Ħondoq is safe from development; but for how long? | Astrid Vella

Environmental NGOs such as Flimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar (FAA) are palpably relieved by the final rejection of a 20-year-old application to build a tourism village in Gozo’s pristine Ħondoq ir-Rummien valley. But as campaigner ASTRID VELLA warns: the real battle to save our environment is far from over

Astrid Vella. Photo: James Bianchi
Astrid Vella. Photo: James Bianchi

Last Thursday’s decision on Hondoq ir-Rummien marks the end of a saga that has been ongoing for 20 years; and in which FAA was a frontline campaigner. How significant do you see this victory, in the wider context of the ‘war for the environment’ as a whole?

It is definitely a significant victory, to us. This was, in fact, one of the first campaigns we ever took up, when FAA was established in 2006; so obviously, it means a lot to us. We still feel very committed to it, to this day.

However, I have to say that it is disappointing that this victory should have taken 20 years to achieve: ever since Qala mayor Paul Buttigieg first started battling it, from the moment the original application was submitted. Here, I have to give him the full credit he deserves: Paul sacrificed his whole life, for the past 20 years, to the cause of saving Hondoq… for the people of Qala; the rest of Gozo; and for Maltese and tourists, alike.

But it’s a huge disgrace, to both governments, that this procedure should have taken so long; and that there is still, to this day, an ongoing attitude – as recently voiced by Infrastructure Minister Aaron Farrugia – that: ‘If NGOs are not pleased with a PA decision, they can always file an appeal’.

Excuse me, but: why should NGOs, and the public, spend so much of their own their lives, and their own money – because there are massive financial requirements involved – to appeal against all the wrong decisions taken by the Planning Authority: which, in turn, supposedly exists to regulate the planning sector, according to interests of the Maltese public… and NOT the interests of developers?

Sadly, this attitude still persists to this day...


On the subject of why it took so long: the original application was rejected in 2016, on the grounds that it contradicted the country’s Strategic Plan for the Environment and Development (SPED). Moreover, in 2016 Parliament also approved the Public Domain Act – including FAA’s proposal to designate Hondoq ir-Rummien as ‘undevelopable’ – though it was never enacted, in practice. Doesn’t this mean that the entire saga should really have ended six years ago: when the project was deemed ‘illegal’, by the PA Board?

Yes, it should have ended there; and at one time, in around 2010, a Nationalist MP – I believe it was Mario de Marco – had also proposed that [words to the effect of]: ‘if applications are prima facie in violation of planning policy, they would not proceed’… giving the developer the opportunity to appeal against this decision.

We feel that this would have been a very fair outcome, all things considered; also, because no one ever takes into account the huge amount of public funds that are wasted [in processing such applications].

It’s not just the NGOs and residents, who end up wasting their own resources on endless appeals; but the Maltese taxpayer also spends a huge amount on the payrolls of all those Planning Authority employees, who are caught up in processing these cases, for years on end. There’s also that to be considered…


Coming back to Thursday’s victory: how ‘final’ is this decision, anyway? I’m not sure if you’re aware, but Robert Musumeci has just posted that: “[The] applicants’ remaining hope is to now detect a breach of law in proceedings or face of record. That way, process will be reactivated…”

What I can tell you is this: yes, I did notice [Musumeci’s] cheap, ambulance-chaser words. He is quoting an Article 80 procedure; even if, as far as we know, Article 80 can only be invoked to repeal a permit that has already been granted… and NOT to overturn a refusal.

Unfortunately, however, the reality is that anything can change, or be ‘twisted’, in our current planning set-up.  And besides: there’s always the possibility of a whole new application being submitted by the developers. This is why we maintain that Hondoq ir-Rummien will never be safe, until it is declared Public Domain, once and for all.


Another thing that emerges from the case-history is that – while the Hondoq project appeared to enjoy political support, back in 2006 (evidenced by the secretly-changed Local Plans, which permitted ‘maritime and tourism’ development in the area) it seems to have lost that backing, in recent years. The Nationalist Party now endorses calls for a national park at Hondoq; and the Prime Minister voiced his own opposition to the project, in his Budget speech. How much of a bearing do you think all this had, on the final decision?

Look: we’ve never been under any illusion, that such cases are not decided by the political hand – or hands – that control the Planning Authority. Going back to 2006: we had been approached by planners, who told us to our faces that the Local Plans they were in the process of drafting, had left their office for ‘the minister’s approval’… only to come back totally unrecognisable.

They couldn’t even recognise their own work, as the people who drew up the 2006 Local Plans. So much of it had been chopped, and changed, by the minister of the day, that none of their original proposals remained intact.

Now: this has carried on ever since, all the way up to the present. You can see, even at a glance, that it is the projects that enjoy the backing of politicians, that always end up going through.  And when you look at the history of planning changes, in Malta, both before and after the2006 Local Plans… what emerges is an entire track record, of changes that were clearly made to favour certain projects, pushed by certain architects who are known to be very well-connected, politically…

None of this, unfortunately, has changed over the years. There have even been developers – known to be very politically-connected – who have publicly declared their support for both political parties… ultimately, to ensure the success of their future projects.

