Regional development policy seeks to improve the well-being of regions. Within the European Union it is commonly referred to as the cohesion policy. Through regional policy one seeks to eliminate disparities between regions: it encourages, assists, and finances initiatives to bring this about.
A draft Gozo Regional Development Strategy was published for public consultation very recently. It identifies the basic characteristics of Gozo and seeks to present a blueprint for the future of the island.
The draft strategy makes interesting reading. It contrasts with, and, at times, it is even in conflict with current policy and practice. There is nothing wrong with this, as it denotes a willingness for change from within. Whether this will eventually translate into concrete action is still to be seen. It is however a positive first step and must be recognised as such.
The basic philosophy of the strategy is encapsulated in the term “an island of villages”, used to describe Gozo. The smallness of the village is used in contrast to the relatively larger urban areas. The term conveys a sense of calmness resulting from being one with nature, which is easily accessible in the village. Fields surrounding the villages link them directly to nature, radiating vitality. Most importantly, nature is respected in the village. It provides us with food and basic ecological services. It is our constant partner which, if we handle with care, will never let us down.
The smallness of the village is beautiful, economist Ernst Schumacher would have emphasised. Schumacher’s work grew out of his study of village-based economics. The full title of his work is: “Small is beautiful. A study of economics as if people mattered.” Economics is not just about numbers and so-called growth. At the end of the day, it is about people. Unfortunately, people are not always taken into consideration when policies are formulated.
The “island of villages” has been under siege for quite some time. It is a victim of overdevelopment. The 2021 Census report on residential property, just published, quantifies the extent of the problem: 45 per cent of residential property in Gozo is either vacant or under-used, in view of its use for seasonal or secondary accommodation. This statistic for the Gozo Region stands out in contrast to that for other regions. At a national level 27.5 per cent of residential property is vacant or under-utilised. The numbers for the Western region, at 22.1 per cent, are practically half the Gozo statistic.
This identifies a major threat to the “island of villages”. Why build so much if the resulting development remains vacant or else is hardly used. Can we, as a country, afford to keep churning out flats which remain vacant or unutilised for a long time and destroy our agricultural land in the process? This does not contribute to a positive quality of life. The island of villages is slowly being transformed into a ghost island.
The draft strategy apparently wants to end all this and dwells at length on the need to nurture a sustainable urban environment. Speaking on a point of principle, the authors of the strategy are right. It is however essential that they move on from words to concrete targets and action.
The point of departure for this strategy of “the island of villages” is that 45 per cent of its built-up area is vacant. At Marsalforn the relative percentage is even higher: a staggering 66.8 per cent of residential units were vacant on Census Day! This is not justifiable, not even on the grounds that Marsalforn is a seaside resort.
This has not happened overnight. It has developed one block at a time. It has accelerated with the decisions taken to extend the development zone in 2006 through the rationalisation exercise. Then, as a result, one million square metres of ODZ land became suitable for development. The practical results are here for all to see. It keeps getting worse by the minute.
The “island of villages”, as a result, is developing into a ghost island. Practically half of its residential property is vacant.
The Gozo Regional Development Authority is right to emphasise all this. However, I have to point out that it has no authority to take action to remedy the situation. That rests with the “Planning Authority” which has meticulously planned and implemented this whole mess.
Where do we go from here?
As a minimum we need a moratorium on large scale development, not just in the “island of villages”, but all over the Maltese islands. The rationalisation exercise must be scrapped the soonest. It must necessarily follow that the building construction industry must be cut down to size. It has caused too much damage to the country. The threat to the island of villages must be forcefully addressed.
ADPD Deputy Chairperson
Published in The Malta Independent – Sunday 24 September 2024