No more concrete?

Igor Iribar from Mare Summit

Compliant with subsidiary legislation 552.09, also known as Environmental Management Construction Site Regulations, the pneumatic drill woke me up not one minute before 8 o’clock in the morning.

Later that day, I was able to intercept my neighbour on the stairs and I jokingly told him that I would have missed work had the noise not woken me up.

“It will be over today,” he said apologetically. “I am doing some renovations.”

I had surmised as much. A burly migrant worker went past us, embracing a polyethylene container filled with rubble. The floor of the apartment was strewn with debris.

I asked if he intended to set permanent residence in the flat. Not at all… His intention was to resell it, maybe to rent it. He was expecting the value to go up quite a bit after the renovations were over. Apparently, 90% of the costs had been covered by a scheme launched by the Building and Construction Authority to improve the energy efficiency of residential buildings in the Grand Harbour area. “There are many such grants lately,” he told me.

After a brief respite of two hours, the drilling resumed at 4pm, which presented itself as the perfect occasion for an afternoon stroll.

While I absent-mindedly counted the cranes on the horizon, I ruminated about the public perception of the building industry, which does not stand as the most positive in the eyes (and ears) of the Maltese. The malaise is encapsulated in a rather poignant feeling echoed through social media: “no more concrete please”. Here H. L. Mencken’s phrase came to my mind. Namely, that for every complex issue, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

“No more concrete” – what does the phrase really mean when you unravel it?  Surely not even someone who claims to be in favour of it can take it at face value. He certainly would not want to stop retrofitting buildings or to stop keeping public infrastructure in good condition. Who could be against that?

What seems to be the problem, then? What they want, I reckon, is to not feel threatened when a construction project takes place in their neighbourhood. They want to tackle the long-term issues that arise from these kind of projects, not only when it comes to pollution, but also to the aesthetic appearance of buildings and how well they fit within the identities of existing communities.

Without noticing, I had stopped in front of a dilapidated building. I was looking at a plastic-clad paper stamped with the logo of the Planning Authority. “Demolition of derelict residential dwelling”; the Bible passage of Moses marking the doorposts to spare them from ruin crosses my mind. In a similar vein, the permit grants the building a new chance at hosting human life. “Façade to be designed in fair faced limestone with UCA [Urban Conservation Area] characteristics,” one could read.

I begin reflecting about last week’s events, about my participation on the first summit of the property industry that had recently taken place in Malta. If the breakout room murmurs that I was involuntarily made privy to are to be believed, the sector is its own fiercest critic.

Throughout the entirety of the event, panellists and solo speakers, as representatives of the different branches of the sector, repeatedly demonstrated that they were keenly aware of the issues at hand and that they were very grateful to have a forum on which to air them, discuss them and advance the next steps towards their eventual resolution. Even if it was not intended as such, the summit served as an exercise on self-reflection.

But I also remember the Environment & Resource Authority’s deputy director’s plea for the citizens to assume a more active role on the matter. The Authority regularly holds consultations and welcomes public input (both in English and Maltese), but seldom do people participate. “Please let us know when you have issues,” I remember him saying.

I returned home. The drill had sued for peace.

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