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Opinion & Analysis

2022: A critical time for an evolving community

Photos by Johnny Bugeja

As we approached the end of a year dominated by Brexit and Covid-19, a box of chocolates made me think of two deeper underlying challenges facing this community as we head into 2022.

It wasn’t an ordinary box of chocolates. An attractive and intriguing wooden package printed with an image of Gibraltar, the gift came with instructions on what to do with the sugary treats inside.

Unwrap and scoff might be the first reaction. Instead, Ruth Massias Greenberg and her talented, creative team at Gamma Architects invited us to first use the coloured chocolate blocks and balls inside to build towers in front of the Rock. A chocolate Lego with a Rock backdrop.

Much as some of us dislike it, the future of Gibraltar’s cityscape is vertical. Tall buildings to accommodate a growing population that lives longer and an economy that relies in large part on foreign workers.

We are flying blind to an extent because the last census was in 2012, but the trend is clear and should be at the forefront of all our decisions as a community going forward.

This isn’t new of course, but the pressure is intensifying and we are not talking enough about this as our political leaders and planners decide how to use our finite resources.

This will require careful and holistic management to ensure that, as buildings go up and the face of Gibraltar changes, our vital infrastructure – electrical distribution, water, sewage, roads - can keep pace with demand.

There must be careful coordination too of multiple parallel projects – some under way, some soon to start, some still at planning stage – to mitigate their impact on daily life.

This should not be fodder for political clashes but rather for consensus. Without a proper grasp on this, living in Gibraltar will be like living in a construction site three miles by one.

The Development and Planning Commission is often unfairly maligned despite the careful scrutiny to which it subjects all new projects. But the DPC is working with a development plan that is outdated and no longer properly reflects modern Gibraltar, including the urgent need to protect our heritage. Take our old town, where new projects are, in theory at least, restricted, but where rent control laws hinder landlords from properly investing in their properties, leaving many occupants paying a pittance for accommodation that is often substandard and decaying, despite occasional oases like Castle Street.

Whatever pressures we face collectively due to Brexit and Covid-19, updating that plan, investing in vital infrastructure and reviewing our housing laws through consultation and wide discussion should become a priority going forward.

This goes beyond the usual theme of affordable homes versus flats for the rich. The decisions we take now will lay the foundations of the Gibraltar we will leave behind for future generations. It requires a well thought out long-term strategy and urgent action.

It is probably time to think too about deep-rooted societal assumptions we have long taken for granted as the norm, more so given most of us will live longer, healthier lives.

How do we cope with the demands that longevity creates and the changes it triggers? This isn’t just about healthcare but about the way we live and work.

The row over Community Care put a spotlight on pensions and the discrepancy between the age at which men and women in Gibraltar can retire, 60 and 65 respectively. The argument for equalisation is obvious and strong, of course. But there is little discussion about what this should mean in practice, or the impact on our community of longer, tax free lives after retirement. By way of contrast, the UK pensionable age will reach 67 for both genders by 2028, with further upward reviews planned beyond that.

It is the younger members of our community that will carry the weight going forward. As it stands, our current model may well prove unsustainable at a time of global flux and with our public coffers in poor shape.

Gibraltar is at a turning point and we can see it everywhere, with technology being the watchword. From the finance sector’s shift to burgeoning digital products and services, to e-Gov and online shopping, everything is changing and businesses and the public sector must respond and adapt, or risk falling by the wayside. There is opportunity in upheaval.

But as a community too, we must be ready to embrace that change, from a willingness to adopt these new technologies – and yes, there are teething problems everywhere, perhaps inevitably in some cases, less so in others – to careful management of new trends including the shift to homeworking. In his novel The Leopard, which chronicles changes in Sicilian life and society during the Risorgimento, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa came up with a memorable line: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” Wise words.

Technology allows us to do things faster, cheaper, more efficiently, and we should not allow ingrained practices to limit its potential. But again, this needs discussion and calm debate so that people aren’t left behind and we are able to prepare for a digital shift that will impact the workplace and labour market.

The private sector will lead that change, but the public sector must ensure it is able to properly service the needs of citizens and businesses. Often, rightly or wrongly, that vital delivery of public services seems out of step with the pace of change in business. From closed government offices over holiday periods to summer hours, ask any company manager and you’ll understand what I mean.

