Ħondoq ir-Rummien remains one of Gozo’s most picturesque bays, with tourists, Maltese and Gozitans alike all flocking to the quiet beauty spot on the outskirts of the village of Qala throughout summer.
The bay, however, remains under the threat of Malta’s most current spectre: development.
Qala’s mayor Paul Buttigieg has fought tooth and nail against any proposed development at the bay for almost 20 years – a fight which at times has put him up against some of Malta’s biggest developers, and one which he is nonetheless winning. For now.
“Prime Ministers told me that I can put my mind at rest on Ħondoq, but I will only put my mind at rest when it is turned back into an Outside Development Zone,” Buttigieg tells The Malta Independent on Sunday in an interview.
Buttigieg’s fears are well-founded. Currently, the bay hosts an extremely limited number of buildings: a reverse osmosis plant is the most prominent, while a chapel heralds the way down to the bay. A single kiosk can also be found along the seafront, while some other small buildings are pockmarked along the way down.
However, the bay nonetheless remains under threat of development at any time.
Photos: Giuseppe Attard
The threat dates back to 2002, when the huge area was acquired from the government by Victor Bajada’s Gozo Prestige, with a planning application to turn the area into a port and yacht marina along with a 195 bedroom hotel and 300 apartments was filed.
“It will be bigger than Qala – there will be more people living there than in Qala – and that’s just based on the start of it,” Buttigieg laments.
It was in 2006 that, Buttigieg explains, the then-Nationalist Government had decided in Cabinet, and behind the backs of the village’s local council, to change the status of Ħondoq bay in the Gozo Local Plan from one where it was in ODZ as an afforestation, to one which would consider “tourism and marine-related development.”
Buttigieg, who was elected to be the village’s mayor on the Labour Party ticket, believes that this was done in order to facilitate the huge project, but that the area’s zoning is not something which differentiates the two major parties: the PN may have set it to a tourist zone, but the PL has had ample time to change it back to ODZ and it hasn’t done so yet, Buttigieg notes.
The Qala mayor has since fought against every proposed development in the area. For instance, Buttigieg recalls when an application for a souvenir shop down right by the bay was rejected.
“It was right on the bay; it may have seemed like a souvenir shop, but the scope was different. Can you be more absurd when in the hearing on the application their architect got up and asked the chairperson, ‘well what’s wrong with then selling a burger, ice-cream, and a drink?’ – I got up and started laughing, because their intention was clear.”
The proposed project in Hondoq.
“I turned to the chairperson and asked what we were doing there, and that it was clear that wasn’t an application for a souvenir shop, but for a restaurant. I remember telling the chairperson: ‘Had I told you that I had heard this, you wouldn’t have believed me – but you’ve now heard it for yourself,” he recalls.
The development – which was fronted by Ta’ Frenc Estates – was refused, and subsequently refused again on appeal.
The application for the marina, and what is effectively a whole new village along with it, was rejected by the Planning Authority, but an appeal filed in 2016 is still ongoing, with the most recent sitting last October being deferred for a site inspection.
Buttigieg says that he has met every Prime Minister about the case, including Robert Abela.
“I told him that I am going to campaign vociferously for Ħondoq to become ODZ again. Whoever I meet tells me not to worry and that I can put my mind at rest that nothing will happen to the area. I tell them no – I will only put my mind at rest when it becomes ODZ again. Until then, it’s not case closed.”
“Recently, we got some funds to plant some trees there. They [the developers who own the area] didn’t even let us plant some trees, let alone what they’ll do to us if they get a permit,” Buttigieg says.
A project of such massive scale and financial interest however will never be limited to the halls of the Planning Authority.
Buttigieg says that it is “certain” that everything is being done for him to be removed from his position.
“If I’m out of the way, they will get a free-ride to do what they want in Ħondoq. All they need is another mayor instead of me who will keep his mouth shut. If something happens to me, Ħondoq will be lost,” he says.
“We made enemies, yes, but only in those who want to cheat to make a quick buck,” he adds.
