Parish, band club join NGO alliance in denouncing businesses takeover of square in Rabat, Gozo

Band club, museum and NGOs denounce takeover of St. George’s Square in Rabat, Gozo, described "a symptom of the imbalance between business interests and the rights of the people." 

A protestor holds up a sign which reads
A protestor holds up a sign which reads "Give us St. George's Square back"

A recently-formed alliance of NGOs, cultural organisations and residents has joined Can. Joseph Curmi in speaking out against the uncontrolled takeover of public spaces by restaurants in St. George’s Square in Rabat, Gozo.

Soċjetà Filarmonika La Stella and il-Ħaġar museum joined forces with activists from NGOs Moviment Graffitti, Għawdix, Din l-Art Ħelwa - Għawdex and Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar, holding a press conference on Saturday outside Rabat’s St. George’s Basilica, to denounce what they said was a “land grab” in the square. 

The press conference was attended by a number of newly elected local councillors, as well as parishioners and residents, all of whom say they are fed up with the “rampant abuse by commercial establishments that have completely taken over the square.”

The organisations said that the situation in St. George’s Square has deteriorated to such an extent that all four entrances to it are blocked, making access to the square increasingly difficult. 

The square had been turned into a maze of tables, chairs, tents and other structures placed outside by the restaurants, St. George’s Basilica’s archpriest Can. Joseph Curmi told the press conference. Various attempts to engage in dialogue with the responsible authorities, amongst them the Lands Authority, the Malta Tourism Authority, and the Planning Authority, had led to nowhere. Can. Curmi accused the authorities of “shrugging off their responsibilities,” and described enforcement as “virtually non-existent.”

The sight of the square, which had been pedestrianised so as to be enjoyed by the public, now completely occupied by tables, chairs and tents, has provoked angry reactions from residents, who say it has come to symbolise “the triumph of commercial interests over people and the community.”

The NGOs said that in addition to preventing safe public access to the square, the unchecked abuse that was being allowed in St. George’s Square was also disrupting weddings, funerals and the celebration of the local feast. 

Can. Curmi said that it was unacceptable to see public land being abused in this way, while citizens organising weddings and funerals at the church were being forced to obtain permits for the removal of the tables and chairs. Often, in spite of the permits, guests still end up navigating numerous obstacles in the square on the day of the wedding or funeral, he said. Band club Soċjetà Filarmonika La Stella had also appealed to the authorities to maintain order and rein in the abuse in the square so that the local feast celebration is not disrupted, “but the authorities continue to shirk their duty,” the organisations said.

Moviment Graffitti said the situation in St. George’s Square was symptomatic of the imbalance between business interests and the rights of the people. “The sight of our pavements, squares and streets taken over by tables and chairs has become all too common across Malta and Gozo. In a context where public land continues to be handed over to private interests at the expense of the common good, it is increasingly worrying how public spaces such as squares, pavements and streets are also becoming inaccessible to people to cater for business interests.”

It said that the theft of public spaces, business interests being allowed to trample over the rights of residents, and the lack of action by the authorities had led to groups of residents from Sliema, Valletta, Marsaxlokk, Cottonera, St. Paul’s Bay, Mellieħa, Marsaskala and now also Rabat, Gozo, to join forces in the “Il-Bankini taċ-Ċittadini” campaign to defend what is rightfully theirs and take back public spaces.

The residents, together with Moviment Graffitti and FAA, had drafted a document with a number of demands and proposals aimed at addressing the issue, which was then sent to the Prime Minister and the Ministers responsible, Graffitti said. “Despite the Prime Minister’s recent declaration that the tables and chairs issue needs to be addressed, the residents are still waiting for an answer.”