[WATCH] Clint Camilleri: ‘No one will be allowed free rein because of me’

The Gozo Minister was handed the planning portfolio in January amid doubts expressed by environmental NGOs. In his first interview since the Cabinet reshuffle, Clint Camilleri talks to Executive Editor Kurt Sansone about his ideas for improved aesthetics in Gozo and fixing the holes in some of the more contentious planning policies. 

Clint Camilleri is set on introducing a new planning policy that will require all new buildings in Gozo to have facades made of Maltese stone. 

The Gozo Minister tells me all about his idea as we sit down in his office at the parliament building in Valletta. Parliament was built from hardstone quarried in Qala, the minister’s home town. 

Camilleri was handed the planning portfolio last month after Robert Abela shook up his Cabinet. The new policy is one of the minister’s first decisions. 

He says architects, developers and property owners have grown complacent over the years, delivering buildings that are unpleasant to the eye. 

“Shortly, the PA will issue a circular making it incumbent on all new developments in Gozo to have facades made out of Maltese stone and this will also include the backside of properties where these overlook ODZ areas,” Camilleri tells me. He insists this will help create buildings that are more in tune with Gozo’s typical urban design. 

Camilleri agrees with concerns on overdevelopment raised by Gozitan mayors but attributes this to the progress the island has experienced over the past 10 years and improved wellbeing. 

Camilleri says government invested heavily in Gozo and this encouraged people to invest in their own land. 

“Today we are speaking of ‘excess’ and not of ‘nothing’, because in the past all we could speak of was of ‘nothing’,” Camilleri says. 

I quiz Camilleri on some of the more contentious planning policies, including the rural policy enacted in 2014 that allowed the construction of houses in ODZ areas if the owner could prove that somebody, sometime, lived on the land. 

He says the holes in this policy will be fixed but refrains from giving a timeframe. 

On the change in the local plans to ensure no development takes place at Ħondoq ir-Rummien in Qala, Camilleri says this will deliver on the Labour Party’s pledge to protect the area. He does not exclude local plan changes in other areas but insists these will have to be dealt with on a case by case basis. 

Camilleri also reiterates his position in favour of a tunnel link between Gozo and Malta but insists he has to be respectful to the strategy outlined by the Gozo Regional Development Authority that recommended the project be re-evaluated in light of improved accessibility between the islands. 

The following is an excerpt from the interview. 

Follow the full interview on maltatoday-com.mt, Facebook and Spotify. 

Your relationship with environmental NGOs is not as serene as it should be. Environmentalists did not take too kindly to your appointment as planning minister. How do you react to these sentiments? 

I have always been open and willing to meet NGOs and stakeholders. I may not have a good relationship with one particular NGO [BirdLife], but I have worked well with a lot of Gozitan NGOs, including Nature Trust… myself and the ministry are willing to listen to everyone but I will also be deciding things. My first steps over the past few weeks, I took alongside a big environmentalist, Paul Buttigieg, who for the past 20 years has made it a personal mission to save Ħondoq ir-Rummien. We are now at a stage where we will be changing the policy to safeguard the place and I will be the minister to sign on it. 

There is this fear that you will give developers and contractors free rein to do as they please. How do you respond to this criticism? 

I don’t know from where this criticism is originating… Nobody should give free rein to anybody. The rules, policies and laws are there to be applied equally. You can put your minds at rest that no one will be allowed free rein because of me. 

At Ħondoq ir-Rummien, government will be changing the local plan to prevent any development from happening. Every time environmentalists and residents argue that the 2006 decision to include land into the development zones should be reversed through a change in policy, government argues against reversing past policies [that gave land owners pretended rights]. But that is exactly what you are doing in Ħondoq. People in Żurrieq, protesting against the development of agricultural land at Nigret would tell you why is it OK in Ħondoq but not elsewhere? 

On Ħondoq, the Labour Party has always had a clear commitment to safeguard Ħondoq, expressed in several electoral manifestos. We are fulfilling the pledge we made… But this does not mean we cannot make changes in other localities. Obviously, every case has to be treated on its own merits… but where changes are needed we will be doing them. 

I have heard the Prime Minister speak on several occasions saying changes [to the development boundaries] cannot be reversed because people cannot be denied the rights they were given. Why is it that you seem to have discarded this principle in Ħondoq but are reluctant to do so in other cases? 

In Ħondoq, our decision was based on the electoral mandate given to us by the people. We were clear with everyone – residents, people and the developers who were prospecting such a project – and so our position was crystal clear. The Prime Minister is correct when he speaks in this way. Let us be honest with ourselves; everyone is against development unless it belongs to them. As legislators and the Planning Authority we are obliged to make the good decisions. Every case is unique. In 2006, the Nationalist government made a big mistake when it extended development boundaries but over 20 years some of these zones were sold. Families invested in them and one cannot at the stroke of a pen deny these families the investment they made in their home... We have to be sensitive to these… 

In Ħondoq the Planning Authority has argued that the developer was never granted a permit of any sort so there is no argument to be made that they will lose ‘pretended rights’. There are other sites where no permits were ever issued. Do you exclude that in other zones, policy changes will take place to safeguard them just like Ħondoq? 

I don’t exclude anything. We have to deal with these on a case by case basis. But there are a number of other zones where planning control applications have been approved. 

In 2014, a Labour government introduced the rural policy which practically allowed people who had a pile of stones on their land and could prove that someone used to live there at some point, to build again. Your predecessors committed themselves to change this policy but despite a draft being published it remained shelved. What is going to happen to this policy? 

The rural policy had clear objectives… to sustain and help farmers and animal husbandry farms. Before this policy there was nothing to regulate ODZ areas and the development that is necessary for agricultural purposes. This policy created a level playing field for farmers… in the vast majority of cases it worked well. But there were instances where people tried to use the policy to turn a pile of stones in an ODZ residence by searching for documents that go back 100 years to prove that someone lived there sometime. My predecessor Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi gave the PA direction to scrutinise such permit applications well and there is also a clear direction that the previous property should appear in the plans of 1976… if need be it will change like any other policy that may need amending. 

But this process had already started. Are you committed to change the policy? 

There were holes in the policy and we have to see that these are closed, and the direction is such. But no policy can be 100% watertight. A watertight policy is often one that is impractical. If there are aspects that need to be addressed, they will be amended and not just in this policy… I can’t say when the changes will happen because there is a bureaucratic process that needs to be followed. 

Do you agree with Joseph Muscat’s candidature for the European election? 

Why not? Joseph Muscat was the architect of the Labour Party in government. After 25 years in the wilderness he was the person who handed the government back to the PL and so it does not bother me at all to see him on the ballot sheet. 

I have no doubt that [a Joseph Muscat candidacy] will give the PL an electoral boost because it creates enthusiasm among Labour voters but don’t you think this could cause problems for the party in the long term? 

At the end of the day, the people are sovereign; who am I to tell them how to vote?