The Gozo Regional Development Strategy document, published for public consultation last week, is different from the crap which is usually fed into the consultation process.

It makes sense to speak of Gozo as an island of villages, reminiscent of German-born British economist E.F. Schumacher’s opus Small is Beautiful. This is precisely the reason why Greens in Malta have continuously opposed the monstrous underwater tunnel between Malta and Gozo.

The tunnel would, among other things, discard Gozo’s unique characteristics. As a result of the projected tunnel, Gozo would no longer be an island of villages: it would be transformed into one village, one of many in the Maltese archipelago.

It is heartening, after so many years, for Labour in government to realise this basic fact and start speaking some sense on regional planning and development.  It is definitely never too late to learn from past mistakes.

This is, however, just the beginning. Only time will tell whether this is just another exercise in greenwashing.

Many years ago, the Greens in Malta had proposed a specific target for Gozo’s Regional Development Strategy: Gozo as an eco-island. Government’s proposals are possibly slowly inching in that direction. It could do much better if it specifies this objective clearly and in more detail, instead of going round in circles. This would necessarily mean having long-term behavioural change as a strategic objective, embedded in the Gozo document.

The proposed strategy speaks on the objective of a sustainable urban environment. Yet, the 2021 census report on residential property, just published, indicates that Gozo is the region with the highest proportion of vacant/under-used residential property in the Maltese islands. It is currently quantified at 45 per cent of the Gozitan housing stock. By no stretch of the imagination can this be classified as “sustainable”. 

It is a tough nut to crack overdevelopment, which has been left to its own jungle rules for so long. A moratorium on large-scale development is an essential prerequisite as a first step to bring our house in order. This is an objective which I have been speaking on for ages. Its applicability should not be restricted to the Gozitan mainland.

The strategy rightly speaks on carbon neutrality and suggests that this could be achieved in Gozo much earlier than its attainment on the Maltese mainland. The generation of more renewable energy is one of the contributing elements to achieving this goal.

Another important measure is that of addressing the use of private cars. Applying a sustainable transport policy is crucial in this respect.

A moratorium on large-scale development is an essential prerequisite as a first step to bring our house in order- Carmel Cacopardo

The strategy indicates that second thoughts on the undersea tunnel are possibly in the pipeline. This would potentially reduce a substantial number of cars from Gozitan roads.

It is pertinent to remember that the Gordon Cordina’s “feasibility study” on the Gozo tunnel had opined that car movements between the islands had to treble from 3,000 to 9,000 daily in order to ensure economic feasibility of the projected tunnel. 

If this issue is settled by shelving the tunnel project, the number of cars on the road would still need to be addressed forcefully to inch our way towards carbon neutrality.

Small distances between localities in Gozo would be an encouragement to use public transport if this were more efficient: both punctual and frequent. The benefits resulting through such a transport modal shift would be substantial.

Transport electrification will not do much to achieve carbon neutrality. While contributing to a better air quality in our streets it would, however, add substantially to the daily consumption of electricity and make it much more difficult to achieve carbon neutrality. Hence, the need for a modal shift.

There is also the issue of restricting car movements between the islands which the strategy ignores. Applying the polluter pays principle, an integral part of Maltese environmental law, one could consider the introduction of a congestion charge for private cars crossing over from Malta to Gozo.

This could work wonders to achieving a better air quality. It would also free Gozitan streets from a continuous vehicular invasion.

Small is really beautiful. Let us translate this reality into a better quality of life for all. The draft Gozo Regional Development strategy document is an opportunity which, if properly managed, can lead in this direction. 

Carmel Cacopardo is an architect and civil engineer and a former chairperson of ADPD-The Green Party in Malta.

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