The Malta Independent 18 November 2018, Sunday

Gozo will not become a second Malta – Gozo Minister Justyne Caruana

Kevin Schembri Orland Sunday, 9 September 2018, 09:00 Last update: about 3 months ago

Gozo Minister Justyne Caruana has pledged that Gozo will not turn into a second Malta, when asked about the projected permanent link, in the form of a tunnel, between the two islands by Kevin Schembri Orland during an interview. She also talked about a number of projects in the pipeline and the lack of contractors to undertake these projects in Malta’s sister island.

One of the main issues facing Gozo is accessibility. Currently, the Minister said, work is ongoing regarding the permanent link between the two islands, but also mentioned issues revolving around the current ferry service and the fast ferry service.

Most recently, the Public Contracts Review Board (PCRB) upheld a number of objections by Virtu Ferries on the tender for the provision of passenger and vehicle ferry services in Malta and Gozo. Virtu Ferries argued that the tender favoured the incumbent state-owned Gozo Channel Co. Ltd (‘Gozo ferry’). A legal battle is also ongoing regarding the fast ferry service.

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The Minister highlighted the fact that the situation means that the fast ferry service and the Public Service Obligation tender will be further delayed.

“While this is going on”, she said, “We are restructuring and upgrading the Gozo Channel Company. David Spiteri Gingell was appointed to head the team.”

 

What’s the idea behind the current Gozo Channel restructuring exercise? Is it more crossings?

First and foremost it’s the optimal use of the fleet (of ferries). The ferries, the way they are – their lifespan is what it is. We are evaluating what we can get from what we have, but obviously we are considering new options including a fourth ferry. I announced this a few months back, and it was the first time someone in my position had done so. It had never been mentioned before, but the need is there.

Apart from issues of accessibility, what other challenges is Gozo facing?

We are also looking at our infrastructure. Our tourism sector is booming, which means there is a lot of stress on the Gozitan infrastructure and we are heavily investing in it. We launched ‘Project Gozo’ last December and there are also infrastructural projects – roadworks, etc – that the Gozo Ministry had planned and is implementing, and we also tackled the localities.

We requested feedback from the local councils so that they could tell us what roadworks they wanted to tackle, and we provided the funds for them to carry out this work. This resulted in work being carried out on 18 roads. We are also in the process of rolling out the next batch, in which we requested the local councils to identify their priority roads, and we are working on a programme.

The challenge we as a Ministry are facing, is that we have so many projects in the pipeline but we don’t have enough contractors. While we are issuing tenders one after another, we have a contractor problem with, for example, the same contractor bidding for more than one project, but these projects cannot be carried out simultaneously due to a lack of resources. So it’s a slow process.

 

You mentioned your work on the Gozo ferry and the future fast-ferry service, yet with the tunnel project, wouldn’t this affect the ferry service, because I would assume more people would use the tunnel?

But the permanent link will be in place in around seven to eight years’ time, so what do we do in the meantime?

Once the tunnel opens, will the ferry service remain?

They can survive together. Obviously, we would need to see the patronage but there is no doubt that nobody will lose their job. Rest assured, I will not allow that.

 

I’m hearing rumours about a Master Plan for Ramla il-Ħamra...

Yes. We began by working on the access road from Xagħra to Ramla il-Ħamra. This had been a cause for concern for years. The work is now completed. The beach is a blue flag beach and we want to address the accessibility issue and reorganise the way the operators work and where they are stationed. We have a design but there will be public consultations occur after we finalise the Marsalforn and Xlendi projects. There are plans to address the parking issues as well.

Would this include any further building development?

No. It deals with the organisation of what is already there. We do not envisage any new buildings – no.

 

You mentioned there not being enough contractors. Is there the possibility of Malta-based contractors taking up some of the work or are there too many logistical problems for them to become involved?

The Maltese contractors already have too much on their plate so they are not coming here. But we have recently noticed an interest from foreigners, especially from Italians. They are coming here to explore the possibilities and are setting up offices. In fact, we’ve had two bids on different projects.

 

What’s the plan for Xlendi?

Xlendi is complicated. We need to be cautious with the Valley. The Environmental Resources Authority is monitoring the project – which had to be split into phases. The tender for the first phase of the valley clean-up is out and is being adjudicated.

The master plan will be divided into various phases. The valley is phase one, and this phase will also include the upgrading of the boathouse area.

We are also working with Projects Malta to tackle the parking issue, which will be reorganised. We are not excavating, because the area is below sea level. The other phases will include the boatyard and fishermen facilities, and then the upgrading of the marine facilities, which had to be handled now – in good weather – even if there has been some public criticism.

 

But was there the need for a crane on the jetty in the summer?

The jetty was disintegrating and there was no other time in which the work could have been done. The currents there are not favourable so it had to be carried out between late July and August and it is now in its final stages.

The last phase of the Master Plan concerns tables and chairs. We are leaving this for last as the Marsalforn plan was delayed because we couldn’t reach agreement on that.

With regard to the car park, are you considering building higher?

No, there will be no digging and no building up. It’s just a reorganisation of the existing car park.

 

Is there still a brain drain in Gozo or has it levelled out?

The ageing population is there, but I have begun tackling this through the creation of jobs by building homes and setting up services in my previous role. People working in that sector in Malta began coming back and there is a slight reversal trend, although not as much as we would like. We don’t need to tackle the creation of jobs here, as unemployment is close to zero, but we do need to ensure career paths. I’m talking about investment in high-quality jobs.

