Joseph and the Legend of Sustainable Development

"Tkun imħajjar tibni xi università, kellimni" Photo: DOI
“Tkun imħajjar tibni xi università, kellimni” Photo: DOI

From comparing environmentalists to developers, to making claims on sustainable development and investment, there is much that doesn’t figure in Joseph Muscat’s talk about the “south”

This week, the prime minister announced that a deal had been reached to build a campus for an American university in the so-called “south” of Malta. The Maltese government has offered land– 90,000 m2 – to the Jordanian investors.

The reasons for this? The “south”, apparently, could do with some more development. Two power stations, a Freeport and a couple of massive landfills (remember Wied Fulija, anyone?), and SmartCity clearly aren’t enough.

Ever the strategist, Muscat also announced the development of a nature park in the same breath as this considerable development project – because clearly, even a natural park will require some form of construction.

The Times of Malta reports: “It was evident that not everyone agreed with decisions taken – whether it was environmentalists with regard to the educational institution or developers with regard to the natural park,  but the government was seeking a balance based on sustainable development, Dr Muscat said.”

Meanwhile, MaltaToday reports: “Previous governments were reluctant to take any decisions out of fear that it would upset a lobby, be it developers or environmentalists.”

Developers or environmentalists? Putting the two on the same level is naive, ridiculous, and offensive. Developers, a relatively small group, are people who stand to make serious money from any project, as indeed they have, countless times. They make the money for themselves, and they give some of the money to the political parties.

Indeed, what Muscat is calling “balance” could probably be read as “keeping developers sufficiently happy, but not so happy that we couldn’t give them another stretch of land to build on in the next 15 years”.

Incidentally, I recall that a few months ago, the Malta Developers Association had laid claim on the very strip of land our Prime Minister has offered up to the Jordanian investors.

Meanwhile, there is no money in it for environmentalists. Indeed, there is nothing in it for them personally as much as there is for the entire nation, particularly when we have to point out that building on virgin land by the sea is probably not such a good idea when the rest of the island is already built up (and some of its buildings empty).

Muscat continues:

“However, decisions must be taken for the sake of Malta. The economy must grow sustainably but there will be a sustainable development and not a concrete jungle,” Muscat argued while speaking during an interview on One Radio.

Last I checked, the concrete jungle was already there. Sticking to the south: Marsaskala itself is quite the concrete (and franka) jungle, Smart City is as concrete as it gets (rather than the abstract concept that the PN used as election fodder in 2008), and looking further north, Tigne Point is a concrete oasis.

Malta has lost the right to talk about “sustainable development” on its own soil twenty years ago, when admittedly the term wasn’t in fashion. At this stage, any development which does not entail the replacement of previous structures cannot be called sustainable.

Moving on from the environment, let’s talk about money, because if there’s anything that can justify further development is the magic word: “investment”.

“‘We want it to be set up in the south because on average, the income of families in the south was the lowest in Malta, with families earning some €2,500 below the average,’ he said.” “He,” being H.E. Dr Joseph Muscat.

It would be interesting to hear how exactly this project will help raise the income of these low-earning “families”. Will these low-earners be employed with the university and get paid €2,500 more p.a.? Will their current employers decide that, given they’re from the south, they deserved a pay rise? Or will the high-ranking university staff living in the area raise the average so much that it makes up for the shortfall?

Indeed, what could possibly happen is that the project will increase the desirability of the neighbourhood, particularly for apartments, and the increased demand could in turn hike up the price of property in the area – as has been the case around the world, and which we are seeing happen in Malta, thanks to the influx of high-earning expats who are pricing out locals in the more desirable areas of the island.

It’s also worth asking the question: who is actually going to be employed at the university? Most probably, many of the low-ranking jobs will be given to local workers – cleaners, canteen staff, security, possibly administration. But as for the higher-paying jobs, it is likely that the posts will mostly go to people with no ties to Malta whatsoever – as recent experience in other sectors has shown.

Muscat claims all this will benefit Malta; whether that Malta will belong to its people by that stage is another matter altogether.

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