In whose interest?

Ralph Cassar

In various public relations stunts both Lawrence Gonzi and Tonio Fenech insist that their party and government is the natural party of economically-sane policies. The question to ask is, who are the people who getting the most out of their policy decisions? Have there been any innovative strategies or is it just business as usual?

A fixed feature for the past 20 years has been the laissez-faire attitude and a free-for-all in certain sectors. Notably favoured were the main contributors to the Nationalist and Labour parties’ coffers, the so-called “developers”. Policies tailor-made to make a quick buck at everyone else’s expense are the order of the day. In its pre-Budget 2011 document, the government itself admitted “the negative implications of the economy’s productive capacity was exacerbated by the fact that around 20 per cent (the highest in the EU) was directed at housing construction”.

Dr Gonzi’s policies have meant that we have over 50,000 units of vacant property and additional 20,000 currently in construction. A rough guesstimate is that the value of this property stock exceeds €5,000,000,000. Despite all this and claims to having a vision, Dr Gonzi’s Cabinet in 2006 approved the useless and irrational extension of the development zones in an already overbuilt country.

The 1996-98 short-lived Labour government did its best to catch up with the PN Joneses. The Hilton story is a classic textbook example of speculation on public property. Public land leased at preferential rates to developers in the 1960s, when the country was struggling to build its tourism industry, was eventually sold off for Lm800,000 to become one of the classic examples of speculation on what was public land. A good bargain indeed: sell three flats or so and the price of the land is recovered. Of course the PN stayed mum on the issues. Nothing astounding since it has the same policies as the PL in this area, anyway. Others who have benefited from public land giveaways are MIDI, which also benefited from a massive millions of euros discount on fees for dumping at sea, the Fort Chambrai developers in Gozo and the Fort Cambridge developers in Sliema. The Gozo Mġarr marina is soon to join these as another example of yet another giveaway.

Another worrying trend is that industrial sites are being turned into retail areas with the same kinds of shops usually found in town centres. A case in point is Mrieħel Industrial Estate which is already full of computer, car, white goods and furniture showrooms.

Where will we put manufacturing companies if so much space is being eaten up by retail? It does not make sense to occupy space which is away from residential areas with shops and then end up with factories, which inevitably create some nuisance due to the manufacturing process itself, close to residents. The new project for Mrieħel is more of the same: office space, retail and restaurants. This government seems to think that we can live off activities with low or no value added. There are also loads of empty properties which can be used as offices without the need to turn an industrial estate into another shopping mall.

The Ricasoli Smart City project also seems to be more of a real-estate project than anything else. Hopefully I will be proved wrong on this one. Here again land, albeit derelict, which is quite some distance away from residential areas, is being given up for yet more office space, retail and restaurants. There is also the promise of thousands upon thousands of jobs which comes with each and every construction project. Probably the numbers are overinflated. Alfred Sant had mentioned 800 jobs in Cottonera as a result of the Vittoriosa Waterfront project. The area has been given a new lease of life, but has anyone counted the jobs? Long-term quality jobs is what we need. What we are aiming for seem to be low paid, low skill jobs selling goods manufactured elsewhere.

We are in an age where clean and green manufacturing industries in various areas such as energy efficiency, clean energy generation and clean transport are clearly the way forward. All over Europe our colleagues from green parties and also unions, employers’ associations and economists are calling for a Green New Deal. As usual here in Malta we will miss the bus yet again. The reason for this is that the PN and PL, in a situation of a lack of legislation regarding party funding, are more interested in getting that precious one more vote than the other and to please their donors. This means maintaining the status quo. At the end of the day it is up to each and every one of us to change this.

Mr Cassar is Secretary General of Alternattiva Demokratika – The Green Party.

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