For this reason we’re looking at two major projects: the Research and Innovation Hub, planned for completion by the first or second quarter next year, and the SME hub. The first project is a Malta Enterprise, Malta Industrial Park project on which we are working together. The SME Park is a Ministry for Gozo project.

The first questions potential investors ask us when considering Gozo is from where they can operate, so there is a need for a business centre. We hope to start creating this environment through these two projects.

We have the first draft of the Gozo Regional Development Strategy in hand, and one of the key findings was the need for office space: a shared facility in a sizeable building, ideally centrally located, with common facilities and services including a reception desk, legal services, accounting services, etc; somewhere they can just come and plug in and start working straightaway. Foreign businesses are not asking us for money but for the infrastructure.

 

One of the main concerns surrounding the tunnel is that Gozo will lose its charm and become more like Malta in terms of development. Do you share these concerns and do you have any plans to mitigate development so that we will not end up with areas similar to Sliema and St Julian’s?

No, no, it’s no go that Gozo becomes a Malta two. I’ve declared this more than once. That is why, apart from job creation, etc., the Regional Development Strategy is focusing on the greenness and rural nature of Gozo. These are Gozo’s strengths and we want to continue being able to capitalise on them.

Our natural beauty is particular and unique, and if we don’t take care of it we will lose rather than gain. This is one of our priorities. We also recommend that the local plans are updated in order to preserve the lungs of Gozo and to avoid villages colliding with each other, as has happened in Malta. We want to preserve the boundaries.

Are you considering a master plan for the island as well?

One of the strategy’s recommendations is that there is a new local plan, with representatives from the Regional Development Authority on board. One of the Authority’s strengths will be its regional impact assessments. Whatever policy, legislation or initiative is carried out at national level, it will have to go through the Authority’s processes to assess its impact on Gozo.

 

Another main concern with regard to the Gozo tunnel would be the need to construct further infrastructure due to traffic issues. For example, the road from Mġarr to Victoria has only one lane in each direction.

There are two proposals – including the alternative route from Mġarr which is being studied. Geological studies are currently being carried out, but the issue here is clay. Fort Chambray was affected by it. It is easy to talk about an alternative route but since one has never been done, it is clear that there is an issue and we are assessing the possibilities. 

There were more options but because of environmental concerns we are focussing on just two of them and this option will depend on the survey result examinations.

The second proposal is a ring road from the Mġarr road going around Victoria. This is also being assessed but preliminary studies have indicated that this project would run into hundreds of millions of euros due to expropriation issues. All the studies on these possibilities are preliminary initial studies.

Where do you stand on the possible Hondoq ir-Rummien Hotel and marina idea?

It’s a private investment so there is no ministerial involvement whatsoever. It is up to the authorities and regulators to assess the application per se. Obviously, one cannot ignore the public sentiment about this project.

 

Does the Ministry have a position?

No. It is not our role to have a position with regard to private investment, because whatever position we might have could be interpreted as undue influence or interference.

There have been issues with the service being provided by the Gozo General Hospital. How do you think it is being managed?

Considering that, until a few years ago, we were being serviced by a hospital of a third world country it is indeed an improvement. With the building of the new hospital we will get the care we deserve. At the moment, it is work-in-progress. There was the transition between government, Vitals Global Healthcare and Stewards Healthcare that might have created delays and some hiccups, but work is in underway and that is positive.

The hospital was under the Gozo Ministry’s remit pre-2013 and now that I run this Ministry, I cannot understand how it could ever have been upgraded when there are no resources or expertise here. That is why it was in such a poor state in the past.

I remember a time when there used to be huge holes in the corridors, and whenever there was a storm, there would be flooding. When I was pregnant, there was no portable ultrasound machine. There was a very old piece of equipment in the Outpatients Department and the wife of the gynaecologist was an artist and she sold her paintings so that he could buy a portable ultrasound machine. The employees performed miracles back then.

Steward Healthcare has experience in healthcare, while VGH did not. Do you think it was a mistake signing a contract with VGH first instead of waiting?

These discussions were handled by the Health Ministry so I will not be presumptuous and pass judgement. But I am positive all the decisions taken were taken in the best interests of the Gozo General Hospital. During VGH’s time we had already noticed changes.

The Gozo Diocese recently set up two hostels in Malta for Gozitan students. Should the government follow their example and do something similar?

We’ve been discussing this for a while now and as such I would not define it as ‘following suit’. Government procedures are not like the church or the private sector. There are procurement exercises that have to go through the Finance Ministry, etc. This does not mean that if we do not yet have a project, we are not working on it. We are working on three fronts. Firstly, we have a massive project – and we are not speaking about 30 beds but about 100s. We identified a piece of land in Msida, thanks to Education Minister Evarist Bartolo.

We carried out a cost-benefit analysis regarding how this project should be handled: by the government alone or PPP, and the options we can choose are now there. The second project is the University residence project, and we have begun discussions with the private operator. The third project is a small one for emergency cases, where we have identified a property and are negotiating the price. It is intended for emergency cases and the relatives of hospital patients.

The Government does not have the leeway to just go and negotiate, because there are rules and procedures, but that does not mean that we are not working on it. The three initiatives are not finalised – they are works in progress and we began working on them back in October.

The arguments over the years are that hunting enforcement in Malta, while not great, is nowhere near as bad as it is in Gozo and that this is due to Gozitans not reporting each other and defending each other...

Not really, no. It’s not that Gozitans don’t report each other. As is the case in Malta, in Gozo we also have BirdLife and CABS and they do the same work here as they do in Malta. When I was a practicing lawyer, there used to be whole Court sittings related to hunting irregularities and I can assure you that the judgements and penalties given were not light.

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