Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia has remained silent on the illegal works carried out on Comino, a protected area, despite condemnation by the Ombudsman.
The works were carried out without a permit, despite Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri presenting a document in parliament last October as ‘evidence’ of the necessary authorisations for the works that were carried out between February and March on Comino.
In a parliamentary question, the Nationalist Party spokesperson for Gozo, Chris Said asked the Gozo minister to table the copies of the Planning Authority (PA) and the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) permits for the works in Comino in relation to the tender for the reinforcing and resurfacing of the road leading to Blue Lagoon Bay.
The document submitted by the Gozo Minister as proof of the necessary authorisation is neither a PA nor an ERA permit but is an opinion (consultation reply) submitted by the ERA during the consultation stage for the PA permit, planning experts have confirmed.
Moreover, environmental NGO Friends of the Earth Malta stated that the outline application for these works is still pending and that the case officer’s 2018 report recommended a refusal based on the fact that the proposal lacked the necessary information to enable complete assessment in terms of environmental and landscape requirements. Given this was an outline application, work could not have started even in the case of approval and would have required a full development application.
Following the original refusal, the government appears to have changed its approach and claimed that the works were “urgent”. Such a strategy may have been acceptable had it been limited to the interventions needed to resurface the road but not to excavate a services trench.
In the document presented in parliament, dated February 2020, the ERA consents to the resurfacing and rubble wall maintenance work, noting that the revised proposals were “being strictly limited to the surgical repair of the damaged parts of the existing wall, the resurfacing of the existing access road with natural stone paving and installation of a timber and rope railing”.
The ERA’s consultation reply also includes a request that a number of conditions are incorporated as an approved document to the development permit. These included no encroachment or overspills outside the permitted area as well as no permission for “any intervention on protected trees; the removal of or damage to natural habitats or vegetation; cutting, excavation or covering of any exposed rocky surface including the rocky coast; modification of site topography; landform; or damage to natural features or rubble walls.”
The resulting works, which also saw the construction of a service culvert on a dirt road to the Blue Lagoon, appear to have not only ignored all the original recommendations by the ERA but were also carried out without the necessary permits.
Following a public outcry by environmental NGOs and a complaint filed by PN whip and Opposition spokesperson for the environment, Robert Cutajar, the Ombudsman investigated the issue and concluded that the service culvert was illegal and in breach of planning laws.
The Ombudsman’s report says that in February of last year, the Gozo Ministry wrote to the Planning Authority asking for an exemption from planning permission to carry out works near Blue Lagoon under Article 70 of the Planning Development Act, which allows emergency works to be done without a permit in the interest of public safety. These were works on an existing water culvert, the mending of rubble walls, and the resurfacing of the road leading to Blue Lagoon.
The idea of adding service culverts was proposed in January 2021 following consultation with Enemalta, with the reasoning that since works were set to be carried out in the area, these should be done in one go. However, the Ombudsman’s report notes that “while the service culvert is a work that ought to be carried out before resurfacing, this does not mean that this service culvert qualifies under emergency works with concerns to public safety”.
The Shift is also informed that the more likely reason for a service culvert was the provision of services to the kiosk owners that line the bay, most of whom are Gozitan and are canvassers of Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri. Through these works, particularly the service culvert, these kiosks can now have electricity supplied directly through the national grid.
Following his investigation into the matter, the Ombudsman recommended the issuing of a stop notice and said the site should be returned to its original state, while the Planning Authority should impose fines in favour of a fund for Comino’s environment. Yet the Gozo Minister has continued to defend the works saying they were ‘necessary for the public’s safety’. He originally said they were needed to improve the tourism product.
Featured photo credit: Friends of the Earth.