The Planning Authority often gets it wrong when issuing permits. But on the restaurant at Dwejra, it did the right thing. In 2017 it had decided that, in order to respect this protected area in Gozo, no further expansion of this restaurant would be allowed.
But it is always Sod’s Law for those who want to protect our natural spaces. Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. The Environment and Planning Tribunal has just gone ahead and granted the permit anyway, overturning the PA’s refusal.
Environment Minister Jose Herrera disagrees with the Tribunal’s decision and said that he believes it should be appealed. This is encouraging. Will the Environment and Resources Authority be able to take that step, however, or will it be left up to civil society?
While this gets sorted out, Herrera should reach beyond this particular bad outcome. Good intentions must be shored up. He should push for changes in the regulations which will ensure that any similar undesirable situations will, as far as possible, be avoided. The tools for change are in the hands of the government.
Dwejra is one of the most beautiful nature spots in the Maltese Islands. Its geology, flora, fauna, ecology, history and gorgeous setting near the sea are special. Its Azure Window (now sadly gone), the inland sea, its diving attractions, or nearby Fungus Rock, have lured visitors there for centuries. It is also an important breeding ground for birds.
It has long been designated as a heritage park, and it is protected as a Natura 2000 site. The sea along that coast is a Marine Protected Area.
Dwejra has had its fair share of environmental problems, disasters and controversies. Over the last 10 years or so, it was repeatedly under the spotlight when a series of illegal boathouses near the inland sea were sanctioned. It was the centre of controversy when used as a location in the first series of Game of Thrones. And last year, it was the focus of national grief when its famous Azure Window collapsed into the sea during a storm.
It is partly the victim of its own success. Crowds visit Dwejra all year round, particularly in summer, in streams of coaches and cars. The parking areas are limited and congested, and the carrying capacity of the place is surpassed. It is not easy to solve this problem.
And then there is the restaurant. A visitor centre, with catering facilities, has long formed part of the plans for Dwejra. But this got out of hand from the outset. The original planning permit created a controversy in 2010 because the building was considered to be oversized.
As things turned out, the first floor was not allowed after all, and the place was kept to a more limited scale. The adjoining interpretation centre, focusing on Dwejra’s marine assets, was launched in 2013.
One sore point about this new permit to expand the restaurant with more tables and chairs is the increase in lighting that this is expected to introduce. Dwejra is a ‘dark sky heritage’ area, and one of the few locations in Malta where people interested in astronomy can study and enjoy the night sky.
The Institute for Astronomy and Space Sciences at the University of Malta, as well as the Department of Physics, the Astronomical Society of Malta and the Light Pollution Awareness Group, all objected to any proposed increase in lighting.
But the Tribunal thought otherwise, decided that the proposed lighting was fine, and granted the permit anyway.
The government should not go on with business as usual, while leaving it up to civil society to try to rectify this through a battle in the law courts. When loopholes and flaws are identified in the system, they should be tightened up. Things should always be improving, not sliding backwards.
The government had promised, loud and clear, that it would strengthen the protection of the environment. But this has not happened yet, has it? The new Strategic Plan (SPED) of 2015 was not worth the paper it was written on. The Local Plans which were meant to follow the SPED with details, have not yet materialised.
The new planning law of 2016 then relegated the Environment and Resources Authority to an external consultee in planning matters, too easily and often ignored.
The new planning policies have not helped to protect anything, including in urban areas. In Gzira, for example, the high rise policy has enabled a new tall building to squeeze within a congested, relatively low neighbourhood, with narrow streets. It has not offered any open spaces or advantages to anyone except the developers and perhaps the residents of the block. The concept of zoning seems abandoned.
Minister, take action. Push for the Environment and Resources Authority to have a stronger voice and position in planning decisions. Push for the appointment of members of the Tribunal and the Planning Board with a solid understanding of environmental issues and sensitivity towards them.
Create a policy which clearly prevents any further intensification of development at Dwejra. Strengthen the regulations to protect Dark Sky areas. It is possible, and people who care about this will be grateful. Reach beyond the Dwejra night sky.