Everywhere we look, this community is being asked to change and adapt. Often, as in the debate on climate change, it is in response to external impetus largely out of our hands. A lot of work has been done on this here, even though Gibraltar’s impact is, compared to others, minimal. Carefully managed, our commitment to sustainability could act not just as an example to the world, but as a north star for our community collectively. Who doesn’t want to live in a quieter, greener place? But from the sewage outlet at Europa Point to the clouds of exhaust fumes hanging over our clogged roads, often it feels like we pay lip service to a goal that, in reality, is hard to put into practice. We all have a role to play.

Covid-19, of course, has proved a nightmare with real, onerous demands that has drained the resources of this community. And there is no immediate end in sight.

Yet viewed objectively from a bird’s eye viewpoint, the collective response has been formidable.

In Gibraltar, where we often take so much for granted, it’s easy to ignore the scale of our vaccination effort, or how swiftly the supply and infrastructure was put in place and thousands upon thousands of jabs administered. Likewise with tests and sequencing, where we have a capacity geared to our size that would be the envy of many nations. Tracking and tracing the spread of the virus, and sequencing it to know what we’re dealing with, has been a vital, yet understated element of our collective strategy.

These things have become normal for so many of us. But underpinning them is a mammoth administrative and logistical operation that has shown the public sector at its best, whatever the criticism in other aspects. Most of us only see the frontline nurses putting needles into our arms, or those who push swabs to the back of the throat and the deepest corners of our nostrils. But these quiet heroes, for that is what they are, stand on the shoulders of an unseen workforce and its monumental, coordinated effort.

We are restless, damaged by months of tension and uncertainty. We want answers and solutions to a situation that has dragged out for nearly two years and is driving us all up the wall. But there are no quick fixes.

The world is feeling its way through this pandemic and governments face the unenviable task of finding the balance between protecting public health while ensuring maximum freedoms and economic activity. In seeking that balance, there will be hardship in both directions. Civil liberties will be restricted as needed, and economic activity will be hit as that balance is repeatedly reviewed and fine-tuned. We can shout and holler as much as we want when it swings too much in a direction we don’t like, but that’s the world we now live in. There’s little option but to carry on as best we can.

Three weeks ago the Omicron variant wasn’t even on our radar. We still don’t really know much about it, or what the next strain will look like. But fatigued by the impact of a surreal pandemic that has upturned all our lives, the danger is we become lax in our efforts to stem a virus that for many, despite the low number of hospitalisations, remains a life-threatening illness which unchecked could potentially swamp our healthcare services.

“Covid is boring,” a friend said earlier this week, and he’s right. But that does not mean the risk isn’t there, or that it should be taken lightly. Like most of us, he has the fortune that his armchair analysis carries no responsibility. For those in charge, that’s simply not an option.

And since we’re talking of Covid Groundhog Day, let’s not forget another recurring theme, the slow bleed that is Brexit.

We have yet to feel its full impact, though we’ve felt its shadow hanging over us since 2016. Have we forgotten why we overwhelmingly voted for Remain? It’s because we all knew, instinctively, that we were better off inside the EU than out of it.

Which throws up an interesting conundrum because our history means we’re wedded to the UK for better or worse, and the Brexit ship has sailed with us on it. We didn’t want it, but we wanted to break our links with the UK less.

Spain’s designs on the Rock, after decades of tedious drum-banging in Madrid, have made us apprehensive of anything Spanish. Yet there is no hiding the fact that Spain’s approach to Brexit has been pragmatic. As the Governor pointed out in an interview with this newspaper in the run-up to Christmas, Madrid “…could, in all legitimacy, have closed the border or at least ensured that we had stamping the whole time. They didn't.”

Now we find that we are singing from the same hymn sheet as Madrid, that we desire, on the face of it, the same thing. But that doesn’t mean we should drop our guard. The challenge, as treaty talks stretch into the new year, will be to ensure the EU understands this and agrees a bespoke deal that respects everyone’s red lines. That is the circle that our elected leaders and their counterparts in the UK and Spain are trying to square.

Let us be honest. Whatever emerges from these talks will likely have elements difficult to stomach. In a negotiation as fraught with difficulty as this, everyone will have to cede on something. The negotiators’ legal minds will see this differently to the rest of us. They will explain away features of the treaty that the rest of us may find immediately unpalatable. Their job will be to define in clear terms why the deal, assuming it is reached, is good. Our job will be to suspend, if only momentarily, our gut reaction and view complex arrangements with a cold mind.

The jury is still out on how this negotiation will conclude, but the stakes could not be higher. Deal or no deal, the time is now to reflect on where we are going as a community.

Because finite space, a growing population and the dynamics of far-reaching, technology-driven change require a reality check as to where we stand. This isn’t 1969. We live in an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world and 2022 will set the foundations for how we evolve and succeed, or not, as a community.

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