L’Uomo Del Monte ha detto ‘No’…

In an age when Planning Authority decisions always seem to go in the clean opposite direction… there can be no doubt that Thursday’s decision really does mark a significant turning-point, in the ongoing struggle against over-development

Anyone else notice a peculiar gust of wind – unpredicted by any weather report – that suddenly swept over the Maltese islands last Thursday, at approximately 1:15pm?

I’m no meteorology expert, of course; but I’m guessing it was a collective sigh of relief, on the part of tens of thousands of Maltese citizens (myself included), upon hearing that the PA’s appeals tribunal had finally rejected a proposed ‘tourism village’ at Gozo’s Ħondoq ir-Rummien… thus bringing the entire 20-year saga to an emphatic end.

At least, for the foreseeable future; and only if the developers do not look for (and find) yet another ‘loophole’, of the kind that might be used to overturn the same decision… for the umpteenth time.

Because there’s a reason why this entire saga lasted a staggering 20 years, you know.  On paper, the application to develop Ħondoq into a luxury tourism resort – complete with a yacht marina, multi-storey car parks, administrative buildings, etc., etc.- was actually rejected all the way back in 2016: first by the PA board, and subsequently by the appeals tribunal.

Effectively, then, this case should really have come to a close six years ago: not just because the developers had exhausted all their procedural avenues, by that point… but also because – at the risk of repeating last Sunday’s article–2016 was also the year when Parliament approved the Public Domain Act (which, if implemented, would have rescheduled Ħondoq Ir-Rummien as an ‘unbuildable’ zone).

Besides: the reasons given by the PA board, when originally rejecting the application in 2016, should have been enough to halt the project in its tracks anyway. They included that:

> The Ħondoq development was in breach of the Strategic Plan for the Environment and Development (SPED), as it constituted ‘a dense urban development’ in a ‘coastal rural area’ (and was also in breach of the SPED’s vision of Gozo as an ‘ecological island.’)

> The Environmental Impact Assessment report had “predicted a number of potential impacts on the environment as a result of the proposed development, some of which had residual impacts of major significance. […] These included traffic-related impacts during construction, including noise and emissions and impacts on water quality.”

> The Environmental Protection Directorate had recommended a flat refusal, on the grounds that (among many other things): “The development would potentially give rise to significant impacts, and COULD NOT BE CONSIDERED FURTHER.” (my emphasis)

I’ll stop there for now, because all the other objections– including a referendum in which 85% of Qala residents voted against – merely added a little extra weight, to what was already an emphatic indictment of the developers’ plans.

What the PA actually concluded in 2016, was that the entire project was illegal to begin with. As such, there was only one way the decision could realistically have gone (at least, if you only look at it from a strictly law-enforcement perspective: something which – alas!–the Planning Board very rarely does, in other cases).

And strictly speaking, it shouldn’t even have reached any ‘final verdict’ stage, at all. As the EPD had emphatically stated in its case report: this application should really have been thrown out of the window, right from the very start.

And yet, as we all know, the case was not dismissed out of hand (as should have happened at the preliminary stages); and – much more worryingly – it not did even end with the supposedly ‘final’ verdict of the appeals tribunal, either.

Naturally, I won’t bore you with all the details: suffice it to say that the developers proved (and fair enough, I suppose) every bit as tenacious, and resilient, as Qala mayor Paul Buttigieg had been in opposing their plans.

They looked for (and found) certain ‘flaws’ in the procedural process: specifically, that a single email, in the entire chain of communication sounding this case, had been sent a few hours after the deadline… and this was enough to send the entire adjudication process back to the drawing board.

And this brings me to the first of many reasons, why the national outpouring of relief at Thursday’s decision – justified though it undeniably was – may once again be premature.

For let’s face it: that which has already happened once, can always happen a second time. Especially, given that:

a) the original verdict was also greeted, six years ago, by headlines such as: ‘Ħondoq saved, as development project rejected by Planning Board’ (Gozo News, June 30, 2016);

b) architects like Robert Musumeci are already suggesting that the “[The] applicants’ remaining hope is to now detect a breach of law in proceedings or face of record. That way, process will be reactivated”, and;

c) nothing has actually changed in Malta’s planning legislation, in the meantime, to close any of these loopholes, once and for all…

All the same, however: living, as we do, in an age when Planning Authority decisions always seem to go in the clean opposite direction; and when so many other (equally-monstrous, equally-disproportionate) projects are routinely ‘greenlighted’ by the same PA, almost on a weekly basis… there can be no doubt that Thursday’s decision really does mark a significant turning-point, in the ongoing struggle against over-development.

