Gozitan MPs opposed to development at Ħondoq

We asked all six Gozitans MPs – three of them Labour ministers – whether Ħondoq ir-Rummien and its disused quarry site, should be declared as a ‘public domain’ site.


All Labour MPs have declared they are committed against any “development” at the pristine Ħondoq ir-Rummien valley area. But they would not commit to changing local plans to preclude any future attempt at introducing tourism development in the area.

Questions were sent individually to all six Gozitans MPs – three of them Labour ministers – as to whether they agree with a partial review of the Gozo local plan to remove any loopholes for tourism and marina development in the area, and whether they agree that Ħondoq, including the disused quarry site, should be declared as a ‘public domain’ site.

On their part, Nationalist Party MPs – whose party when in government had underhandedly included tourism development at Ħondoq in the 2006 local plan, approved without public consultation – are now committed to buy back the area from its owners and turn it in to a national park. It would mean that without changes to local plans, the government would buy back the land at an inflated price, based on its current zoning in the local plan.

Instead of replying individually, both the Labour and PN MPs replied through their respective party spokespersons.

In their two sets of replies, the two parties were not willing to undertake any commitment which would enshrine Ħondoq’s ODZ status (outside development zones) for posterity. 

Partial reviews of Malta’s local plans are regularly conducted to change development parameters and zoning for different sites in Malta and Gozo.

The Public Domain Act gives power to the government to declare particular sites as being part of the public domain. Ħondoq was proposed as a “public domain site” by environmental NGOs in 2017, but this proposal was not accepted by government.

Such status, although vague, adds an extra level of protection obliging the government to preserve it for future generations.

Qala’s Labour mayor Paul Buttigieg, who has fought tooth and nail against any proposed development at the bay for almost 20 years, has insisted that he can only put his mind at rest on Ħondoq if it is irrevocably placed outside the development zones.

Earlier this week when asked directly by MaltaToday, the Prime Minister warned that the government could end up having to compensate owners if local plans are changed – echoing similar claims by Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia in TV programme Xtra last month. Farrugia has yet to divulge the legal advice leading to this declaration despite being asked to do so by MaltaToday.

Legal experts have told MaltaToday that no such right for compensation exists under European law, citing case law in which guarantees for property rights cannot be extended to protect mere commercial interests, and which recognise that rights of ownership are always “subject to limitations laid down in accordance with the public interest.”

MPs: some commitment

In their collective response, the Labour MPs reiterated their “stance against development in the Ħondoq ir-Rummien site”, consistent with the party’s electoral manifesto and their local elections manifesto of 2019 “where the party renewed its commitment to protect the natural environment in Qala particularly that of Ħondoq”.

Ignoring MaltaToday’s questions on the designation of Ħondoq as a public domain site and on whether a partial review of the local plans should be conducted, the party turned the tables on the Nationalist Party, reminding the public that it was their decision in 2006 to introduced the concept of tourism development at Ħondoq.

The Labour MPs also questioned the commitment made by the PN to buy back the land to turn it into a national park. “Political responsibility demands that such promises like that made by the Opposition leader should be studied if there are no other ulterior motives behind them.”

PN MPs also evaded questions on whether the planning status of Ħondoq should change while reiterating the party’s commitment to reclaim back Ħondoq from its private owners. “A PN government will acquire the land area in question from the private owners in order to rehabilitate and develop it in to a national park with various amenities accessible to the general public.”

BACKSTORY How Hondoq was underhandedly earmarked for tourism

In 2002, 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. The land had been sold to the developers by the Augustinian order.

The Order sold the land on promise of sale to Bajada in 1988 for Lm10,200 (€23,760) – on condition that full development permits were awarded. The promise of sale states that if development permission for the land is granted, the Order will receive the full sale price of Lm10,000 (€23,294) per tumulo and at 68 tumuli, the total sale price amounting to Lm680,000 (€1,583,974).

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 to saying that MEPA would consider proposals from public agencies to upgrade beach facilities at Ħondoq ir-Rummien. Any envisaged development was limited to the rehabilitation of the quarry, the provision of basic beach amenities and unrestricted public access to the beach.

A new Gozo local plan, approved in 2006, facilitated the approval of a tourism project, referring to “tourism and marine related uses” and “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.

Indeed the authors of a project development statement for the developers immediately after the publication of the local plan referred to the delay between 2002 and 2006 as “four years of pro-active consultation” with the Malta Environment and Planning Authority.

So while MEPA was consulting with the developer, no public consultation was conducted on the changes made in the local plan.

The developers made bold claims as to their development being an environmentally friendly one. Through landscaping they promised to create the perception that the project was the “work of nature itself” and to create the impression that the new village had “evolved organically over the last century”.

Clearly, back then the wind was in their sail, to the extent that even Gozo Minister Giovanna Debono described the Ħondoq project as beneficial to Gozo.

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.

In August 2011, MEPA’s environmental arm – the Environment Protection Directorate – called on the authority to refuse the project. MEPA’s Planning Directorate was just about to issue its final case officer report, when the developers presented new plans dropping the marina, replacing it with a swimming lagoon and retaining the residential aspect of the project.

But MEPA insisted that it could not consider new plans at this stage, insisting that a brand new application was needed.

The Labour opposition was also committed against the project. But no final decision was taken about the project 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 – which was to include a church and shops – 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.