An event in which leading Gozitan developers met Prime Minister Robert Abela more than two weeks ago has led to moves by a smaller group of those present, mostly developers, to hold exploratory discussions aimed at setting up a pressure group. The idea emerged during the event attended by Abela and around 15 Gozitan businesspeople, mostly developers.
Ten of those present then met again a week later at the same venue – Ta Frenc Restaurant – to hold exploratory discussions on setting up a pressure group focusing on Gozo development issues. One idea that emerged was to set up a Gozo chapter, or section, of the Malta Developers Association.
This website talked to five sources about the two meetings, including two who attended the meeting involving the Prime Minister as well as someone who was working at the restaurant at the time. These three gave matching versions of what took place: that the first event was not a private dinner, as initially reported in The Shift and since widely repeated, but involved drinks and finger food at the bar or lounge area, which remained open to other diners who were at the restaurant. They also said that the Prime Minister stayed for around 45 minutes.
Both attendees played down the importance of any talk on who had organized the event and who paid. Both described it as a meet-the-Prime-Minister-and-have-your-say kind of event, which then led to the idea to meet again a week later to discuss setting up a pressure group of Gozitan developers.
The motivation to coalesce and speak with one voice is indicative of the pressure that developers are under in Gozo. There is widespread hostility to the kind of development that has become dominant in the past 5 years: blocks of multi-storey flats, which are bought by Malta residents, that are turning Gozo into a Bugibba of sorts.
There is also preoccupation that this economic model – flats for Malta residents on weekend retreats – is causing weekend problems such as congestion and contributing to shabbiness (rubbish put out on Sunday afternoons, dirtier public areas particularly beaches, and so on).
Gozitans by and large are not enamoured to this economic model that they blame for degrading Gozo’s characteristics and quality of life. It’s even generating resentment towards the weekenders as well as the leading developers.
The developers who met at Ta Frenc are aware of these sensibilities, and aware that the government is under pressure from public opinion to rein in the rampant development that has been unleashed by loosening of planning policies (that has led to a proliferation of buildings in the countryside) and increasing height limitations in 2015 across the board.
“It’s the change in height limitation that screwed everything,” one architect told this website, a sentiment that is shared by most architects and people.
Last year all of Gozo’s mayors called for suspension of the policy that redefined the height limitations, something that has allowed developers to fit five storeys, and in the process build denser, higher blocks of flats. But the government paid no heed to the mayors’ request.
At the time, the Planning Authority chairperson said that the authority would pay more attention to the design and aesthetics of buildings in Gozo. Yet many people do not consider something like the block of 73 flats of Joseph Portelli’s and partners’ approved by the Planning Authority two weeks ago to be the height of aesthetics, with its wide frontage and regimental, squarish façade.
One of the developers who was present said of attempts to set up a pressure group: “We are listening to public opinion.”
(The developer offered to speak on the record, but it would be odd to name one and not name others who wanted to remain anonymous, and it would not fit the analytical style of this article.)
All of those present have a stake in the construction industry, but not all want to build the same things and not all agree on what is good for Gozo.
It appears that some of the things that were raised, in the event in which the Prime Minister took part and the second meeting between the developers, did not discuss the more contentious elements: the height and density of blocks of flats, the swimming pools in Outside Development Zones, the prolific encroachments into Outside Development Zones.
Ideas that were raised included tax incentives for knocking down architecturally-bland buildings dating to 1970s and 1960s in Urban Conservation Areas and rebuilding something in traditional style, ideas aimed at mitigating the unsightliness of blank party walls, and ideas for designing blocks of flats in more traditional architecture.
It’s not clear where the majority of the developers stand on the big issue: loping off a floor or two from the current height-limitations, or at least smarter zoning.
Ask Gozitans what they think and the majority would say that towns in Gozo excluding Marsalforn and Xlendi and possibly Mgarr should not have more than 3 or 4 stories. This is reflected in the call by all mayors last year to reduce permissible heights in hinterland towns or villages to three storeys.
Yet the political parties have shirked away from even discussing this point out of fear of losing votes.
Ultimately it boils down to a vision thing. Neither of the large political parties have articulated a holistic vision that does not involve construction of flats in Gozo, although Labour seems to have been more wedded to the idea than the PN that construction is an indispensable economic motor.
So we might get tweakings to the planning policies here and there, this is what the political parties are offering. It would amount to a fudge, but things are so bad that a fudge would be a break-of-sorts from the current vice.