Nobody can blame Qala mayor Paul Buttigieg had he, for a brief moment of peace after 20 long years, allowed himself a tear of satisfaction at the outcome of the Ħondoq ir-Rummien saga.
The PL mayor has faced his fair share of troubles for his efforts to fight off the monstrous development proposed for the bay, a cross he carried up until the final verdict. Yet, even after being assaulted by an employee of “a well-known Gozitan developer” for his role in resisting development in Qala, Buttigieg can walk off with his head held high; way higher than that of his party, which chose to applaud the tribunal’s decision and congratulate the project’s opponents without crediting the mayor by name.
It is also a victory for civil society, represented yet again by lawyer Claire Bonello, surely the most active – and determined – of a handful of lawyers who choose to be on the side of residents and activists fighting monstrosities such as Ħondoq, and worse.
The government, as well as the opposition, need to take stock of the initiative, or lack thereof, in combating speculation and the threats associated with it. The foundations for the Ħondoq saga were laid by the Nationalist administration which had designated the bay as a “destination port”, thus allowing the application for a yacht marina and what amounts to a new town taking up 103,000 square metres.
The developer had bought the property for a paltry €23,000 from the Dominican Order, which would have received €1.5 million had the permit been awarded. The inclusion of the Ħondoq as a “destination port” in the local plan for Gozo – issued in 2002 – paved the way for the approval of the project.
The marina was only stopped thanks to the intervention of the Qala local council and civil society. Throughout the protracted 20-year battle, Buttigieg would find no support from his own party, elements of which worked hard to discredit the mayor. It is no surprise, therefore, that none of the standing members of cabinet moved as much as half a finger to protect Ħondoq, despite Labour’s pledge in the electoral manifesto to oppose its development.
The foundations for the Ħondoq saga were laid by the Nationalist administration which had designated the bay as a 'destination port'
At this rate, citizens will be more than justified in shifting their loyalties from politics to activism, seeing that our political leaders are busier at navel-gazing in between the introduction of watered-down reforms, none of which attempt to address the planning and environmental scenarios.
They are now left with a simple tap-in to goal: it’s easy work now for any cabinet minister, say, the minister for the environment, or the one for planning, to turn Ħondoq ir-Rummien into an ODZ area and a public domain.
Alas, the planning minister has kicked the can down the country lane: the decision must await the review of the Strategic Plan for Environment and Development, he said. Must it really?
Considering the swathes of agricultural land gobbled up by road building and development without a cent being paid, and now that the permit has been definitely refused, there is no reason why Gozo Prestige should expect to receive the hefty €17 million payment with which they declared their “openness” to sell the land to the state.
Here too, the government should be decisive in denying speculators the right to hold open spaces hostage, against a ransom to be fronted by the taxpayer. Otherwise, it will be making itself an accomplice to maliciously long speculative expeditions, with additional costs to be borne by residents and activists fighting to preserve what’s left of open spaces.
The biggest lesson comes from Buttigieg and Bonello: a major battle won after 20 years. The reaction of the public – as with Comino and Marsascala – is a clear sign that persevering with the attack on open spaces costs credibility, and will spark more popular anger.