Three areas historically known for their agricultural, natural, historical and cultural value, Għeriexem valley, the Ħawlija area in Mtaħleb and the Saqqajja area are under threat from stealthy encroachment and illegal works, an investigation conducted by The Shift has revealed.
In the road known as it-Telgħa tas-Saqqajja (Saqqajja hill), sources reported ongoing works without a permit involving the construction of a room and the depositing of soil on land without permission. Sources have sought anonymity due to fear of retaliation.
In a visit, The Shift snapped a picture of a lifter vehicle on site as well as visible piles of soil and debris yet to be leveled, as seen in this article’s featured photo. No relevant permits could be found for the site on the Planning Authority’s records except for old applications from 2005 and earlier.
When asked about the ramifications of cases such as the three flagged by this portal’s sources, Active Farmers’ Association (Għaqda Bdiewa Attivi, GħBA) president Malcolm Borg stated that “the worst is yet to come, you just wait and see,” going as far as to say that “there will be little agriculture in 15, 20 years’ time”.
“This is a very severe problem, there is an endless amount of cases in which this is happening,” Borg said, referring to how agricultural land is being lost at an alarming rate that is fueled especially by farmers facing evictions due to a Constitutional Court judgement from November of last year.
“The weakening of the agricultural sector and retiring of the farmers are opening up fields for these and other developments. This is deplorable and is caused by loopholes in policy, weak enforcement and this mentality that says: the land is mine and I can do whatever I want with it,” Borg added.
Meanwhile, in nearby Mtaħleb, a plot that was entirely natural garigue land that was meant to be protected, was recently buried in debris, likely in preparation for further leveling and deposition of soil in order to build an agricultural store on top of it, according to sources with relevant expertise.
The Shift’s investigation shed light on how different applicants have, for the past ten years at least, attempted to build an agricultural storeroom on the plot adjacent to Triq tal-Merħla, with the latest application attempting to overturn the Planning Authority’s repeated refusals.
Recently, sources flagged that the land was altered illegally once more, with people who frequent the area regularly pointing out that the conversion happened overnight without any legal permission. The Shift has also snapped a picture of this altered site, seen above in a before and after shot.
Across the street from this “field” lies yet another illegal development which also involves illegal reported trapping activities, a site which was altered in a similar way by depositing materials and soil on the site to essentially convert it into developed land.
Besides the damage caused to the natural, previously unspoilt, garigue, the contravenor in question, Rose Micallef, was also responsible for building an underground garage with an adjacent parapet and stairway, various passages made out of concrete and low walls made of rubble as well as erecting gates and new access points, all without a permit and on scheduled land.
In the picturesque Għeriexem valley, public outrage erupted last year when news reports pointed towards unsanctioned works which aimed to convert agricultural land into a horse-holding site. The application, which was objected to by the Malta Ramblers’ Association among others, is currently awaiting an application to sanction works that had already been conducted as well as formalise the applicant’s intent to build a horse-holding site (general area marked as site A).
The applicant, Keith Balzan Gera, assisted by architect and lawyer Robert Musumeci, had stated that the application would be formally withdrawn at its next sitting on 5 October at 1.30pm. While that site is yet to be determined, several zones in the same area beneath and around Għeriexem Bridge have seen fresh applications, along with a site visit by The Shift confirming surveyors on site for a particular plot in the area which has not yet seen a PA application (marked as site C).
Besides a raft of applications for pigeon lofts, corbelled huts (one of which is known as ‘girna’ in Maltese), stores, reservoirs and the sanctioning of leveling of soil or dumping of inert material, plans have also been submitted for the rebuilding of an abandoned farmhouse.
Musumeci was also involved in this application. The architect, who also moonlights as government consultant, filed an appeal against the enforcement notice against Micallef on behalf of the contravenor. The next siting for the appeal is scheduled on 7 October at 1.30pm.
How would the farmers’ association resolve this?
When asked about solutions, GħBA listed the following points:
- Close loopholes in the Rural Policy and Design Guidance which was being reviewed a year ago but which, for some reason, is not anymore.
- Monitor permits granted. We can’t emphasize this enough. Once a development for a rural development (tool room, etc.) is granted, inspectors should monitor this development along the years. At least a random sample of permits should be taken for monitoring. It doesn’t make sense that permission is granted and then a tool room can become a villa, a greenhouse can become a boat yard, etc.
- Increase fines. It is cheaper for a mechanic to use agricultural land illegally and pay the fine imposed by PA than renting a garage in some other place.
- Have a very clear policy that agricultural land is meant for agricultural purposes only.