What happened to that Public Domain Act, by the way?

All along, however: it is a stage which we would quite simply never have reached at all… had the site been duly listed as ‘Public Domain’, as promised way back in 2016; when the law was (supposedly) enacted

What ‘Public Domain Act’, I hear you ask? Well… I can’t really blame you if you’ve forgotten all about it, by now. After all, it was way back in 2015 that Jason Azzopardi first tabled the motion, as a private member’s bill; and it was the following year – 2016 - that the legislation itself was unanimously approved by Parliament.

That’s six whole years ago, folks: time enough, I should think, for a law that was supposed to “safeguard environmentally or culturally significant sites against unsustainable development, excessive commercialisation and environmental destruction”, to be comfortably – and conveniently – ‘forgotten’.

Not just by the general public, mind you: but also, by the same government MPs who had unanimously enacted this law, in 2016; and some of whom also trumpeted the event as a “revolutionary bill”, and “a seminal piece of legislation guaranteeing the guardianship of the national assets for future generations.”

But to give its full due (whatever that’s actually worth, given that it was never actually implemented), this bill was supposed to:

> “allow for sites to be nominated for public domain status, imposing a positive obligation on the government to preserve them for future generations.’

> “set a deadline of September 15 every year for the Lands Minister to present Parliament with a list of nominated sites, to be compiled by the Planning Authority after a public consultation process.”

> ‘automatically categorise the foreshore as public domain, while sites such as valleys, squares, woods, forts, nature reserves and cultural artefacts, can be proposed for listing’; and lastly,

> ‘nominate 24 sites [of particular ‘historical, cultural and environmental significance’] to be granted Public Domain status, with immediate effect.’

Small wonder, I suppose, that a government which was so very quick to approve this law, six years ago – and to boast about it, too! - is now so keen for us all to simply ‘forget’ that they ever did any such thing. For when you fast-forward back to the present… it’s as though this ‘seminal’, ‘revolutionary’, ‘ground-breaking’ and ‘pioneering’ Act of Parliament, never even happened at all.

Let’s start with the ‘24 sites that were supposedly ear-marked for Public Domain Status’ in 2016. Not only has no such protection been granted to even a single one of them, in the meantime… but to cap it all, almost every single one has been further developed, and further exposed to commercial exploitation, ever since.

In fact, you could almost literally take them on a case-by-case basis. In 2017, we were told that “sites nominated for public domain status included Comino, the Valletta coastline, Ħondoq ir-Rummien, parts of Ta’ Ċenċ, the coast between Ġnejna and Mtaħleb, the Floriana pinetum, Manoel Island, Wied Garnaw, the Wied iż-Żurrieq to Għar Lapsi shore, and others.”

By my count, only two of those areas seem to have remained relatively unscathed, in the past six years: the Floriana Pinetum (though who knows? By the time I finish this article, there’ll probably be a development application for that site, too); and Wied Garnaw (which marks a rare case where public opposition actually succeeded in blocking a PA planning permit).

As for the rest, however… let’s take them one by one. The Valletta coastline may not have been directly disfigured, by any new development arising from within its own confines – at least, not yet – but it has certainly been impacted by the mushrooming of so many (mostly high-rise) projects in the immediately vicinity.

Besides: it remains threatened, to this day, by the soon-to-be-commenced Manoel Island project… which is also mentioned on that (forgotten) list of proposed ‘public domain sites’: despite the fact that it has since been green-lighted for the development of a ‘tourism village’ by the Planning Authority.

And because both those areas happen to also include ‘the first 15 metres of the coastline’, among their topographical characteristics… effectively, their designation as ‘Public Domain Status’ would also have to – as per the wording of the legislation itself – preclude any form of development at all.

It’s right there, in black on white, in the ‘revolutionary’ Public Domain Act that was approved with such fanfare in 2016… only to never be spoken about again. “The first 15 metres of the coastline, the country’s seabed and government-owned sites of historical and ecological importance CANNOT BE COMMERCIALISED…”  (my emphasis).

