The concrete siege of Gozo | Maresca Demanuele

Preserving what makes Gozo unique is the best investment in the island’s future. We must learn from the mistakes of the past, not repeat them, to preserve our country’s quality of life and beauty. Gozo is a jewel. Let it prosper as such

For many years, Gozo appeared to be Malta’s final unspoilt frontier. It was a place where community life, traditions and the unique characteristics of our country were kept well and truly alive. Likewise, there was a long-running hope that the mistakes made in Malta would not be repeated in Gozo. Token language was used in policy circles referring to the idea of an “Eco-Gozo”.

However, this was not to be.

Gozitans and their local councils recently raised their voices in unison to protest overdevelopment – and they were overruled. Instead, parasitic private interests are rubber-stamped by Malta’s institutions to prey upon Gozo. Malta’s failed planning policies, over which Gozitans have no control, are being used as a pretext by predators to suck Gozo dry at the expense of its people. Moviment Graffitti has been labouring alongside locals to allow their outrage to be felt, while working in pursuit of proactive change in the common interest.

How to lift this siege upon Gozo? An urgent reform of planning policies is needed, as the 17 mayors of Gozo demanded. Graffitti has grown intimately familiar with the dirty practices and strategies of those doing the plundering. In understanding how they operate, attention may be brought to which policies are most in need of attention.

At present, the favoured strategy of the powers that be, whether in government or the private sector, is to take note of those making a fuss about one project or the other in Gozo, and then offer them something to conform. Their ideal scenario is to have a feudal system, where people are obedient to power and deprived of their democratic voices. People’s quality of life and best interests are subsumed by fear of retaliation and material deprivation.

Developers unashamedly resort to blatant illegalities, such as breaking monstrous projects up into bite-sized applications to avoid the scrutiny required. This piecemeal approach is followed by numerous sanctions of illegalities and relatively miniscule fines, which developers ‘gladly’ pay, as they hardly dent their fattened pockets.

Construction magnate Joseph Portelli has become the maestro of Gozo, orchestrating elaborate strategies, using partners’ and relatives’ names. A project in Nadur required a registered farmer as an applicant to be fit for approval; lo and behold, the developer’s dear daughter is now a farmer, and the applications have been approved.

In Qala and Sannat, gargantuan apartment complexes are engulfing the villages. The 160-unit Qala project in Ta’ Kassja is now well underway, despite residents’ pleas and a formal appeal to revoke the illegitimate permits in which even land ownership was questionable. The authorities have outdone themselves, rolling out the red carpet for the destruction of Qala, denying the residents’ request for suspension of works. Graffitti raised the alarm about excavation works going on at a site in which no application had even been filed, and authorities still took no concrete action. This shows the level of extreme puppetry at play by the great unelected developers. The authorities serve their every need whilst asserting their control over those who are weak.

Sannat is following a similar path. The mega-development on ODZ is set to steal some of the most sought-after views of Sanap Cliffs, ruining the peaceful village whilst destroying farmland and an internationally recognised Important Bird Area. The project uses three applications, two of which have already been granted, notwithstanding the countless illegalities involved. The result of the final application will allow the PA’s true colours to shine.

Xlendi has also fallen victim, with two huge hotel applications granted, one of which eats up its last charming corner. At this rate, the people of Gozo will have no land to farm, no sunlight to enjoy and no air to breathe long before the 100-year mark. We need to band together to topple the domineering developers from their figurative throne.

One also wonders if the ravenous developers are not getting hungrier, more ambitious, and more blatant in their disregard. ODZ, held up as the final frontier for our environment, the ultimate red line to cross, is under direct assault in Għarb. There, over 1,000 objections have been raised to an application to change the zoning of 5,387 sqm of ODZ agricultural land to a residential development zone with a road. At the stroke of a pen, one of Malta’s most notorious gluttons is demanding that an entire stretch of ODZ be converted into concrete.

Reversing the rapid decline of Gozo will require immediate, short-term policy interventions in parallel with longer-term national reform. Local councils and residents should have a much larger say in what happens in their backyards. We must team up and speak up. Valid, excellent policies in the local plans exist, alongside atrocious ones. However, even those positive provisions are being supplanted by newer, destructive policy documents. Buildings must be designed in line with traditional styles or other styles that are congruous with the Gozitan context. This should not only be compulsory, but grants and funds ought to be available to help embellish buildings and integrate them into the Gozitan context.

Preserving what makes Gozo unique is the best investment in the island’s future. We must learn from the mistakes of the past, not repeat them, to preserve our country’s quality of life and beauty. Gozo is a jewel. Let it prosper as such.