What’s the point of ‘National Strategy Plans’... if we never actually implement any of them?

Naturally, this leaves us with the most imponderable question of them all. If government itself doesn’t take its own ‘National Strategy Documents’ seriously – and it very clearly doesn’t – is there any reason under the sun, of any kind whatsoever, why anyone else ever should?

On paper, it all sounds very promising. Government has just published a ‘Gozo Regional Development Strategy Document’; and the number one item on the agenda, it seems, is a proposal to reconsider the (incredibly daft) idea, of ‘building an underwater tunnel connecting the two islands’.

Now: even if this were the only proposal in the entire document – and in reality, it’s just half a sentence out of 44 pages – it would still be enough to warrant front-page prominence, in any local newspaper. (In fact, it was the main focus of all the headlines I’ve seen so far).

Not so much because it spells an instant end to the actual ‘Malta-Gozo tunnel’ controversy, in itself. Let’s face it: it doesn’t, really. All the document actually says, on that subject, is that: “the project of linking Gozo and Malta by an underwater tunnel needs to be reconsidered, and its cost/benefits trade-off re-examined.”

As such, it might be a little premature to announce the project’s ultimate demise. For all we know, the result of this ‘re-examination’ could just as easily be to decide that the tunnel IS feasible, after all... and to simply go ahead with it, as planned.

Nonetheless, it certainly marks a significant departure from the government’s last-known position on the issue. (And even, as shall be seen, from the government’s last-known position on ‘National Strategy Documents’, in general.)

This, for instance, is what Prime Minister Robert Abela had to say about the same tunnel project, just over two years ago:

“During a business breakfast in Gozo on Wednesday morning, Prime Minister Abela announced that a permanent link between Malta and Gozo WILL BE HAPPENING. [My emphasis]

“Abela stated that the Government is committed to getting things done, RATHER THAN JUST PUBLISHING STUDIES [ditto]; and will go on to evaluate companies’ construction bids for a subsea road tunnel between the two islands.” (Malta Daily, March 3, 2021)

And I suspect that this – more than anything contained in the Gozo Strategy Plan itself – explains why so much media attention was bestowed only on that one, single, solitary detail.

It seems as though Robert Abela has been caught up in yet another U-turn, of his own making... actually, make that ‘two U-turns, rolled into one’. (He contradicted himself both on the need for the Malta-Gozo tunnel... and also, on the need for ‘publishing studies’.)

And given that the same Robert Abela has likewise managed to back-track on pretty much every other topic he has ever mentioned, since becoming Prime Minister – anything from abortion, to COVID-19, to the Jean-Paul Sofia public inquiry, and beyond – it stands to reason that most local newspapers would lead with the ‘tunnel’ proposal... and not any of the others, contained in the same document: which, for the record, also include an apparent confirmation of government’s (equally controversial) plans to build an ‘fixed-wing airport’ on Gozo.

There is, however, another reason why around 99% of this new ‘Gozo Regional Development Strategy Document’ was largely glossed-over, by the press. Like I said at the very beginning: it all sounds well and good... ON PAPER.

In practice, however? We all know – from our experience over the last 10 years – that this government has developed a rather nasty habit, of constantly publishing ‘National Strategy Documents’... without ever actually IMPLEMENTING any of their recommendations.

For instance: it cannot escape notice that this new ‘Gozo Strategy Plan’ was launched on the same day as a number of environmental NGOs – including all ‘the usual suspects’: Moviment Graffitti, FAA, FOE, Birdlife Malta, Din L-Art Helwa, etc. – issued a joint statement, complaining about government’s failure to ever implement its National Strategy Document for Gozo’s nearest neighbour... the long-suffering island of Comino.

In a nutshell, those NGOs called on government to:

> Prohibit large boats carrying hundreds of tourists to Comino;

> Drastically reduce the number and size of kiosks;

> Abolish all music from kiosks and boats and loud generators;

> Control all commercial activity around the Blue Lagoon to operate on the basis of permits, with strict rules regarding permitted activities and waste management.

In other words: to implement all the proposals contained in the ‘Natura 2000 Management Plan for Comino’, published by the same government way back in 2016.

Yes, folks, you read correctly. Seven whole years ago, the (Muscat-led) administration had launched the equivalent of a ‘Regional Development Strategy Plan’ for Comino, too.

Among other things, this document proposed that “tourism at the Blue Lagoon needs to be controlled efficiently in order to ensure that it is in harmony with the site’s conservation needs”; whilst calling on government – as an ‘operational objective’, please note – “to plan and implement a tourism carrying capacity assessment of the Blue Lagoon”.

