Planning Emergency

67 horse stables have sprouted in Gozo’s countryside in the past 8 years

An additional 21 applications are currently being processed by the Planning Authority

It does not take much to get a permit to build horse stables in Gozo’s countryside: you just have to register yourself with the Veterinary Regulation Directorate and own some horses. The rest is a formality. For as long as the site is not within a protected area, and it is situated at least 100 metres from the edge of the development zone, you will most likely get a permit, all thanks to permissive rural development policies formulated in 2014.

Figures given in parliament last week by planning minister Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi, in response to a question of Gozitan MP Chris Said, show that 67 horse stables have been approved by the Planning Authority between 2013 and 2022. It is understood that virtually all those permits have been granted in the eight years since the publication of the rural development policy – prior to the formulation of the rural policy in 2014, it had been very hard to get a permit for horse stables outside the development zone.  

Stables under construction in countryside in Gozo (Copyright: Victor Paul Borg)

The figures given in parliament also show that there are currently 21 development applications for stables being processed by the Planning Authority.

The rural policy – full name: Rural Policy and Design Guidance – made it easier to get approval for horse stables in Gozo than in Malta. That is because in the case of Malta, the policy specifies that stables for “racehorses are probably best located close to Marsa” – near the racecourse – adding that “provision has been made in the Grand Harbour Local Plan for areas around Marsa where new stables may be constructed.”

There is no such provision for Gozo even though the Ministry for Gozo built dozens of stables at  Gozo’s racehorse. Those stables are only used sometimes during horse-races.  

Stables at the racecourse in Gozo were built by the Ministry of Gozo

The policy states that “all applications for stables and horse-riding establishments are subject to prior consultation with ERA [Environment and Resources Authority] and the AAC [Agriculture Advisory Committee].”

Yet ERA’s objections are regularly ignored, even in sensitive habitats. In one such location, the Planning Authority last week granted permit to horse stables situated 250 metres from the cliff’s edge near Ta Cenc. The site lies just outside an EU-level Natura 2000 as well as a Special Area of Conservation.

The protected area is intended to protect nesting the largest colony of scopoli’s shearwaters in Malta, which are seabirds that nest in crevices in the cliff.

Scopoli's shearwater in the nest at Ta Cenc (Copyright: Victor Paul Borg)

ERA objected to the proposal, stating that the proposal “is of concern from an environmental point of view, especially when noting the site context, directly adjacent to a protected area.” (In a way the objection was weak because ERA did not raise the threat to the shearwaters from rats, which prey on their eggs and nestlings, considering that stables are likely to increase the population of rats – a major study has identified increases in rat populations as one of the primary threats to shearwaters, whose numbers have been steadily declining.)

The Planning Authority ignored ERA and last week delivered permit. The site falls in-between a strip of land belonging to Excel Investments Limited, which is owned by the property developer Joseph Portelli and his associates. The approved stables are situated 100 metres from a sprawling block of flats being developed by Excel. According to documents submitted to the Planning Authority, Excel sold the plot where the stables are located to the applicant.

Stables at the racecourse have wooden signs

ERA was also ignored in another separate application situated 60 metres away. In that case, the applicant committed to planting around 70 indigenous trees, and the Planning Commission compelled him to modify the dirt road so that access would be the shortest distance possible from an existing dirt road. Yet more than 3 years after the permit was granted, it appears that few of the trees have been planted and the access dirt road has not been modified.

Featured Image: Generic picture of a stable in the countryside in Gozo, not any of the stables mentioned in the article (Copyright: Victor Paul Borg)

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