The challenges facing the Gozitan economy hardly attracted any mention in the 2022 budget, much less solutions. Apart from an attempt to modernise the heliport facilities in Xewkija, some micro measures for first-time home buyers and the repair of rubble walls there were no new initiatives that would reflect some kind of strategic update for Gozo’s economy.
Last July, the Gozo Regional Development Authority published a strategic document called A Shared Vision for Gozo. It proposed a plethora of projects to strengthen the Gozitan economy and make the lives of people more liveable. The government does not seem to have given much importance to the recommendations of this high-level document, which primarily aimed at promoting a discussion on the future economic direction of the island.
The most discussed issue relating to investment in Gozo remains the building of a tunnel between the two islands. Some progress has been made in kick-starting the project, which seems to have the support of both main political parties. However, the financial feasibility of this massive undertaking remains obscure. So far, it appears that the public will not be asked to decide whether they believe that the government should go ahead with it.
Environmental concerns, including how to deal with the material extracted from the excavation, have still not been addressed.
But, perhaps, the more urgent threat to Gozo’s future as an island distinctly different from Malta is the continuous pressure to build more apartments, including in the town and village cores. If Gozo clones the property development strategy of Malta, it will lose the unique characteristics that could be exploited in adopting a better model for tourism. Unfortunately, there was little indication in the budget that the government may be prepared to act to curb the excessive property development taking place in Gozo and Malta.
Another area that deserved more focus in the budget is the plight of farmers. Many farmers in Gozo, as well as in Malta, face existential risks as owners of agricultural land are threatening their tenancy rights. Despite the minimal impact of farming in the two islands’ economies, there is a strong case for ensuring that farmers continue to till the land that some speculators would like to see covered with even more apartments.
Gozitan students have some justifiable gripes about the curtailment of transport facilities to and from the university when they arrive in Malta. These administrative issues can be quickly resolved and do not need to be discussed in a budget forum.
The Opposition spokesperson for Gozo, Chris Said, argued that “Gozo has been allocated only 2.8 per cent of the country’s capital expenditure, despite having a footprint equivalent to a third of Malta’s size”. While more expenditure could mean better facilities, building more roads and schools might not make the future for Gozo any better. Indeed, it would be counterproductive if more capital expenditure made Gozo look more like Malta, where rural and urban environments have both been heavily impacted and where the second is increasingly encroaching on the first.
As the strategic document of the Gozo Regional Development Authority acknowledged, improving facilities for people who live in Gozo and, at the same time ensuring that Gozo retains its characteristics of natural beauty is a tricky balancing act. Tough choices need to be made.
The 2022 budget did not even attempt to make a Solomonic decision to reconcile the tensions created by the desire to better people’s lives while preserving the natural environment.
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