Ħondoq may have been saved. But the danger remains

There is cross-party consensus to grant Ħondoq ir-Rummien the protection it so sorely needs... one can only wonder, then, why government is taking so long, to implement what is already implied in its own strategic vision for Gozo, as an ‘ecological island’

It would be a mistake to underestimate the significance of last Thursday’s decision, by the Environment and Planning Review Tribunal, to confirm the PA’s rejection of a massive tourism development at Ħondoq ir-Rummien, in Gozo.

On one level, it marks a rare instance in which popular resistance proved successful in halting what once seemed to be an almost ‘unstoppable’ project: one which – for the record – used to enjoy such political support, that the area was surreptitiously re-designated from an ‘afforestation zone’, to a ‘marine and tourism-related’ development area, specifically for its benefit.

As such, the final verdict not only attests to the perseverance of Qala’s indefatigable mayor, Paul Buttigieg – and the combined efforts of the numerous environmental NGOs which supported him – but it also provides a ray of hope, that PA decisions may be more ‘environmentally responsible’ in future.

Moreover, Ħondoq ir-Rummien is in itself evocative of everything that makes Gozo such a charming, ‘magical’ island, in the first place. Everything about that area – from its stunning views of Comino, and the Gozo Channel; to the unrivalled quality of its bathing water; to its accessibility through a narrow country lane, passing through one of Gozo’s last unspoilt valleys – has made Ħondoq almost emblematic of the struggle to save the Maltese environment, as a whole.

As Buttigieg once put it, in an interview with this newspaper: “Everyone can see that Ħondoq is special, and has to be preserved.”  So it can only be with a great sense of relief, that we welcome the fact that the Planning Authority finally seems able to see that, too.

Nonetheless, in the same interview Buttigieg had also warned that: “what really worries me is that the threat will still remain, so long as it remains possible to develop Ħondoq in future.” And from this perspective, the victory that Ħondoq represents today, may yet prove to be short-lived.

For even though Thursday’s decision represents the last stage of the entire permit-adjudication process – against which there can be no subsequent appeal - the fact remains that Ħondoq ir-Rummien is privately-owned property, which does not lie outside the development zone.

As things stand today, there is nothing stopping the current owners from re-applying to develop the area (so long, of course, as the new application differs significantly from the rejected one); or, for that matter, from selling the property to third parties, who may also have plans to develop it in future. 

More worryingly still, there is even the possibility that the developers may try, once again, to overturn the decision on a mere technicality. This much was hinted at by architect (and former PA consultant) Robert Musumeci: who noted, in a somewhat ambiguous post, that “Applicants’ remaining hope is to now detect a breach of law in proceedings or face of record. That way, process will be reactivated.”

In brief: Ħondoq ir-Rummien remains technically ‘unprotected’ from further development, to this day: except, perhaps, by the provisions of the SPED policies, which only place limits on what can, and cannot, be built in such areas.

It was for this reason that Paul Buttigieg ended his interview with an impassioned plea for Ħondoq ir-Rummien ‘to be firmly demarcated as ODZ, once and for all’. And yet, while the PA’s final verdict itself seems to vindicate this view - and despite the fact that both government and opposition seem to agree, on the need to protect Ħondoq from future development – this remains a step that has yet to be taken.

At this point, we must ask ourselves why the authorities are proving so reluctant, to take this initiative. In this case, the answer cannot be the same as it so often is, when it comes to overdevelopment in Malta: i.e., because – in its bid to maximise economic growth at every opportunity - the present government always pushes a ‘development-at-all-costs’ policy.  

Even at a glance, one can see that this does not really apply to Ħondoq ir-Rummien. Prime Minister Robert Abela even dedicated a part of his budget speech in parliament, to voice for his own support for the opponents of the project. Likewise, Opposition Bernard Grech has openly backed Buttigieg’s suggestion, to turn the area into a natural park.

Clearly, then, there is cross-party consensus to grant Ħondoq ir-Rummien the protection it so sorely needs; and to be fair, Planning Minister Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi has hinted that the forthcoming review of SPED will “look not only towards reforms in the area [Ħondoq Ir-Rummien], but also on a national level”.

One can only wonder, then, why government is taking so long, to implement what is already implied in its own strategic vision for Gozo, as an ‘ecological island’.