There is no other explanation, for the approval of certain projects like the Quad Towers, for instance: which was approved by the Planning Board, despite the fact that – during the final hearing – it transpired that the photo-montages presented by the developers, had been tampered with.

But even though the material they based their decision upon, was not only ‘unreliable’, but FALSIFIED… the Board simply went ahead, and approved the project anyway. Only afterwards did we discover that the developer had visited the Minister in charge of the PA, in order to have his site approved: even though it lay outside of the designated FAR footprint.

That, on its own, is proof enough of who really takes all the decisions, when it comes to planning and development in this country…

Nonetheless, it makes a welcome change that both government and opposition seem to agree on the need to ‘protect the environment’. How do you yourself interpret this political volte-face, on Hondoq? Do you see it as an indication that the two main political parties may be (belatedly) attaching a value to environmental causes… even if, quite possibly, they may have their own political reasons for doing so?

Once again: I have no illusions whatsoever, that the government abandoned its support for this project, to ‘uphold environmental principles’. Nonetheless, I think that there IS a recognition, that the electorate is now sick and tired of a situation which is consistently undermining their quality of life.

Because at this point, the intensity of development has reached such staggering proportions, that literally no one is left untouched. It cannot be a coincidence that every single survey, every single public opinion poll, is now clearly indicating that it’s not just the residents who are fed up… but it’s also having a significant impact on our tourism sector, and the economy in general.

For some reason, the MTA does not publish the results of its tourist-departure questionnaires; but one of the main reasons given by tourists, for not wanting to return to Malta, is that the country is ‘overdeveloped, dirty, and noisy’.

But it goes beyond even that, too: because it’s now beginning to affect the country’s competitivity, in attracting foreign investment. For like everyone else: foreign investors will be looking to move to a place where their employees will be happy enough, to actually remain in the country long-term. They don’t want to be left in a situation where their employees regularly pack up and leave, after around two years, because they feel stifled by the ‘lack of greenery’; and the generally poor quality of life that is brought about by overdevelopment…


If I may interrupt: that is, in fact, exactly what the ‘Foreign Investment Attractiveness’ survey, published by EY Malta last month, concluded…

Well: we’ve been saying the same thing for years now… without the benefit of any fancy and expensive studies. Meanwhile, however, there’s another factor to be considered. What’s also eroding our quality of life, as a result of over-development, is the price of property.

Despite this glut of properties coming onto the market, prices are not coming down. Why? Because the emphasis is only ever on building ‘high-end’ properties… and not on affordable ones, that ordinary people can actually buy.

This is another reason why politicians are so worried, today. There are all sorts of studies which prove that young couples simply cannot afford to buy their first home; that even a modest apartment, is now beyond the reach of the combined salaries of two people.

The result is increasing dissatisfaction amongst the electorate; and it is beginning to show up very clearly, in all polls and surveys.

Yet another consideration is the exposure of local banks. This ‘development-on-steroids’ phenomenon can ultimately undermine our economy, due to the banks’ exposure. This was highlighted both by the IMF, and by the EU, many years ago: that Maltese banks were too dependent on loans to the local construction industry, exposing them to serious risk.

Now: if there is a market-crash, due to the oversupply of property (as more and more development projects are approved, and then built up)… what would happen to all those loans?

Banks can always take possession of the properties, in case of defaulting loans; but given the growing property glut, the real market value of such properties could be significantly lower than the bank’s actual book value.

This is why the IMF and the EU have for years been warning that Maltese banks’ disproportionate dependence on loans to the development sector, exposes banks to risk, and could undermine the Maltese economy as a whole...


Speaking of the economy: Finance Minister Clyde Caruana has told us (twice in the past year) that ‘Malta’s economic model needs to change’; citing ‘overdevelopment’ and ‘traffic’ as two examples of issues which are diminishing our quality of life. Yet the Budget he presented last month does not seem to indicate any significant changes, to the current status quo. Do you see any other signs – possibly, including the Hondoq decision itself – that the government does actually intend to change its economic model?

What I do see a lot of, is ‘lip-service’…. but rather than the Budget, I will quote from the National Strategy for the Environment 2050: where there are a lot of excellent proposals; but no specifications of how these objectives are to be reached… no targets, no benchmarks, no deadlines… which makes that document lose most of its value.

For example: the claim that there will be ‘a programme of green open spaces, in towns and villages’, rings totally hollow… when you consider that, to the present day, the government is not only endorsing the development of every single open space left, in Malta’s towns and villages; but it is even reclaiming existing green spaces, in urban areas, for further development!

Take ‘The Capitanerie’ in Ta’ Xbiex, for instance: a restaurant, café, office and shopping complex – in that order – which Transport Malta had originally applied to build on the children’s playing area, in Gzira’s only public garden…  and which now has been relocated to another open space, a few metres away on the same Ta’ Xbiex seafront: and which will still encroach onto the same public garden.

Now: if it’s a government agency, no less, that is taking green areas away from the public, to develop them for commercial gain… sorry, but what credibility can the government itself possibly have, on any policy that involves ‘greening Malta’?

Unfortunately, I can’t really see the situation changing, under those circumstances. As things stand, the only option we see, is a total dismantling of the Planning Authority… to be replaced by a new body, composed of qualified planners of proven integrity; and in which NGOs, and the general public, can also find their rightful place, in the decision-making structures.