A man erected a gate on his land. And blocked public access to the idyllic bay – Fomm ir-Riħ. The owner had no permit. He hadn’t even bothered to apply for one. This was his land and he was tired of people using it to exercise their right to access the foreshore. He cordoned off the area and set up “private property” signs all over the place.
In January, unidentifiable men intimidated hikers and cyclists shouting that the area was private. Buckets of nails were spread to deter parking and to discourage the public from visiting the area.
Erecting a gate without a permit is illegal. It was bound to be met with the full force of the law to restore citizens’ rights to access the shore.
And the Planning Authority (PA) is renowned for its efficiency. When a banner was hung on private property in Old Bakery Street asking who had paid for journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia to be blown up, a huge army of PA personnel armed with a cherry-picker promptly took it down within hours – even though it was perfectly legal. The court ruled the authority had acted illegally and breached the right to freedom of expression.
Another man, AFM soldier Godwin Schembri was discharged from the force for uploading a funny video about a gate. So we all waited for the PA army to descend on site with heavy lifting equipment – and dismantle the heavy duty gate. They never came.
But Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia came to the rescue with a Ministry statement. Surely, Aaron would sort the gate erector out. But instead of defending citizens’ rights, Farrugia defended the man. “The area has been private for decades,” he stated. He meant – you citizens have no right to lay a foot on that land. It belongs to the poor man. He’s put up with you ramblers long enough. Leave him alone.
And besides, “the gate was erected by the owner (please note, it’s his) due to the danger there and the responsibility the site carries with it at the moment,” Farrugia continued. The owner’s being nice. He’s only protecting you. Just be thankful, you ungrateful…
The citizens weren’t happy. They love Fomm ir-Riħ. The photo of that massive iron gate barring them access uploaded by Raniero Borg went viral. Everybody was livid. (Shhh …even Labour diehards). Faced with the wrath of the nation, the owner backed down and removed the gate. Just until he gets his application in – not the permit.
Aaron Farrugia was back defending the gate erector. “The gate has been removed so that a formal application by the owners (wasn’t it just one owner?) is submitted”. In short, don’t run away with the idea you’re going to retain access to the bay.
Those Ministry statements sounded like they were written by the gate erector himself. Why is Farrugia taking his side? Shouldn’t he be our socialist minister? Isn’t he meant to defend proletariat’s rights? Who was this gate erector who controlled the Minister so completely?
We soon found out, no thanks to the Minister. Farrugia tried to dupe us, pretending there were “owners” not just the one owner. The press revealed his name – it was Malta Developers Association (MDA) president, Party donor, Konrad Mizzi hugger, Chris Fearne campaign rally attendee, Joseph Muscat favourite – Sandro Chetcuti.
As the press chased him for answers, the loquacious Chetcuti kept mum. He referred them to his lawyer. The lawyer’s statements were bizarrely identical to the Minister’s: the gate was installed for the public’s safety (Chetcuti is so caring); the area is private (it’s mine); the path leading to the sea is dangerous (you could get hurt going down there); the owner could be held responsible for injuries sustained (I’m not paying for your broken bones). And a report has been commissioned: “The issue is being discussed with the authorities (Farrugia) to allow access, but a solution might be complicated”. (I’m trying to help, believe me, but it ain’t happening).
Only days later, the Ramblers Association published an excerpt of the 1983 deed. “The public is granted a perpetual right of public passage and access therefrom to the foreshore and the sea through the property”. So Chetcuti, despite the Minister’s protestations, had absolutely no right to close off access. Aaron Farrugia knew it. And concealed it. It wouldn’t help him protect Chetcuti’s interests if the public knew their rights. Now we know, that public access to the bay is our guaranteed right – and that Farrugia betrayed the nation.
Chetcuti was forced into a U-turn – at least for now. He promised he won’t erect another gate “until the issue is addressed”. But he claimed credit for it. “The owner will be leaving the passage open as a gesture of goodwill towards the community”. The sheer benevolence of the gate erector – even granting us our rights.
Chetcuti, you are a benefactor, a philanthropist, a saint – protecting the safety of the public, even pouring nails in the area to make sure cars don’t park in such a dangerous place.
Robert Abela, accompanied by the Environment Minister, worshipped at the MDA’s altar only days after becoming Prime Minister. On 24 January, the two trudged up to MDA’s G’Mangia offices to pay homage to Chetcuti. The MDA President had warnings for them: “We are in favour of the abolition of the donations system”. The MDA was tired of being “forced” to pay donations to the political parties. Chetcuti threatened – if you don’t do our bidding, you know what will happen to those donations. Aaron Farrugia was listening carefully.
Farrugia promised to set up a transparency register to log all his meetings with stakeholders. Where is his register? If he finds it could he let us know when he last met the gate erector of Fomm ir-Riħ?