It comes as little surprise to those who have observed the relentless construction development of the last 50 years to learn that in a survey conducted by Eurostat of Europe’s Land Use Cover Area, Malta takes the dubious prize as the most built-up country in the European Union. Thirty-three per cent of Malta’s territory is covered by buildings.

Other relatively small countries in the EU also score highly on the built-up scale. Thirteen per cent of Belgium is covered by buildings, followed by the Netherlands and Luxembourg with 12 per cent each. These figures should be compared with the five per cent on average of built-up land in all EU member states.

Malta’s excessive building density of 33 per cent belies the visual impact on the island as a whole since poor planning has left the north and east half of the island consisting of virtually unbroken conurbation. While the EU has 40 per cent of its land covered by forests, the areas covered by trees in Malta only account for five per cent of the territory.

Is there any logical excuse or reason for this glaring disparity between Malta and the rest of Europe? A valid reason is the density of Malta’s population. At 1,340 people per square kilometre, Malta is far more congested than the next most densely populated country, the Netherlands at 393 people, or Belgium at 341 people per square kilometre.

The chairman of the Malta Developers Association immediately points to Malta’s population density and influx of tourists as the reason for the country’s high rate of built-up territory – “an obvious mathematical consequence of the fact we are overpopulated”.

But that is a simplistic answer since it does not account for the 72,000 housing units that lie empty in Malta, about a quarter of Malta’s housing stock, or until recently the ramshackle planning system that gave rise to them. A breakdown of that figure appears to indicate that summer residences account for almost half of the vacant property, leaving very broadly 30,000 vacant residential properties, some in shell state or in need of minor repair. However, the distinguishing feature that marks Malta out for its exceptionally high built-up state from all the rest of Europe is this country’s poor planning record.

The roots of the excessive amount of built-up property in Malta are to be found in its abysmal land use planning. As one looks back over the past 50 years, the 30 years up to 1992 were marked by construction development without any proper building controls being exercised. The damage to the countryside and the built environment was considerable. The establishment of the Planning Authority in 1992 was a turning point when, for the first time, some sort of order was imposed on Malta’s built and natural environment through a proper structure plan and the establishment of planning laws.

But even after 1992, construction development rolled on unabated with increasing encroachment on the remaining countryside’s ‘outside development zone’ areas. Despite efforts by the last government to reduce the so-called ‘environmental deficit’, Malta’s appetite for construction development has still not been sated to the point where, as the Eurostat survey has highlighted, Malta, to its detriment, is far more built-up than any other country in the EU.

The danger now is that the Labour government, which appears to be in thrall to the development lobby, will exacerbate an already ugly situation in the name of economic growth, while forgetting that growth on its own, without protecting the environment and people’s quality of life, is not progress.

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