The Malta Independent 5 August 2021, Thursday

Politicians not doing enough to protect Gozo - founding member of DLĦ Għawdex

Kevin Schembri Orland Sunday, 13 June 2021, 08:00 Last update: about 3 months ago

Politicians are not doing enough to protect Gozo from overdevelopment that would lead to the uglification of the island, Daniel Cilia, one of the founding members of Din l-Art Ħelwa Għawdex (DLĦGħ), told The Malta Independent on Sunday.

Concerns about the future of Gozo from a planning perspective have become more prevalent in recent years, as more and more controversial applications make headlines.


Recently, Din L-Art Ħelwa launched a sub-committee for Gozo. Its mission is to safeguard the island’s unique cultural and architectural heritage as well as its natural environment for future generations.

In an interview with The Malta Independent on Sunday, Cilia was asked whether he believes politicians are doing enough to protect the island, to which he said no.

“We have six MPs and an MEP from Gozo,” he said. “I know all of the MPs personally and they all love Gozo, but it seems that when it comes to certain developers, both parties are scared to talk. It seems that developers have a control over both parties.”

While he praised local councils for standing up to be counted, after Gozitan Mayors from both political parties spoke out about the type of development taking place ruining the aesthetic of the historic centres, leading to the environmental and urban degradation of the village characteristics, he said he has not really seen the MPs doing enough.

He criticised the PN for not speaking out against specific projects, such as the proposed apartment block near the Ġgantija temples. He also said that he would like to see MEP Josianne Cutajar, who hails from Gozo, participate in the debate about overdevelopment on the island and do something about it.

“Individually, some MPs did speak in Parliament, like MP Joseph Ellis who made some strong statements about development in Gozo, as well as MPs Chris Said and Kevin Cutajar. Unfortunately, MPs from the government’s side have been relatively silent about it.”

“Leader of the Opposition Bernard Grech has been speaking about Gozo’s character and how it should be retained, but as the Opposition they should do more to oppose what is happening. Yes, what is happening on the island is partly due to mistakes made by previous PN administrations, but what occurred over the past seven years is also unheard of.”

Politicians need to do more and take action to safeguard Gozo and prevent the uglification of the island from the kind of development that is taking place, he said.


Safeguarding Gozo’s unique identity

Cilia explained that DLĦGħ aims to safeguard Gozo’s unique identity as an island. “We all know that Gozo is different from Malta. Education Minister Justyne Caruana once spoke a phrase which stuck with me, ‘we have to take care of Gozo to ensure it doesn’t become Malta two.’ I think it was a very valid point. We don’t want Gozo to become like Malta. It is part of Malta but has its own traditional identity, way of life, and we want to keep that for future generations.”

DLĦGħ will act as a watchdog, he said. “Unfortunately, NGOs in the country have to do the job that people are paid to do at the Planning Authority. There are people at the Authority who are paid specifically to take care of planning, yet they are not doing it.”

He was asked whether certain localities in Gozo have already lost their character due to heavy development over the years, with Marsalforn and Xlendi often being mentioned as examples of this.

“People say Xlendi and Marsalforn have been ruined. Yes, I remember both localities being very different when I was young. But, should we continue ruining them? That is the question I ask when people tell me not to bother about these two localities. We cannot keep on ruining them. Should we use the argument that they are already ruined to keep building apartments upon apartments as is happening now? I don’t believe so. We should try and stop it.”


Victoria’s outskirts ‘destroyed’

He said that, to a certain point, Victoria is also seeing quite a bit of negative change. “The outskirts of Victoria are already being destroyed. But even the core of Victoria is seeing issues. A house that has been converted into an Airbnb received permission to increase its height by a storey to be in line with the property next door. Of course, the PA cannot say no to that. But then, the same applicant applied for another storey... which was, for now, thankfully refused.”

Cilia said that rumours are spreading about two huge apartment blocks planned, one on the East side of Victoria and one on the West. “There are no applications yet, but we know they are planned since Gozo is small and information spreads quickly.”

