By Dr Keith Farrell, Vice Chairman of the Gibraltar Heritage Trust
Gibraltar continues to be in the midst of a construction boom further enhanced recently by the proposed massive expansion of sporting facilities and the above ground multi-storey car park at Alameda Grand Parade. On the face of it, despite the physical disturbance to daily life that construction brings, no one doubts the immediate economic benefits that such activity provides Gibraltar. What however are the problems of unfettered development and construction?
When development has been carefully planned for and supported by market research and collection of suitable evidence of projected worth, especially in the case of Government projects, as well as adhering to the Gibraltar Development Plan, which has been thoughtfully prepared by professionals in Town Planning and accepted by the administration of the day, it should then be sustainable and acceptable. What is a problem however, is when the development plan and town plans are side-lined and buildings which are architecturally inappropriate to their location begin to sprout up on the back of speculators and avaricious investors, more interested in quick returns on their investment than the potential negative impact of overbuilding in the small footprint that is the territory of Gibraltar.
We already know that Gibraltar is one of the quickest places to make money with development and construction. In addition this type of development boom runs the risk of encouraging the government to dispose of its land and property assets for the sake of the significant premiums paid by the developers which temporarily supports the massive cost of running Gibraltar. In fact, it should not just be about the best premium for land sales (which Government says isn’t the case) or the flattering talk of well-rehearsed property developers and business people. What it should be is more about the long-term development of Gibraltar which will inevitably transcend the life time of any period of Government or any individual political party.
Quite apart from the loss of the aesthetic beauty of the views and vistas of Gibraltar which are vital to our tourism industry, we must be concerned about the degree of urban density that is added to by such construction. We are already one of the most densely populated territories in the world, so why add to it?
Land reclamation in the 1980’s and 1990’s under the first GSLP Government had a huge beneficial effect on Gibraltar by providing land for housing, offices and other commercial and recreational activities. Even though we lost some of our inner harbour it reduced the pressure on our old town and gave us a feel for buildings in a wider townscape. Should we not be considering further land reclamation within or around the harbour to provide land for short and long term needs which may indeed be the case with changes after Brexit where Gibraltar may need to expand to become more competitive. Such a move, although not without its own issues, will again take away the pressure of potential big developments in our historic city, on our natural coastline or in our nature reserve.
Just as Governor George Don, in the early 19th century, improved the local population’s physical and emotional welfare by providing open spaces like the Alameda Gardens for recreation and healthy air, we must insist that our politicians protect our open areas for the very same reasons. We cannot afford to build on every square inch of free land because it is sitting there doing nothing. Open space is very important to our wellbeing and it doesn’t have to be fancy to be appreciated. Of course open spaces need some care and attention so they don’t become dumping grounds or eye sores. With the likely loss of interest in and maybe reduced future accessibility to Spain, we will need to enjoy our sense of open spaces locally and on terra firma.
Unfortunately, experience tells us that unsolicited advice from either individuals or NGOs or pressure groups is often ignored. Votes often speak louder than quiet reflection and common sense, so I suspect we will just see more of the same.