Funny, isn’t it, how the same site can be legally designated as ‘part of the national cultural heritage’, and ‘not to be commercially exploited, in any way’…  and yet, simultaneously, also ‘gifted to a handful of local entrepreneurs, to be turned into a private business venture, for their own exclusive profit’?

I need hardly add, of course, that the same consideration applies just as much to the most blatantly exploited of the above-mentioned ‘sites of historical and ecological importance’: Comino.

Here, the present government has not only failed to designate the island as ‘public domain’, as promised; but it likewise disregarded the recommendations of its own ‘Comino Management Plan’ of 2016; it allowed construction works to take place illegally in a Natura 2000 site; and all the while, it consistently turned a blind eye to the ongoing commercialisation of even its most sensitive coastal areas…

… to the extent that Moviment Graffiti had to step in (twice, this summer) to actually enforce all the laws, that our government seems so hell-bent on ignoring.

And if that wasn’t bad enough: the PA has only just approved an extension of the Comino Hotel… which will not merely expand the footprint of the existing (tourism/catering) establishment; but also ‘extend’ the ownership of its newly-built bungalows, even to residential (i.e., non-tourist) buyers…. thus firing the starter pistol, for an umpteenth ‘mad development scramble’ on that island, too.

In other words, the PA has just approved the first few blocks of what will no doubt evolve into a whole new village on Comino… and not just a ‘tourism village’, this time; but a permanent town, that will attract permanent residents of its own; and with them, more traffic; more amenities; more pollution; more…

… well, you can work out the rest for yourselves. The once pristine, utterly unspoilt nature reserve that Comino used to be, will be replaced by precisely the same urban sprawl that has already disfigured so much of Malta; and is now starting to eat its way into Gozo, too. And this, despite a 2016 law that was supposed to ‘protect Comino from commercialisation’…

The same, of course, applies to most of those other sites too: Ta’ Cenc is now neighbour to the veritable eyesore that Joseph Portelli has turned nearby Sannat into; parts of the Ghar Lapsi coastline have literally COLLAPSED, due to construction works on the umpteenth ‘private business venture’ in the area; and as for Hondoq ir-Rummien…

… well, that brings me right back to the question I asked in the headline.

Next Thursday, the Planning Authority board will convene to decide the ultimate fate of that particular bay… for, which for the past 20 years, has been subject to an application to build [and this is just the latest of many attempts]: “a deluxe 5-star 170-bedroom hotel set on 9 floors with all facilities, 25 self-catering villas, 60 self-catering apartments, 200 multi-ownership accommodations consisting of apartments, maisonettes and bungalows, 731 underground car parking spaces […], a chapel, administration offices, 3750 m squared total of commercial area, including 10 retail units and five dining facilities, [and] a yacht marina for up to 150 berths – depending on the size of the vessels.”

This will not, of course, be the first time the PA board meets to discuss this issue (the same application was unanimously rejected, back in 2016.) But – in theory, at least – it should prove, either way, to be the last.

A decision to grant the permit would, of course, transform the area into precisely what the ‘Public Domains Act’ was enacted to avoid, in the first place… leaving us with, quite frankly, nothing left to ‘protect’. Meanwhile, if the permit is rejected at next Thursday’s appeals hearing, it would represent the final verdict in an appeal: thus bringing closure to this long-drawn-out, 20-year saga.

All along, however: it is a stage which we would quite simply never have reached at all… had the site been duly listed as ‘Public Domain’, as promised way back in 2016; when the law was (supposedly) enacted.

But hey! Let’s look on the bright side. At least, the ‘Public Domain Act’ DOES exist… if only on paper. And that’s already a lot more than I can say, for the present government’s willingness to ever actually ‘protect’ any part of this country, from the naked, rapacious greed of its own ‘friends and associates’.