I never imagined I would find solace in anything Sandro Chetcuti said. I was wrong.  The occasion was a conference held by the Malta Developers Association (MDA) at which an updated version of a report on the construction industry was presented and discussed. Chetcuti said that developers were “very concerned” about who might replace Joseph Muscat.

The MDA, he added, wanted to make sure that whoever it was would keep up the pace of development. There was an excellent relationship between the association and the Prime Minister. The result of this warm rapport was that developers were “no longer driving a small car, but rather a Formula One racer”.

Not exactly jaw-dropping, at face value. I counted 23 tower cranes on the Qawra skyline the other day. The bypass side of Mellieħa had six, and Manikata four. There is no question that developers are driving a whole fleet of Formula One cars, and that the only things the race lacks is pit stops and a finishing line.

Nor is the succession anxiety endemic to the MDA. It has become routine at Labour events for a disciple to stand up, put on their best look of ecstasy straight out of Guido Reni, and beg Muscat to please, please stay. Undying fealty to the leader is a fine sentiment indeed, especially if you wish to take his place. Nothing new there – Muscat himself knows a thing or two about it.

Why my solace, then? For two reasons. First, because Chetcuti pinpointed in no uncertain terms the source of the Nile. Second, because his concern is my optimism.

The number of tower cranes all over the place is not the only sign that this country is construction crazed. Take the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage. Part of its work is to carry out planning consultancies in places that, on account of their potential heritage value, need special attention before they can be developed.

According to the annual report for 2018, the Superintendence had 9,773 requests for planning consultancy in that year. In 2015, the number was 1,099. Part of that increase had to do with changes in planning legislation, the rest with the astonishing boom in planning applications.

If Sandro Chetcuti is right… it means we can hold Joseph Muscat personally responsible for giving free rein to indiscriminate construction

So great was the work involved that it took the lion’s share of the available resources, at the expense of other things. The Superintendence, in other words, and through no fault of its own, has ended up an appendage of the construction industry.

The Planning Authority’s numbers are equally alarming. In 2018 it approved the development of almost 13,000 dwellings. That’s nearly five times the figure for 2013. It seems that most of the cases involved demolishing existing buildings and replacing them with blocks of flats. Thus the tower cranes in Mellieħa and Manikata, and the fact that Mġarr has had to invent a strawberry tradition as a sorry façade to the rural character it no longer has.

That, I suppose, is Chetcuti’s Formula One car. The telling part of what he said is, however, elsewhere. He effectively confirmed two things. First, that there is a top-down strategy that stewards the construction rampage. Second, that the hand at the top is in fact the Prime Minister’s. Why else would the MDA be concerned about his early retirement?

I can see why the MDA and the Prime Minister get on so swimmingly. If Chetcuti is right – and he doesn’t give me the impression he’s ill-informed – it also means that we can hold Muscat personally responsible for giving free rein to indiscriminate construction.

To which the Prime Minister would probably say that the Planning Authority is autonomous, and that he has never personally bullied or influenced anyone into approving the unapprovable. I’d believe him, but that’s hardly how these things work. All it takes is for the person at the top to mumble something about the ‘reduction of bureaucracy’, and the deed’s done. That’s what I mean by a top-down strategy.

Now Muscat is not a tyrant. He has won two free and fair elections, and continues to enjoy the support of an overwhelming number of people. His power comes to him from below, as is right in a democracy. It wouldn’t be a million miles off the mark to say that he has every right to decide that we must live in a permanent construction site.

It follows that the only way to change this is to vote Muscat out. That, I’m afraid, is not going to happen anytime soon. The Nationalist Party is about as organised as Yorgen Fenech’s pet monkeys, and in any case lacks any semblance of a political alternative that would see the country governed differently and better.

The first question is, then, how on earth to get Muscat out of the way, It’s also one he’s already answered. He has said that 10 years as Prime Minister is quite enough, and that he intends to step down. I can only wish him godspeed.

The second question is whether or not we have reason to be optimistic about his successor. Normally I wouldn’t be but, if Chetcuti’s concern is well-founded, there may be room for some good cheer. If we’re lucky, whoever it is will put Formula One aside and settle for some normal driving. 

mafalzon@hotmail.com

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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