Today Gozo is still a more rural, quiet and green place than its sister island Malta. This gives the smaller island a distinctive character and culture which is appreciated and loved by the Gozitans as well as by Maltese and many other visitors. But will it remain that way and what does the future hold?

The signs indicate that, as in Malta, massive new construction is also likely to take place in Gozo over the next decade or so. Two indicators of this looming threat are being driven by the Gozitans themselves.

The first is the Malta-Gozo permanent link which is in the pipeline, in the shape of a road tunnel. According to former PL parliamentary secretary Franco Mercieca, who now heads the tunnel project’s steering committee, the discussion is over about whether or not a tunnel will be built. He cannot understand why people are still debating the idea, as the decision has been taken and the tunnel is now already in the implementation phase. Studies are in hand, the conceptual designs and plans for the approach roads will soon be published, and the tender is being rolled out. The tunnel is to be built and run by the private sector. The ferries will be replaced by smaller ones focusing on passengers, not vehicles.

It is as though people did not believe what they were hearing about a permanent link in the last years, as he explained on Times Talk, and now they are panicking as they realise that the tunnel project is actually under way. They assumed that it would never happen, but now they can see that it is reality.

For Mercieca, a permanent link and improved connectivity with Malta will help to ensure that Gozitans are provided with a level playing field and with the same opportunities as the Maltese. As the saying goes, however, be careful what you wish for. Malta also has problems, such as burgeoning and destructive levels of traffic and construction, which Gozo has so far been spared.

It is currently estimated that the tunnel will be completed by around 2024, in five years’ time. The option of an immersed tube tunnel has been discarded, as this would do extensive damage to the seabed. The final proposals are for the boring of an underground tunnel below the seabed, with one traffic lane heading in either direction. The two entrances to the tunnel are likely to be proposed on the ridge below Kenuna Tower in Nadur on the Gozo side, and at l-Imbordin between Manikata and Pwales valley on the Malta side. This means a tunnel around 13 kilometres long, used by thousands of cars daily.

A tunnel will decrease travel time between the two islands, enabling people to reside in Gozo and to commute to Malta each day. The idea is that Gozitans will no longer depend upon having a residence in Malta in order to maintain a job there, or to follow a course at University. Likewise, many Maltese might be encouraged to move to Gozo and commute to work. In the current property market, and with constant demolition and construction works all over Malta, moving to Gozo could turn out to be an attractive option for many.

In the long term, this will undoubtedly change the face of Gozo, as well as boost the property market and generate more construction there too. Gozo will inevitably become more urbanised. Higher levels of commuting will also increase traffic on the roads of both islands. Unless the government plans to come up with a new and imaginative solution for public transport, this will lead to even greater dependence on personal vehicles than is already the case.

The second indicator suggesting that a threat of excessive construction looms over Gozo is the pressure on the government for the extension of the building zones on that island. According to published information, a large number of submissions to extend the boundaries of permissible development in Gozo were already made in 2013 when the new PL government had pushed forward the revision of the local plans.

The ‘eco-Gozo’ vision is fading. So far the promised new local plan for Gozo has not yet materialised, and no master plan has been presented either. Judging by the submissions received in the local plan consultation, significant pressure for new development in Gozo already exists and is only likely to increase.

Before finally embarking on this major tunnel project, which will certainly have extensive economic as well as environmental impacts on Gozo, the government should clearly set out its vision for the future of Gozo’s urban and natural landscape, as well as its skyline, without delay.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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