Back in 1998, my Bachelor’s dissertation in sociology analysed the development of Portomaso. My research concluded that a symbiotic relationship exists between the State and big developers.
In this regard, developers provide economic growth and other incentives. The State provides policy and operational support. I argued that the relationship is fed by an ideological commitment to such development through the exploitation of land. The Planning Authority is the State’s major representative in this regard.
Since then, Malta has witnessed endless examples of the relationship between the State and big developers. At the same time, however, it has also been shown that the State is not merely a monolithic structure that always decides the same way. It is more of a condensation of conflicts which take place, albeit characterised by some interests and ideological orientations which are stronger than others.
Indeed, there were examples where the environmental movement had substantive impacts and managed to stop or reduce certain development. Subsequent sociological studies by myself, including my doctoral dissertation in 2013, and others such as Patrick Galea, Jeremy Boissevain and Caroline Gatt analysed various case studies in this regard.
To mention a few successful campaigns, these include the failed proposals for a golf course in Rabat, a cement plant in Siġġiewi and a car park and shopping complex in Qui-si-sana, Sliema. More recently, the development of an old people’s home in Wied Għomor was defeated and the planned ODZ footprint of the so-called American University of Malta was reduced.
The support of any of the two major political parties – or elements within them – to the environmental movement usually aid the chances of victory.
Therefore, even though the Planning Authority under successive governments has tended to favour big developers, one cannot simply conclude that this is a one-way process. The environment is political, and different outcomes can result.
In this article I want to take the argument further. I believe that under the current Labour government, the relationship between the State and big developers has intensified and is being accompanied by a style of governance that seduces everyone to become a developer himself.
I don’t think readers of this article need much convincing about the intensification of the State’s relationship with big developers. Townsquare and ITS are but two recent examples of the Labour government’s favouring of mega projects, and more are yet to come.
What is more fascinating is how Labour is selling a Maltese dream to the public. Its lax development policies and its rubberstamping of various proposals, big and small, are major contributors to Malta’s current economic growth, whether through the development of high-rises or the odd extra storey to one’s house.
The selling of passports and the importation of foreign workers provide markets for such properties, the prices of which are becoming prohibitive for lower-income earners. Labour’s micro-political surveillance techniques demand voter loyalty, and those who are deemed to be political opponents are given a hard time by the Planning Authority.
It is doubtful whether such an economic model can keep sustaining itself over a long period for various reasons. These include political pressure by the environmental movement and its allies, environmental and traffic impacts, and drop in demand should the influx of foreign workers subside. Yet, as Sandro Chetcuti once said, “make hay while the sun shines”, and the expanding class of big and small developers is obliging.
Labour’s economic model is also likely to be sustained by pre-electoral promises and commitments for development. Whether these are characterised by corrupt deals is difficult to prove, but the impacts on the environment are the same.
Again, one can refer to mega projects but also to smaller ones which are slowly but surely resulting in cumulative impacts on Malta’s urban and rural landscapes.
We can therefore conclude that now there is a relationship between the State and developers, big and small for hyper development. This requires stronger opposition than ever before, and the wider the coalitions the better.