Former prime minister Lawrence Gonzi has defended the process through which large stretches of land were earmarked for development on his watch, but he complained on Sunday about how the country has become too dependent on construction.
In a six-hour-long podcast with Jon Mallia about his political life and his nine-years as prime minister, Gonzi defended the 2006 local plans, arguing that the exercise was necessary to regularise development, which up until the 1980s was at the discretion of ministers.
He said ministers would issue development permits as they saw fit, and after a long-needed process, the 2006 rationalisation exercise established boundaries for development and outside development zones.
The 2006 plans have been a bone of contention ever since, with critics saying they gave developers the key to ruin traditional towns and villages. The present government has frequently blamed the overdevelopment on the Nationalist government.
But Gonzi said the Labour government has stretched the rules too much, allowing far more development than originally envisaged, and making the country dangerously dependent on construction.
'90% of proposed land remained ODZ'
Gonzi insisted his government was very conservative when it came to ruling on the areas for development. Only 10% of all the proposed areas were ultimately included, he said.
“In nine out of 10 cases we ruled that the land must remain an outside development zone,” he told Mallia.
“That means that in nine out of 10 cases, we had the courage to tell people that their land would not be worth anywhere near what they hoped it would.”
He said that if there really was anything wrong with the plans, the Labour government had had enough time to change them.
“But it’s not that easy to go back from those plans now, is it?” Mallia told him. “It’s a little too late to tell people that their land will not hold the same value anymore.”
But Gonzi continued to insist that the point was that a PN government had the courage to refuse 90 per cent of requests for land to be included within a development zone.
Moreover, he said, it was a Labour government that, in 2015, changed the standard height of buildings, allowing developers to build more apartments in each block.
“Is it healthy for our economy to have become so dependent on construction? If that switch is flipped, thousands of builders, carpenters, plasterers and so many more professions will suffer greatly,” he said.
“It’s time both parties realise how crucial it is to reduce our dependence on construction.”
‘An area of land as large as Siġġiewi’
It was pointed out to Gonzi that Prime Minister Robert Abela and several Labour MPs frequently describe the combined area of the sites included for development in the 2006 local plans as “an area as large as Siġġiewi”.
Gonzi did not deny the claim but said it was misleading because that calculation included small towns like Mtarfa and Ħal Farruġ that were already built during the British era but were still legally considered as outside development zones.
He said that the 2006 exercise naturally included those areas within the development zone because they were already built up and it didn’t make sense for people living there to be considered as having a property built on ODZ.
During the podcast, Gonzi spoke about his early life, his tenure as Speaker of the House, Malta’s accession to the EU and key moments of his time as prime minister, including Malta’s adoption of the Euro, the Libya crisis, his relationship with John Dalli and the pay of ministers and MPs.
Ruling himself out of the presidency
Asked about the prospects of him being nominated for president, Gonzi brushed off the idea, saying the question itself was futile. The moment he nominated George Abela for president he automatically ruled himself out of ever becoming one, he said, because having Robert Abela nominate him would be understood as returning a favour.
The podcast is available in three parts for subscribed followers on patreon.com/jonmallia. Two parts of it will be released to the public and the rest will remain exclusively on Patreon.