My podcast yesterday criticised the CEO of the Planning Authority for appearing to suggest that he is powerless in the face of land owners’ determination to do with their property as they please. I called this sort of attitude Whiggish, after the liberals of Victorian England. The right to the enjoyment of one’s property in a liberal society is not in question. I argued yesterday that it is not an absolute right either.
Indeed, it is one of the functions of the State to regulate the conduct of this right because the world is not made up of purely private interests. The country is not divided uniformly into pockets of private property that rise infinitely into the sky and go deep down into the bowels of the earth where the whims of the owner are absolute.
Article 9 of Malta’s Constitution expressly says that it is the job of the State to “safeguard the landscape and the historical and artistic patrimony of the Nation,” and the State “shall protect and conserve the environment and its resources for the benefit of the present and future generations.”
The Constitution expects the State to “take measures to address any form of environmental degradation in Malta, including that of air, water and land, and any sort of pollution problem.”
It is simply not true then that there can be no limits on what one may do with their property. There are things that are held in common and do not belong to any specific landowner. One cannot, for example, wilfully pollute the water that flows underground underneath someone’s property. The water does not belong to any specific landlord. It belongs to all. It is held in common.
Similarly, the air above one’s property, the visual impact of whatever is on that property, the harmony or disharmony it has with the surroundings and the light and space it eats up, is taken from the ultimate common resource: air.
I am genuinely aghast at the notion being put forward by the government that they feel obliged to compensate land-owners who are not allowed to rise as high as they wish to when building on their property. This is not merely misguided generosity with public money.
The public is being robbed twice. First, with the government’s unwarranted assumption that the air above one’s property is the unqualified, unconditional property of the land-owner for them to do with as they please. The landscape, in the words of the Constitution, is the patrimony of the Nation. It is held in common.
Take the most obvious example: the view of the dome and the back of the Cathedral of Mdina as seen from beneath its walls anywhere to its South, East and North. On the terrain between any point from which that view is experienced, there is an infinite number of properties, land owned by hundreds of landowners. None of those land owners has the right to interrupt the view. None of them has some automatic right to alter the landscape. And the State is under no obligation to buy from them a right that does not exist merely to protect a right we were born to, the enjoyment of the distant view of Mdina.
The public is robbed twice then because wealth held in common is taken away from it and falsely acknowledged as belonging to some individual owner. And then, to take it back from that owner, the State – or at least Ministers of the present government – consider using the public’s money to buy a right that belongs to the public in the first place.
Air, water, land, landscape and historical and artistic heritage are listed in the Constitution because they are our commonwealth. A key purpose of the State is to create the structures to prevent any individual or individuals from ganging up against us all and take some of our commonwealth away from us.
The philosophy of submitting the State’s actions to the will of the propertied reverts us to a chaotic shogunate of might is right, where the more one owns the more they can appropriate from the commonwealth and make their own.
As we watch the towers in Imrieħel rise, we see a State that fails to protect the enjoyment of the air and light now taken up by concrete and metal. Instead, Yorgen Fenech walked in Michael Farrugia’s office one morning part-owner of a large plot of land and walked out of it owning the air and light above it that, until that morning, used to belong to everyone.
With a stroke of a pen, Michael Farrugia instructed the Planning Authority to disregard the Constitutional function of the State to protect the landscape for the commonwealth and instead privatise what was rightly the property of everyone in general and no one in particular.
In this context, people without the means and access of Yorgen Fenech who would bend the will of the State to do their bidding as Michael Farrugia slavishly did in the Imrieħel case focus less on their share in the collective obligation to help safeguard the commons and more into finding ways of carving out their bit.
Consider the now notorious caravans at Mistra Bay. The interviews collected in this Times of Malta feature, offer some insight into how the caravan owners see things. Of course, what I will write here is my interpretation of what they’re thinking which they may not entirely approve of.
If the Tumases and the Gasans can take away the harmony of the landscape along the ridge facing Żebbuġ, why, caravan owners must think, can we not make our own the view of Mistra Bay? That is not a specific example they used, but they did use another specific example.
If it was ok for the authorities to take Miżieb away from everyone to give it specifically to people armed with guns, why can we, armed as we are with a recreational vehicle of immodest proportions, a portable sink, a gas-burning hob and space for an afternoon nap, not have this beach for our own?
In that context, it becomes futile to explain to them that Mistra Bay belongs to everyone; that its enjoyment is being spoilt by an activity which is disproportionate to its size and environment; that if everyone had a camper van this country would collapse under the weight. Their answer – almost understandable – would be, are camper vans really the worst thing about this country? How does the hogging of a sea view by an improvised camp site compare with, say, Portomaso yacht marina?
For them, it must feel like they have a point. Of course, they don’t. The owners complain that there isn’t much anywhere for them to take their camper vans. Yep. That’s how it is. You should have thought of that when you bought a vehicle that is unsuitable for entertainment in a country this size. Keep your camper van in your garage and when you can afford to travel with it in the wide-open countryside of Europe. Little can be done about the size of Malta, ironically made smaller as beaches are possessed by camper vans.
It’s not just the camper vans in Mistra. Think of the pleasure boats that transform Comino’s Blue Lagoon into a noisy, murky Mekong. Think of the army of hunters, ten times the size of our professional army and carrying an arsenal of weaponry just to shoot down birds. Think of all the cars trying to squeeze into Valletta or Sliema every morning or to squeeze into Buskett on sunny winter Sundays. Think of all the deckchairs on Għadira Bay or the burning bonfires in Għajn Tuffieħa.
Imagine some of us decided to buy helicopters. Would the State be obliged to find us beach-side spots on which to land them too?
The commons belonging to everyone does not mean that anyone has the right to use the relative ease of access to them to occupy them on a first-come-first-served basis. The commons belonging to everyone means we all have a responsibility to restrict our exploitation of them to the point where they can continue to be shared and preserved for future generations.
Since not all of us can be expected to act in an altruistic manner, we set up the State to help keep in check the greedier.
This is not happening. And watching Ministers on TV attribute to landowners pretend rights over the commonwealth is a reason for genuine despair. The State we have set up does not protect us. It arms the people it is supposed to be protecting us from. In place of a fair society, we get anarchy where the oligarchs take an ever-bigger slice and the more determined of the rest munch on the crumbs in a camper van in Mistra.
The tragedy of the commons then is that the notion of the collective and institutional responsibility to protect them remains orphaned in a forgotten section of the unread Constitution, in a provision both unenforced and unenforceable.
The government, as philosophically hostile to the notion of the common good as a monarch that depends on the fealty of robber barons for its survival, takes sides with private interests against the public good.
Institutions, like Martin Saliba’s Planning Authority, have just given up.
The large landowners bribe and bully their way corrupting the system to fulfil their only apparent mission in life: to become larger landowners.
But it is simplistic to make this sound like a legal or political problem. The tragedy of the commons is that this is an intractable cultural problem. If I can drive my van over the sands of Mistra and eat my barbecue with my toes in the sand, I will. Who’s going to stop me? You?