Ħondoq ir-Rummien should return to ODZ, at all costs… | Paul Buttigieg

In a rare display of cross-party consensus, all 17 of Gozo’s Local Councils recently warned government about the dangers of ‘ruining’ the island through over-development. Qala mayor PAUL BUTTIGIEG outlines why the need to safeguard Gozo’s traditional charm has never been more urgent

Qala mayor Paul Buttigieg
Qala mayor Paul Buttigieg

In the past, Gozitans often criticized the Maltese for regarding their home island as some kind of idyllic paradise, reserved for their own enjoyment. That attitude, however, seems to be changing. Do you share the view that Gozo, by virtue of remaining comparatively unspoilt, should be treated using a different yardstick to Malta?

Yes, I do. Let’s start with this: why do so many Maltese come to Gozo, anyway? Isn’t it because there is more peace and quiet here, than in Malta? So if Gozo ends up being just as noisy and stressful as Malta – or even more, at the rate we’re going – the Maltese will no longer keep buying properties in Gozo. On the contrary, they will sell the flats they already have, and go somewhere else. Like Italy. Let’s face it: there was already a time when people started going to Sicily instead. This is already happening now… let alone if we carry on like today…

But I want to make something clear. I’m not ‘against development’, for its own sake. What I’m against is ‘aggressive’ development… or, even worse, speculative development. Take what’s happening here in Qala, for instance. I suppose you’ve been following the recent developments about the project to build 163 flats. Well, right now there are between 450 and 500 apartments being built here. And around 500 flats will bring – at the very minimum – 1,000 people.

Now: Qala has a population of around 2,200, give and take; so these new apartments that are going up – not counting the 163 in the pipeline, and others being proposed – will attract around half the current population…

Can Qala’s infrastructure, as it stands today, actually cope with that sort of sudden population increase?

No, and I’ll you why. In the case of the proposed development at Ħondoq ir-Rummien, for instance – well, I have lot to say about that; but for now, let me just point out that the original EIA confirmed that that project would generate a lot of traffic. So they had to come up with what is known as a ‘bypass route’.

But they took a long time to find one. First they tried Wied is-Simar: but it was a non-starter. The route they came up with was so long and convoluted, it would have taken many more hours to get to Ħondoq from Mġarr.

Then they tried other routes… but none of them worked either. I would have to show you the plans to explain properly: but trust me, they couldn’t find a bypass-route, because… as repeated EIAs have concluded, time and again: Qala’s infrastructure just can’t handle that level of traffic.

The only road to Ħondoq is around four metres wide, at its narrowest: and it passes right through the main square.  There is simply no way that project can go ahead, without diverting all the traffic – and trucks, and cranes – through the core of the village.

One of the other stands you’ve taken was against a development permit granted in a valley [Tal-Marga] that is notoriously prone to floods. In this case, however, the project was within the development zone. You seem to be suggesting, then, that problem is not just with individual projects, here and there: but with the local plans for Qala as a whole…

Let me explain my position on that particular development. The problem was not that it was ODZ – it wasn’t - and I have no issue with any development that is within the regulations. But in this case, the developer also applied to excavate a one-storey, underground garage.

Now: everyone knows that, at Tal-Marġa, if you dig down five, six… let’s say 10 feet, you’re going to end up knee-deep in water.  Because it lies over an aquifer. So what would happen, if you dig down five metres to build an underground garage? They would have had to pump out all the water, 24 hours a day, just not to end up flooded.  And that means that all Qala’s fresh water would be gone… just like that.

Besides, everyone knows that that valley is a flood-zone. So much so, that when I first showed the evidence of this the PA – a video I took recently, during a storm – the reaction was to recommend an outright refusal. All the same, however, my position from day one – and I told this to the developer, at the time – was that, so long as the project was within the zone, and didn’t include an underground garage… I would have no objection at all.

But… the developer decided to ‘show off’ [jitkessaħ]. He carried on regardless, even after a negative recommendation by the MRA; and – at one of the meetings before the final decision – they brought God-knows how many architects, engineers and hydrologists to rubbish all our arguments. But we were represented by Perit Anthony Fenech Vella: and when I showed him that video on my laptop, he told me we had all we needed to win the argument at board level. And we did: a total, outright refusal…

The show of force by local councils proves that this issue goes well beyond party politics; how much, however, does it actually represent public in opinion in Gozo? Has there really been a change in Gozo’s previous ‘pro-development’ bias?

Let me put it this way: in Gozo, there is a ‘fear factor’: people are afraid to speak out openly. Even my own experience as mayor shows this. There was a concerted campaign against me, before the last election; and I even ended up isolated in the Qala Labour Party committee.  But what the people behind that campaign didn’t know, was what people out there are really thinking. It is only when people are alone, in that little cubicle, that they feel they can speak out without fear, for a change.

And what happened? I doubled my votes since the last election. It was an all-time record for the Labour Party, too: the first time Labour ever got more than four quotas. So I think it’s a clear message, that the people of Qala – even the Nationalists: because I am mayor of all Qala, and everyone knows this – are on my side. And I’m going to be blunt here, Gozitan-style: the only people who are against me, are the ones who want to ‘screw others over’…

If I’m understanding correctly, you feel you have the tacit support of a large, silent, cross-party majority. But how much of this, would you say, is really attributable to your own concerns about over-development in Gozo?

