On Monday 30th November, the Environment and Development Planning Parliamentary Committee approved the proposal by the Planning Authority to make a partial change to the 2006 North West Local Plan, and to the 2008 Hal Ferħ Development Brief, to allow permanent residences within the Hal Ferħ complex.

A number of NGOs had highlighted the incongruity of the Planning Authority proposing to fundamentally change the parameters under which both the 2009 emphyteutic grant, and the 2014 development permit PA/04906/10 were approved. In fact, the  emphyteutic grant specifically excluded permanent residential use; the grant does contain the standard provision that changes to the deed may be agreed between the parties, however the big question remains why would such a fundamental change to the destination of this site be promoted by Government, on behalf of the real landlords, who are the citizens of Malta and Gozo.

In addition, the original permit conditions demanded that the approved development would be strictly used for tourist accommodation and for no other use, and further insisted that the proposed development “shall be used for tourist accommodation and shall not be used for permanent residential occupation”. This was the opinion of the Authority in 2013, which opinion was reiterated when the application to extend the validity of the permit was approved in 2019 with the same conditions.

The proposed amended Development Brief is prefaced by the observation that the changes to the original brief were the result of instructions from Government – which Government now has a majority in the committee reviewing the same proposal which government initiated. Hence it was a case of Government accepting a Government proposal; how cosy! It is becoming completely unacceptable to observe how the “autonomous” Planning Authority simply accepts instructions from Government, without so much as a whimper of protest about, if nothing else, inconsistency and arbitrariness, and without asking for a reason for such a strategic and profound change in the Development Brief.

Everybody knows that the site is surrounded by pristine agricultural land; sacrificing  part of it in the interest of the tourism industry was a bitter pill that had to be swallowed in the economic interest of the country. There is no reason why we should accept that permanent residency should encroach on this site. We should all decry this proposal of the PA as the thin end of a wedge which will gradually see the whole site developed into a permanent residential settlement, with all the infrastructural impacts that a permanent residential community generates.

We are being asked to believe a promise that there will only be 25 villas, on only 9000 sq.m of land, when a promise that there would not be any permanent residences, made barely six years ago, is to be broken. The promise of a top quality tourism development, with a projected 80 million euro investment, with 200 luxury hotel suites, etc. etc., has also been broken, after it served its purpose to get the emphyteutic grant in the first place. This much touted tourism project is developing, yet again, into a subtle salami-slicing game, intended to lull the general public into gradually accepting real estate manoeuvres that, in 2014, would have been rejected out of hand.

It is necessary to call out these tactics, tactics that have been used elsewhere. Government should stop calling the shots in the Planning Authority, on behalf of a specific lobby interest, rather than in the interest of the overall economic well-being of the country – which includes restraining development in rural areas. Moreover, in spite of calls on the representatives of the people of Malta and Gozo, meeting on this Committee, to represent the interests of the community as a whole, and not be blinkered by sectorial interests, Government pushed through, as it had decided to do even before the Parlimentary Committee meeting.

Professor Alex Torpiano

Executive President, Din l-Art Ħelwa

1 December 2020