equipping students to become professionals in their respective fields, this ethic is often not reproduced in certain policymaking processes.
State authorities may choose to ignore the value of social impact assessments, but this will not erase the political dimension of development. Indeed, civil society and local communities are becoming increasingly aware of their rights and of their mobilising potential.
The current high-rise development proposals in Malta will show whether decision-making in Malta is really giving due consideration to social impacts.
Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.