Green redemption -
After Xaghra l-Hamra, now it’s Ramla l-Hamra
by james debono
Sunday, 30 September 2007

It took a whole year for the government to heal the rift with Green NGOs following the infamous extension of development zones. But it took MEPA one odd decision to alienate the green vote once again.
By revoking the controversial Ramla l-Hamra permit next Thursday, MEPA will be singing the last stanza of the Nationalist government’s green redemption song.
The first two years of Lawrence Gonzi’s term as Prime Minister saw the largest ever environmental protests, attended by a motley crowd of angry pale blue voters –personified by the upcoming Astrid Vella, who took to the streets protesting against rampant development.
Knowing that hunters were leaving the party in droves, the PN could not afford losing votes to Alternattiva Demokratika if it was to stand a chance of winning the forthcoming election.
Following a strategy meeting attended by old timers Rev. Prof. Peter Serracino Inglott and Richard Cachia Caruana, green NGOs were invited to Castile to hear the Prime Minister announce that Xaghra l-Hamra was to become a nature park and not a golf course, as had previously been proposed.
In the meantime the government was busy restoring its green credentials. Minister George Pullicino courageously stopped the spring hunting season abruptly following a massacre pf protected birds and acts of vandalism. He also announced new regulations on building sites. For the first time, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi criticised building contractors for creating havoc for residents in the PN’s general council.
Yet the truce with environmental NGOs was suddenly broken by a MEPA decision to allow 23 villas instead of the derelict Ulysses Lodge villa – an ugly conglomerate of buildings dating to the 1970s overlooking the picturesque Ramla Bay.
Having already issued an outline application for the project a few years back without causing any controversy, MEPA had not foreseen the scale of popular outrage on this issue.
Its decision to waive the EIA for the Ramla project had only hit the news in April, when MaltaToday revealed that the European Commission was investigating this dubious procedure.
The MEPA board was so convinced that it had taken the right decision in approving the project that Chairman Andrew Calleja immediately called a press conference to defend the development. He went as far as declaring a hazy boycott against Astrid Vella’s environmentalist NGO, Flimkien Ghall-Ambjent Ahjar.
Even Minister George Pullicino who defended the development in principle, was caught unawares by MEPA’s over-the-top reaction to the extent that he had to dissociate himself from the Chairman’s “fatwa” against Astrid Vella.
Initially, MEPA tried to win the battle for hearts and minds by resorting to montages showing that the 23 villas would simply occupy the present footprint of Ulysses Lodge and would be rendered invisible by heavy landscaping. Yet MEPA itself admitted that 14 swimming pools lay outside the footprint of Ulysses Lodge.
But as weeks passed this argument was exposed as hogwash amidst revelation made on this newspaper that the original permits for tea rooms only covered 34 per cent of the Ulysses Lodge footprint. MaltaToday also revealed that these permits did not cover the parking and the elevated road surrounding Ulysses Lodge.
In a report presented by architect Lino Bianco in August, it emerged that the road was in fact public land.
MaltaToday also revealed that back in 1994, MEPA had turned down a permit for a single villa on the same site claiming, that this constituted unacceptable development.
The public largely ignored MEPA’s arguments, and the usual crowd of angry pale blue voters joined environmental NGOs in a public protest in Valletta. A MaltaToday survey published in August also showed that only 17 per cent backed MEPA’s decision.
The same survey also showed Alternattiva Demokratika scoring a remarkable four per cent in conservative Gozo.
Four months after defending the development wholeheartedly, MEPA has found a technical hitch to justify another U-turn.
The planning authority is now saying that research in the Lands Registry showed that a section crossing the entire length of the site is registered as government land.
Traditionally, MEPA has never given a hoot about land ownership, but in this case a public deed was imposed in the permit to ensure that the villas are not sold as residential units.
This proved very convenient for an exit strategy.
But the political repercussions of this decision are obvious. Civil society has won the day and MEPA and the government have been humble enough to recognise this and find a technical loophole to effect an honourable retreat.

June 2005
Government waives EIA for Ramla project.
November 2005
MaltaToday reveals that MEPA board member Louis Cassar had conducted one of the studies for the Ramla Bay development.
April 2007
MaltaToday reveals that European Commission is investigating waiving of EIA for Ramla Bay villas.
May 2007
Government sidles up to environmental NGOs, dropping controversial Xaghra l-Hamra Golf Course
June 2007
MEPA approves permit for 23 villas in Ramla Bay.
Astrid Vella calls for MEPA Chairman’s resignation, alleging irregularities.
MEPA chairman Andrew Calleja announces hazy boycott on Astrid Vella.
MEPA launches advertising campaign defending its decision.
Thousands demonstrate in Valletta behind Save Gozo banners.
Minister George Pullicino describes Chairman’s boycott as an overreaction.
July 2007
MaltaToday reveals that the original permit for Ulysses Lodge only covered the development of “tea rooms” on 34 per cent of the land earmarked for the villas, and that the elevated road was not covered by any permit.
MaltaToday reveals that Xaghra Labour mayor Joe Cordina still appears as the developers’ company secretary.
MaltaToday reveals that MEPA had previously rejected a permit for one villa on the same site claiming that this would cause unacceptable development.
Architect Lino Bianco presents technical report questioning legality of permit because it occupies public land.
August 2007
MaltaToday survey shows that 63 per cent of Gozitans oppose Ramla development
September 2007
MEPA calls for public hearing to revoke permit
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