A jewel like Hondoq ir-Rummien deserves better

The 2006 amendments that earmarked this area for tourism development should be reversed, once and for all; and Ħondoq itself should be re-declared ODZ, and included in the Public Domain Act

The tranquil cove of Ħondoq ir-Rummien, limits of Qala, has in a sense become emblematic for the growing resistance to over-development on the island of Gozo: and possibly, also for the Maltese archipelago as a whole.

It is easy to understand why, too. Boasting unparalleled views of Comino and the Fliegu Channel, and accessible only through a narrow country lane passing through an unspoilt valley, Ħondoq ir-Rummien also routinely tops the annual list of bathing spots with the cleanest, most unpolluted waters.

It is, in brief, one of the Maltese island’s most scenic, pristine environments: yet incredibly, the same area has also been under siege by developers for years.

The saga has been ongoing since at least 2002: when the company Gozo Prestige, owned by Gozitan businessmen Victor Bajada, presented an application for the construction of a destination port and 195-room hotel, 200-yacht marina and a tourist village for 300 apartments.

But the draft for the Gozo local plan, issued for public consultation in 2002, never made any reference to tourist development in Ħondoq. It limited itself only to the rehabilitation of the quarry, the provision of basic beach amenities and unrestricted public access to the beach.

Nonetheless a new Gozo local plan, approved in 2006, facilitated the approval of a tourism project: changing the area’s land-use from “agricultural” to “tourism and marine related uses”; and even specifying “sensitively designed, high quality and low density buildings that blend into the landscape”. Ħondoq was identified as the site of a “destination port” – a euphemism for a yacht marina.

But the goalposts changed after 2008. Facing an uphill election, the PN successfully reinvented itself as a more environmentally-friendly party. Upon being re-elected, Lawrence Gonzi even declared a zero-tolerance stance towards ODZ development. For environmentalists, Ħondoq became the litmus test for the seriousness of the government’s intentions. Moreover, the project contrasted with the PN’s own eco-Gozo vision.

Initially, the Labour opposition was also committed against the project. But no final decision was taken before the change in government in 2013.

In 2016, following a 14-year long saga, the PA unanimously refused the application for the Ħondoq ir-Rummien development – a deluxe 5-star hotel with 110 bedrooms, 20 self-catering villas, 60 apartments serviced by the hotel, 203 apartments, 1,249 underground parking spaces, a village centre, and a yacht marina for approximately 100 to 150 berths.

The Ħondoq development was deemed by the Planning Directorate to be in breach of the Strategic Plan for the Environment and Development as it constituted “a dense urban development” in a “coastal rural area.” It was also in breach of the SPED’s vision of Gozo as an “ecological island.”

But the developers refused to give up, and appealed. “The PA has no right to go back on its commitments, arrived at through its own actions, and after having induced the applicant to incur hundreds of thousands of euros in costs and expenses to comply with the PA’s request for studies,” architect Edward Bencini claimed in the appeal presented to the Environment and Planning Review Tribunal.

Surprisingly, two years later the Environment and Planning Review Tribunal decided to send the controversial application back to the Planning Authority, after they found a procedural mistake in the handling of the case.

But this ruling was overruled by the law courts following another appeal by the Planning Authority.

The case was reverted back to the EPRT, which still has to take a final decision.

That is the situation still facing this priceless natural treasure today: which also means that, after years of assurances, the government remains uncommitted to protecting the site from speculative development.

Prime Minister Robert Abela even went as far as to state that: “We are in a situation where the government’s hands are tied by the preceding government.”

Presumably, this is a reference to the changes made to the Local Plans in 2006; but if so, the obstacle can easily be surmounted, on the grounds that those changes were procedurally flawed. As Qala mayor Paul Buttigieg has repeatedly argued: neither his council, nor the preceding ones, were ever informed of the changes… still less, offered the chance to appeal (as is/was their legal right).

Besides: with hindsight, the amendments were only made to accommodate a single project; which was in any case rejected by the PA in 2016. From this perspective, Buttigieg’s campaign to re-classify Ħondoq ir-Rummien as ‘ODZ’ is clearly intended to rectify a past injustice; as such, it would be equally unjust to overturn that appeal today.

Either way, it is crucial that the Labour administration clarifies its own position on Ħondoq. In a climate where environmental concerns are mounting – especially in Gozo – it would be unwise to continue defending the indefensible.

In this case, the correct decision is painstakingly clear. The 2006 amendments that earmarked this area for tourism development should be reversed, once and for all; and Ħondoq itself should be re-declared ODZ, and included in the Public Domain Act.

Anything less would be a travesty of the government’s environmental commitments, and a betrayal of the people in favour of private, commercial concerns.

And besides: a jewel like Ħondoq ir-Rummien deserves no less.