Gozo’s strong civic awakening

The strong and united stance of Gozitan mayors shows partisan differences can indeed be put aside in the name of the common good

In recent weeks, the Gozo Regional Council and 17 Gozitan local councils – representing both sides of the political spectrum – met with Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia, and members of the Planning Authority, to air their legitimate concerns about over-development in Gozo.

The strong and united stance of Gozitan mayors marks a very welcome change in an otherwise stagnant political landscape. It shows that partisan differences can indeed be put aside, in the name of the common good.

In so doing, those local councils have also successfully channelled street-level anger into a legitimate demand for an institutional response. This gives people a much-needed sense of representation, in the face of powerful financial lobbies, which political parties find hard to confront.

This phenomenon is not limited to Gozo, either. Over the past months we have seen other councils taking a pro-active role: for example, the Qormi council has put aside partisan rivalries and presented alternative plans to road projects by Infrastructure Malta.

It seems, then, that councillors from different parties find it easy to find common ground at local level. This should serve as a lesson for political parties in parliament, who are unable to similarly unite in defence of the common good. One can only wonder how much better Malta’s political system would be, if it were run in the same way as its local councils.

In the specific case of Gozo, the mayors’ united position also represents a civic awakening against a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model adopted in planning policies. In particular, a recent re-interpretation of building-height restrictions has resulting in the sudden appearance of five-storey blocks almost everywhere, with no regard at all to the surrounding environment. Apart from robbing our town and villages of their unique character, the endless construction also diminishes the quality of life (and peace of mind) of nearby residents.

Another result of the same policy is that development projects – proposed by the same owner – are now being ‘salami-sliced’ into smaller applications, in a way which prevents the authorities from assessing their cumulative impact. Such applications are clearly presented in a way to circumvent a holistic assessment: not just on visual impact, but also on traffic and the surrounding infrastructure.

The only way to address these legitimate concerns is to democratize the planning process, by giving greater representation to councils in the planning process.

One of the positive changes introduced by this administration was, in fact, to give councils a representation on the planning board. This should also be extended to representation on planning commissions: which take most decisions on smaller developments, whose cumulative impact sometimes is even greater than that of major projects.

A proper response to the Gozo mayors’ plea, however, would also require a change in the way planning rules are implemented. The government often speaks about ‘intelligent planning’: but without the necessary ‘intelligence’, this risks becoming an empty buzzword.

What needs to change most is the one-size-fits-all model itself, which has clearly failed us. In order to have intelligent planning, the height and zoning limitations found in the local plan should be seen as a minimum safeguard.

For example: nobody should be allowed to build six storeys in an area where only five storeys are allowed; but there should be no automatic right to develop five-storey blocks in every nook and cranny, either.

The recent case of a five-storey block proposed in the vicinity of the Ggantija temples is a case in point. Intelligent planning means recognising that each site poses different problems; and while five-storey development may be acceptable in more urbanized parts of Malta and Gozo, the same should not apply in more rural contexts.

Moreover, what may be acceptable in one particular area, is not necessarily acceptable in another part of the same locality.

Meanwhile, another positive aspect of the joint stance of the Gozitan mayors is that it strengthens demands for greater regional representation. It is even worth exploring whether it makes more sense to substitute the Gozo ministry – often linked to patronage – with a regional council with clearly defined powers and responsibilities: possibly including raising funds, by imposing levies on property development.

Nonetheless: while welcoming the stance of the Gozitan mayors on over-development, one cannot ignore the elephant in the room concerning Gozo: i.e., the proposed tunnel connecting the two island, which – if enacted – would only further exacerbate development pressures on Gozo.

From this perspective, the united stance by Gozo’s local councils should be seen only as a first step towards a greater goal: and that is the urgent need to change tack, once and for all, when it comes to planning and development policies.