He spoke of the need to find a balance, not to stop all development in Gozo, but to change the way in which things are being done nowadays. Cilia reiterated that the new committee is not anti-development, but stands for sustainable development and an economic vision that will create long-term employment and business opportunities.


‘Xagħra has been attacked’

Asked which quiet localities in Gozo are seeing a construction boom, he mentioned Xagħra. “It’s crazy. Just look at the number of cranes there. Xagħra has been attacked. There’s a big project planned in the Nazarene area with a hotel, which is going to completely change the characteristics of the area.” 

Going through Xagħra now, you can see huge blank white walls on the side of apartment blocks which are already ruining parts of the locality, he added.

The NGO’s increased presence on the island has resulted in it becoming a focal point for people to report any potential abuses and pass on information about planning applications and ongoing works. “We’ve been flooded with questions and information passed on by the public, and we’ve only been around for a week. We are receiving information about apartment blocks being planned in certain localities even before a planning application is filed. Gozo is a small island and so rumours travel quite fast. But when you start hearing the same rumour from multiple sources, then you realise that there could be something to it.” 


People scared to speak out

With Gozo being a small island where everyone knows each other, people might be scared to speak out, he said. “Instead, they can use us to voice their concerns by informing us about what is going on and we will look into it. Obviously not everything that comes in is completely factual, so we would need to check, but if we find that there is a problem or find something ugly planned, then we would share our concerns.” 
He said that there are developers in Gozo who care about the way they build. The Gozo business community is also worried about what is happening in Gozo, he said, stressing that entrepreneurs invested in Gozo, in its character.

“Some people would have invested in buildings which did not jar with the surroundings. Some apartment blocks were built with taste, not ruining the area around them. But over the past few years blocks and blocks of the famous chicken coops, as Archbishop Charles Scicluna had called them, have been constructed.”  

“We understand that Gozo needs to be developed. But it’s a question of how to build and the way we build.”  


Island could be ‘lost forever’

DLĦGħ believes that without immediate positive action, the island will be lost forever. “We are calling for a full review of present Planning guidelines in liaison with NGOs, local councils and the public,” Cilia said.

He also said that they have a number of core requests. Among other things, DLĦGħ is calling for a twelve-month moratorium on ODZ developments (with some exceptions for genuine agricultural use) and a twelve-month extension of current UCA boundaries by 250 metres. The moratorium could then be used to better assess the overall situation of ODZs on the island, he said, and take stock of the applications currently pending. 

Cilia explained that they want to implement changes to planning policies to better safeguard ODZs, and also want enforcement teams to be strengthened. He said that they want the authorities to investigate all cases of planning applications granted for genuine agricultural reasons on ODZ land, such as stores and water reservoirs, to ensure that they are being used for the original stated purpose and take proper action where deviations to the approved permits exist.


Multiple applications to hide true scale

The NGO will also work to protect scheduled properties and wants to see the standards of architectural design improved and the extension of UCA boundaries, he said. In addition, DLĦGħ also wants to introduce scheduling of viewpoints of historic and village skylines and impose requirement for photomontages for any development proposals impacting skylines, he said.

Cilia was asked about planning issues on the island. One example he gave was of some developers filing multiple separate applications for what is effectively one massive project in an attempt to hide its true scale. Another issue was about ODZ applications. “In July 2020, it was reported that since the 2017 election there were 666 applications outside the development zone in Gozo. Some of them could be sheds for farmers, others to fix a reservoir. But do we have so many farmers in Gozo requiring 666 applications outside the development zone? No. ODZ is ODZ.”  

Another issue he highlighted is that notices announcing PA works, meant to be stuck on the site, tend to go missing, thus meaning that people might not realise that a development is planned.

If the Planning Authority were to do its job well and look at planning holistically, rather than seeing each development on its own, “that would already be a great help for the built environment of both Malta and Gozo,” Cilia added.

“Sometimes it feels as though people’s objections are being ignored. It feels as though if whoever is building is strong enough, then they will do it.”  



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