Bear in mind that mayors take their actions on the basis of what their residents tell them. So even the fact that such a large majority got together… it can only mean that everyone is hearing the same complaints. And I know for a fact that they are. We talk to each other a lot, as mayors; and while I won’t repeat what is said in private conversations, I can easily confirm… that, yes, everyone is worried [about over-development]. A lot.

And yet: it is always the old names that seem to crop up in relation to these mega-projects. How do you account for contractors like Joseph Portelli having so much power? And do you see any correlation between the actions of these individuals, and the ‘pro-business’ policies of the present government?

Look: I don’t want to speak out too openly; you have enough sense to work it out for yourself. These contractors have always been there, under both parties. And who’s running the entire world, if not billionaires? How many billionaires are there? Not that many, probably… but I can assure you, they’re the ones running the show. Like Monsanto, to give just one example. How many people are actually at the top of that company? 20? 30? I don’t know: but look how much power they have, all over the world…

This raises the question of how much power is needed to resist the development drive. In that meeting, you proposed that funds should be made available for local councils, to assist in the appeals process. Can you elaborate? What sort of resources are actually required, to contest a planning permit in Gozo?

First of all, my proposal– and I’m pleased to say was very well received – was that the Gozo Regional Council would start refunding us at least a percentage (I suggested 50%) of all the money we spend on appeals. Because, to give just one example: in the case of Ħondoq ir-Rummien alone [threatened by a proposed hotel/yacht marina complex], we spent at least €30,000 over the past 19 years. At least.

And if I told you how much we had to pay for this consultant, or that report; or how much I had to run around Malta and Gozo, out of my own pocket, to attend board meetings, and so on… not to mention all the hours I’ve put into it, and all the work I’ve lost… it all adds up to thousands.

And when you bear in mind what we’re up against: people who can easily afford the best architects, the best lawyers, the best everything… it is very obviously not a level-playing field. So if we are going to try and level it out: local councils do need additional resources. And hopefully, my proposal will be considered in that light…

You also hinted that local councils should be given more of a ‘say’ in the final decision, as it were. How do you see that happening in practice? Should local councils be given permanent representation on the PA Board, for instance?

I’m unaware that we’re specifically asking for ‘representation on the PA Board’; but what we’re all asking, quite frankly, is that decisions are not taken behind our backs.

In the case of Qala, for instance, the local plans regarding Ħondoq were changed in 2006, without notifying to the council. From an area designated for ‘Afforestation’, it became for ‘Touristic and Marine-Related Activities’… behind the council’s back. I have entire correspondence records - dating back to former Qala mayor, my namesake Paul Buttigieg - to support what I’m saying.

This is the sort of thing we’d like to see changed, once and for all.

The Hondoq ir-Rummien project has in a sense become emblematic for the resistance to over-development in general. It is one of Gozo’s most scenic, pristine environments; yet it has been under siege by developers for years. Your latest proposal is for the bay to be removed from the development zone altogether, once and for all…

Yes. Because the Ħondoq case, as you know, was actually given a final decision around four or five years ago. It was a flat refusal. The developers, however, appealed… as is their right… but they appealed on a number of very specific grounds.

I wont go into detail, but we spent two whole years discussing those specific objections at the Appeals Board; only so that, when the decision was finally reached… it was to uphold the appeal, only on a minor technicality. Because ‘an email wasn’t sent on time’…

[Pause] I mean, just look at the absurdity: until that point, we were going to decide the fate of a treasure like Ħondoq ir-Rummien, on the basis of such a minor technicality. An email…

Meanwhile, they don’t look at the thousands of people who signed petitions against this project; they don’t look at a referendum, in which 85% of Qala residents voted against; they don’t look at a Social Impact Assessment, featuring a damning report compiled by no less than the late Prof. Jeremy Boissevain – who didn’t even charge us a cent for it: God give him all the blessings he deserves… all of it, telling them that this project is madness.

No, they didn’t look at any of that; but then, they saw that an email wasn’t sent on time… and decided to approve the project, just because of that.

At that moment – I can tell you, tears were coming out of my eyes – I decided that we had to appeal against this; this time in the law-courts, and at whatever the cost. I said it at the time, and I’ll repeat it now: ‘Ħondoq is priceless; once it’s gone, there will be no use crying over it’.

So we took it to court; and, naturally, the Planning Authority also opened a case of their own. Good luck to them… but here I have to publicly thank lawyer Claire Bonello, who made the case for us much better than I can. First, she gave all the reasons why the Appeals Board should never have reached that verdict at all. Then she quoted from a ruling, handed down by the same magistrate, which established a precedent, on a case analogous to ours. Thanks to her, anyone who looks can see who is right, and who is wrong...

But what really worries me is that the threat will still remain, so long as it remains possible to develop Ħondoq in future. This is why I’m pushing for the area to be firmly demarcated as ‘ODZ’; because at the moments, things are not clear.

It is true that the case officer, in this project, has identified Ħondoq as ‘ODZ’; but just because one case-officer reaches that conclusion, it doesn’t mean that others will not decide differently in another case. And to be honest… I don’t trust anyone anymore…

Are you hopeful that Hondoq can still be saved?

I am hopeful, yes. Because you have to understand what Ħondoq really means to us, here… all the comments people post, whenever I upload photos… all the messages I receive in private, from people who want to comment, but are afraid to… and it cannot be a coincidence that we have all the support from professors and University academics; from everybody, really.

Everyone can see that Ħondoq is special, and has to be preserved. So it would be political suicide, for any political party to ever give this project the go-ahead. Of that, I’m 100% certain.