Two weeks ago Alexiei Dingli resigned from a 10-year tenure as Valletta mayor. He tells Ramona Depares how the future of the city is in jeopardy.
What are the biggest challenges that Valletta currently faces?
I like to describe Valletta as having different realities. Its residential community is the soul of the city; the businesses keep it alive and also employ a number of people from within the community itself; then, there are also the realities that it is a tourist hub and an administrative centre.
The challenge lies in balancing all its conflicting needs. During my tenure, at times it felt like I was being sandwiched between the different needs of each faction. This, while trying ensure that the interests of Valletta are given priority.
The truth is that Valletta residents are under threat
What about the specifics?
The current wave of construction, which leans too much towards the commercial interests as opposed to the interests of the city itself, is one of the biggest challenges.
I cannot imagine Valletta without its residents, but this is the direction that the city is taking.
We need to take a macro approach that takes into consideration how the details of a commercial decision will affect residents. But this is not an approach that is being favoured by the entities responsible.
As an example, consider when restaurants are granted permits outside of the commercial zones, in the residential area. Such permits trigger multiple consequences on the daily lives of residents living nearby. Parking problems increase; in the warmer weather, people are likely to hang outside smoking and chattering; there will be more noise…
As mayor, I always supported businesses, but all these details need to be considered too. As things stand, they are ignored.
Why is this happening?
If we look at the way permits are granted, it seems to be Planning Authority policy that if there’s already a restaurant in the vicinity, then there’s no reason not to grant new commercial licences. But a more holistic policy is needed, not this piecemeal approach.
How can this impasse be solved?
I favour balance. Let’s take boutique hotels as an example. The city did need these kind of hotels – but now we simply have too many.
We need to restrain this indiscriminate granting of construction permits. Are all these hotels viable? My worry is that you get ‘cowboys’ jumping on the bandwagon, thinking that they will make a quick buck without carrying out market research. Will the demand for these hotels be kept up a decade down the line?
We have seen gentrification happening to other places and the only models that worked out are those that are based on a mixed model. But we are not following that model. Permits are issued to those who can afford them and, slowly, we are killing Valletta.
How is construction killing Valletta?
I cannot accept seeing residents being pushed out of their homes. I encounter situations where, because they refuse to sell, the entire building on top of them is developed anyway and they end up living on a construction site for years.
There have also been cases where the landlord starts creating too many problems with the lease in the hope that the residents decide to leave. The truth is that Valletta residents are under threat.
How has your mayorship affected your view of the city?
As a child, Valletta was my playground. Becoming a mayor was a learning curve, of course. You’re not trained to become one.
I became more sensitive to certain pressing details, and my frustration increased. I suddenly started noticing when people took out their garbage bags at the wrong time, and could not understand why.
Becoming mayor also made me think more about the long-term future of the city. I never looked at Valletta 2018; I look at Valletta 2030, or even 2040. No-one discusses this.
Where will the city be in 30 years’ time? The entities are too fragmented and they only look at the issues they face, individually. This is why Valletta needs genuine residents, to secure a future.
I cannot imagine Valletta without its residents but this is the direction that the city is taking
Are there residents that are not genuine?
There are a lot of speculators buying property and re-selling it in the short term. They do not live there, they do not become part of the community and they add nothing to the city.
I know many instances where people bought properties in Valletta and literally left them in the same state in which they bought them – then they resold them at a profit after a couple of years.
Others buy properties and rent out these places on a short-term basis. This is what I mean by Valletta needs genuine residents; people who will buy a place and actually live there.
Residents who do live there and who complain that their needs are not given priority are often told that this is the price one pays for living in Valletta. What is your reaction to this?
Residents were there before the businesses. They were there when there were no restaurants and when Valletta would become a ghost town by 6pm. Residents are the soul of Valletta. They have more right to be there than others.
So where do you see Valletta in 10 years’ time?
I’d like to be optimistic. I see the regeneration and restoration process nearing completion; a revolution in the transport system. Valletta is small enough to manage an alternative, greener transport solution.
I see Valletta becoming more liveable, becoming a space where you can raise a family, and where you can find places of entertainment too. I see it achieving this balance. This is what I’d like to see, of course.
You are known for being very passionate about your home city. What led you to resign from the post of mayor a few months before elections were due?
I wanted to give more importance and time to my full-time profession at University and to my family. Being mayor of Valletta is very time-consuming, of course. It was the best time for me to do this.
What are some of the achievements that you look back on with satisfaction?
There were many moments of satisfaction, because I was lucky enough to have a great team. Concluding the bid for Valletta 2018 comes to mind. We were being interviewed for the second time and we showcased a video of a young boy playing music. One of the judges asked, what would make us rate Valletta 2018 as a success, down the line.
I replied that I’d consider the city’s tenure a success if it paved the way for allowing that boy to foster his talent on a professional level.
This reply must have struck a chord, because soon after we were informed that we had won the title. It was a defining moment, the start of a very exciting time for Valletta.
The renovation of Saint George’s Square was another proud moment. I used to describe it as the most beautiful car park in Europe.
Removing it was not an easy decision to take, on a political level. The business community was extremely upset. But the move catapulted an entire change in mentality. Once the square started being restored, we seemed to realise that not every small space needs to be turned into a car park. The restoration of St George’s Square was a catalyst.
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