Buttigieg gives a narrative of how different attempts to discredit him have been made: “When we first started speaking out against this project in 2002, there wasn’t much work to be had in Gozo, so they used to tell people ‘go to Pawlu tal-Qala – it’s his fault that you don’t have a job; we’d have given you a job down there [at Ħondoq].”
Now, Buttigieg says that he knows that there are “whispering campaigners” doing all they can to spread false rumours with people in high places and discredit everything he’s doing: “They’re sending these emails to friends in high places, and even to people around Qala – lies are being spread around with the intention of discrediting me.”
The most recent rumour is that he had been given two flats by well-known developer Joseph Portelli to keep quiet about one of his developments: an absurd suggestion, considering that Buttigieg was the person who, with the help of people like lawyer Claire Bonello – who he described as invaluable – fronted the protests against Portelli’s application to turn what was effectively a pile of rubble into a villa, and against a huge application for 160 apartments in the village. This application is currently facing appeal proceedings in court, again with Bonello’s help, because it was split into four separate applications to avoid added scrutiny and procedures.
“Yes right – Joseph Portelli is going to give me two flats!”, Buttigieg exclaims sarcastically.
Asked whether a story which appeared in the Times of Malta last year – alleging that Buttigieg had circumvented local council rules by allowing the council to award some €4,000 in direct orders over four years to a member of his family – was part of the campaign against him, Buttigieg said that he had been told by his lawyers not to comment on that case for now while proceedings are ongoing.
It is a case however which, if he is found guilty, would see him removed from the council and barred from contesting elections for another five years.
Only last Friday – two days after this interview took place – the Qala local council issued a statement condemning and deploring two reports made to the council’s clerk which threatened to have Buttigieg removed from his post as Mayor.
Buttigieg also speaks of how people who do support his cause have messaged him privately, saying that they are feeling “threatened” for simply publicly supporting him on social media.
Asked whether he believes he still does have support from the people despite all this – Buttigieg replies that he has “total support” – pointing at his re-election as locality mayor in 2019, despite the behind the scenes attempts to see that he wasn’t, as evidence of that.
Such attempts can come from all quarters and in different means. “I am not finding cooperation from my colleagues in the Labour Party,” he states defiantly.
“Yes I am with the Labour Party – but when I was accepted into the party, nobody told me to keep my mouth shut. But, there are people who frown upon me,” he adds.
One such point Buttigieg mentions is cleanliness in Qala: he says that the three workers responsible for the area where taken from the council by the Gozo Ministry a mere week before the village’s feast so that he has nobody to work with.
“Now they are assigned to the ‘Qala area’ and we never see them. We have one Nepali worker who is doing miracles for us for the time he works – and that’s it,” he says.
He notes that in previous years, then-Gozo Minister Justyne Caruana had made funds available for all councils – irrelevant of whether they were Nationalist or Labour – to work with, and that he had subsequently won the Greenpak Award for best overall performance across the country.
“Now there’s nothing – I don’t have what is needed to work with,” he laments.
Turning to the more general question of development across Gozo, Buttigieg warns that at the current pace, Gozo’s characteristics are being lost very quickly.
“I was calculating the other day – almost 500 flats are being built in just Qala at the moment. They are changing everything about the village: They’re not built in the Maltese style; they’re just boxes! And not to mention the social changes they’re bringing as well: that typical Gozitan village-life is being lost,” he says.
It was Buttigieg who spearheaded a recent initiative wherein mayors from across Gozo came together to speak out against the rampant construction development that was enveloping the island.
“It’s a great initiative – we are showing that as Gozitans we have had enough,” Buttigieg says when asked about it.
“I will keep doing all of this until the day I die,” Buttigieg remarks, as we come to a conclusion.
“I’m not doing anything wrong – I am trying to protect the Maltese and Gozitan people. The most important thing is that every night I sleep soundly because I know that I have stuck to my principles. What we are doing isn’t to become millionaires – far from it.”
“We are just trying to conserve what God gave us.”