If nothing else, it proves that the ‘Bureaucratic Behemoth’ that Malta’s planning sector has become – with all its political intricacies; and all those ‘invisible hands’, forever shifting the goalposts behind the scenes – is not entirely invincible, after all.

No, it seems that this monster can indeed be defeated: even by ‘lesser mortals’ such as Qala mayor Paul Buttigieg (and the indefatigable Claire Bonello, who provided all the legal muscle-power); and even if it might, in the end, take over two decades of consistent (self-financed) commitment, dedication and personal sacrifice.

But this, in turn, only raises two additional questions.

One: was it really necessary for people like Paul Buttigieg to invest so much of their own time and energy – in his own words: “if I told you how much we had to pay for this consultant, or that report; or how much I had to run around Malta and Gozo, out of my own pocket, to attend board meetings, and so on; not to mention all the hours I’ve put into it, and all the work I’ve lost… it all adds up to thousands.” – to combat what was all along an illegal project, which should never even have been considered in the first place?

And two: why WAS this particular application rejected, anyway? (When – let’s face it – so many others like it have been approved by the same PA Board, in recent years: despite facing not just ‘similar’, but IDENTICAL objections as the one at Ħondoq ir-Rummien?)

I won’t bother trying to answer the first of those questions: other than to say that it ties in with another point I mentioned earlier (i.e., ‘nothing has actually changed in Malta’s planning legislation, to close these loopholes…’)

The second question, however, is a little less straightforward.

One possible reason, I suppose, is that the site we’re talking about – Ħondoq Ir-Rummien – has acquired the equivalent of ‘cult status’, over the years: becoming, in the process, an instantly-recognisable symbol of pretty much everything that’s wrong with our national planning policies, to begin with.

As such, the Appeals Tribunal must have been deeply conscious of the fact that any ‘approval’ of this project, would only cement the (already-widely-held) popular perception that the PA itself is simply an ‘extension of the Construction and Development lobby’… as, after all, former MDA chairman Sandro Chetcuti had already confirmed, by famously likening the two political parties to ‘supermarkets for developers’, all those years ago.

Another possibility, however, is that – unlike so many of the other questionable permits, previously dished out by the same PA – this project did NOT enjoy the full backing of both major political parties (or at least: not since around 2016…)

… and this was confirmed by Prime Minister Robert Abela himself, in the most open and transparent way possible: i.e., by dedicating a section of his Budget speech in Parliament – just days before the final vote – to voicing his own personal opposition to the Ħondoq ir-Rummien project.

Now: once again, this leaves me with somewhat mixed feelings.

On one level, I can only applaud both the Prime Minister, and Opposition Bernard Grech, for having finally ‘seen the light’ (even if, unaccountably, only with specific regard to this one, particular project…)

On another level, however: sorry, but doesn’t that just take us straight back to the days before this country even had such a thing as a ‘Planning Authority’ at all? When the question of whether any development should be considered ‘permissible’, or otherwise, was taken not by a (supposedly) ‘independent, autonomous regulator’… but directly by the Prime Minister himself?

And if so: on what basis, exactly, did Robert Abela say ‘No’ to the proposed Ħondoq tourism village; but not to any of the other, equally objectionable projects that are currently disfiguring Gozo, even as we speak? (And most of which are the handiwork of a single, very-well connected Gozitan developer, named Joseph Portelli)?

I don’t know; and to be honest, I’m not sure I even want to guess.  But it would be regrettable to have to conclude that our equivalent of ‘L’Uomo Del Monte’ – for those old enough to remember those 1990s ads – happened to say ‘No’, on this particular occasion… simply because the developers in question hadn’t attended that election-eve Gozo ‘lunch’, organised for his benefit by the aforementioned Joseph Portelli (and whose answer, from the same ‘Uomo Del Monte’, has so far always been an enthusiastic: ‘Yes, Yes, YES!!’).

Just saying, that’s all…