But oh well. Fast-forward seven years, and we find that the present government has not lifted so much as the littlest of its fingers, to actually implement any of those lofty ‘operational objectives’. Moreover (according to the NGOs’ statement), “since the island’s management plan was published, the daily number of visitors to the Blue Lagoon has increased, not decreased, from 5,000 a day in 2016 to a staggering 8,000 a day this summer.”

Wait, it gets worse. It also turns out that Tourism Minister Clayton Bartolo himself does not ‘believe’ in imposing any carrying-capacity limits on Comino, because – wait for it! - “by reducing the number of deckchairs, we automatically reduced the number of people who visited Blue Lagoon this year.”

Huh? What? Come again, please? Because if I’m understanding our tourism minister correctly, he seems to be arguing that: “The problem with ‘carrying-capacity limits’, is that they... um... limit the number of tourists that Comino can actually ‘carry’!!”

... which, of course, is exactly the same thing as saying: “The problem with ‘speed-limits’, is that they... erm... ‘limit the speed at which you can actually drive!!!”

So, what more can I possibly say? Yes, Mr Bartolo! Congratulations for finally ‘getting it’, after all these years! That is, in fact, PRECISELY what the Natura 2000 Management Plan was all along suggesting, back in 2016.

If Comino (and especially The Blue Lagoon) is to remain the inimitable ‘jewel in Malta’s tourism crown’, that it is today: the number of daily visits must be REDUCED (and drastically, too!)... and certainly not INCREASED (which would only benefit the operators currently exploiting that island; while ruining it for everybody else).

But there is a more pertinent question to ask, at this stage. If Malta’s government has already published a ‘National Strategy Document’, for at least one of our islands; with the result that, seven years later, not a single one of its recommendations has ever been implemented, in the meantime...

... why the bleeding hell should any of us even care, about the launch of yet another useless, ineffectual ‘National Strategy Document’: of the kind that will almost certainly share the same fate as all the others... and end up simply gathering dust, in a Tourism Ministry filing-cabinet somewhere?

Tough question, huh? Especially when you also consider that – long before either Gozo or Comino ‘strategy plans’ were launched – the same government had published literally countless other, similar studies... all of which remain likewise unimplemented, to this day.

A few brief examples, before wrapping up.

Back in 2018, government had launched a ‘National Cycling Strategy Action Plan’: intended (in its own words) to “promote and support cycling in Malta as a sustainable mode of transport [...] to make it easier [and safer] for people to use cycling as a means of commuting; [...] as well as, above all, to entice non-cycling commuters to use the bicycle as another mode of transport.”

Four years later, however, Transport Minister Aaron Farrugia informed us all that his government had since ‘reconsidered’ that particular idea: “Until today our aim has been to make sure that our roads are safe, to keep our cars moving at pace; and then when we can accommodate bicycles, we will also do this...”

‘Nuff said.

Meanwhile – also in 2018 – government published a document entitled: ‘Malta’s Sustainable Vision for 2050’. And just to give you a rough idea of how much of that ‘Sustainable Vision’ has since become a ‘Sustainable Reality’... the Environmental & Resources Authority went on to publish the EXACT SAME DOCUMENT again, four years later!

Only this time, it was entitled: ‘National Strategy for the Environment 2050’... and its aims were to focus on: “Clean Air, Quality Neighbourhood, Thriving Biodiversity, Zero Waste, Resilient Land Resources, Flourishing Seas, Sustainable Water Resources and Enabling Change”.

I need hardly add that the reaction of the aforementioned NGOs, was not exactly one of ‘Great Expectations’.

Jean Paul Gauci, from Moviment Graffitti, pointed out that: “2050 is conveniently far away to keep kicking the necessary action-can down the road”... adding: “Malta is in most ways going in the opposite direction to the ideals outlined in this document; and numerous present concerns – such as the current failures of the PA and ERA in mitigating the effects of climate change – remain unacknowledged.”

Similarly, Nature Trust Malta president Vince Attard commented sardonically on its resemblance with the previous, 2018 document: which, he said, “was never taken seriously.”

Naturally, this leaves us with the most imponderable question of them all. If government itself doesn’t take its own ‘National Strategy Documents’ seriously – and it very clearly doesn’t – is there any reason under the sun, of any kind whatsoever, why anyone else ever should?

No, I didn’t think so either...