‘Privet’ property

The time has come for all of us to have the right to walk freely without some show of force by alleged occupier who think they have the right to threaten whom they claim are trespassers

File Photo
File Photo

For those who find pleasure in walking in the countryside or getting out of the house, there is little doubt in my mind that they share the same concerns as all of us.

It is not about hunting and trapping à la Maltaise or the dumping of waste and the wanton development by speculators on the island’s small footprint (an endemic problem that will not go away). If there is one thing that has certainly not changed, it is the anarchy that has persisted with thousands of local squatters who invaded and took over public land and made it their own.

Not only have they usurped land they do not legally own but they built on it, and worse still, defaced the land that once was. Further to that, they fenced that land off for the prying public not to see or enter.

It is no joke, but since Malta gained Independence in 1964 and later as a Republic in 1979 with the exodus of the British forces, vast tracts of public land were taken over, and declared private property, barring the public from entering.

It was a typical Mintoffian way of responding to a privilege that was once enjoyed by the Brits and the better-off Maltese who owned expanses of land, something now extended to a greedy class of nouveaux-riches. From the former homes for British officers in Mtarfa and Pembroke, and Bormla, to smaller homes turned into private farmhouses or second residences, or the Nissen huts converted into weekend homes, boathouses turned into summer homes, barracks turned into stores or cow farms, and other architectural gems converted into workshops, yards or recipients of tonnes of cow dung… you name it, you have it.

If the Lands Authority had to carry out an audit of these properties and footprints it would undoubtedly be opening a Pandora’s box. But it needs to happen sooner or later. Even those 400-year-old Knights’ fortresses and recent British military installations, many Maltese and Gozitans alike have decided to seize the land and buildings and keep the rest of us out. Their children have inherited the properties originally occupied by their parents and made it theirs. And with no or little interest from consecutive administrations… and so they continue to live and occupy these lands, with no problem at all.

Both the Labour and Nationalist administrations have opted to do nothing, in fear of reprisals and the loss of votes, and so the travesty repeats itself. Incredibly, they have done the complete opposite: they have regularised many irregularities and allowed illegal squatters to buy the property they live in for a nominal amount.

If the Maltese upper-class suffers from a sense of self-entitlement, the other Maltese respond in a way that is equally pitiful, by pretty much embracing lawlessness and arguing they have a right to do as they please in a country where the people who govern them are as crooked. So who could be in any position to preach and dictate to them.

It does not stop here part-time farmers have also taken over land, cultivated it and in the process destroyed vast tracts of natural habitat, and hunters and trappers have cordoned off large areas to themselves, transforming them into funnels of death for migrating birds. Along the coast from Valletta, up and down the coastline and around Gozo from Qala to Għajnsielem, families have occupied or built minute boathouses or taken over piers or gunposts with no legal title.

It gets even better along forgotten country roads, as obscure scrapyards are tucked behind high walls, animal farms housing exotic animals held in appalling conditions, and a mish-mash of weekend homes in idyllic corners built in a style which beggars belief, and of course without any form of planning permit.

And somehow, no one really wants to notice. No one seems to be sensitised to this ecological travesty and lawlessness, known to some by the wrong spelling of ‘privet’ property, or nostalgically, RTO (right to owner). This kind of squatting is not rooted only in one segment of Maltese society. It transcends class.

Yet no Maltese and Gozitan politician could give a hoot about this. Until that is, someone can succeed in galvanising public interest and translate the concern over robbing hectares of public land into a tangible concern that could turn into a protest vote in a national election.

Years after independence, hectares of Maltese and Gozitan land are still being taken over by those who believe they have a title to it.

The time has come for all of us to have the right to walk freely without some show of force by alleged occupier who think they have the right to threaten whom they claim are trespassers. The time has come for this land to be returned to us and to our future generations.