A photo of what Xlendi will look like when the monstrous six-storey block to replace The Boathouse restaurant is built has been doing the rounds on social media. The structure will dwarf its surroundings, including the dramatic backdrop of rugged hillside that embraces the once-exquisite little fishing village on Gozo’s west coast.
This week the contractors began demolishing the existing building, one of the last few boathouses left in Xlendi. The developer, in all-too-familiar contempt of public opinion, has simply ploughed ahead with his plans, unmoved by the outrcry, unaffected by the anger.
The Boathouse’s neighbour, The Stone Crab restaurant, won’t be far behind. It’s already got a Planning Authority permit to demolish its existing, iconic premises and replace them with a seven-storey monstrosity.
Munxar Mayor Damien Spiteri, quoted in an article in The Times, said it was too late to save Xlendi. Once planning permission has been given to one or more developers to build hideous seven-storey concrete bunkers, then it’s “too late” to withhold the same permission from others.
This twisted logic has been the scourge of these islands, the kind of upside-down rationalising that’s used to justify the bandwagon mentality that lies at the heart of the reason why countless streets and areas across the island have been mutilated and disfigured so drastically.
In intelligent societies, driven by the common good and not personal greed, if a ‘mistake’ has been made and planning permission given for something that jars with the existing surroundings, compromises the integrity of a town centre or village core, or otherwise disfigures or damages the area it’s located, they don’t go on to compound that mistake by sanctioning similar developments from anyone else who requests a permit.
It makes no sense at all. The country’s natural and historical character belongs to all of us, and the Planning Authority is there, essentially, to safeguard it for the entirety of the population, including generations yet to come.
The Planning Authority is not a kindergarten assistant or babysitter who has to be careful to dole out the exact same number of smarties to each child. “It’s not fair! He got one, why can’t I have one?” is not the sort of philosophy that should be driving the decisions, or the justifications for those decisions, that are leading to the ruination of our country.
Malta has been battered by so many scandals over the past decade that one senses a deep feeling of fatigue, of exhaustion in the face of so much horror. The Planning Authority has been at the heart of many of these battles, and it is clear that playground thinking is far from its only sin.
Big developers like Joseph Portelli, the Gozitan version of Trump who brags about using political influence to get what he wants from the Planning Authority, and the infamous DB Group, intent on burying townspeople beneath the shadow of the huge monoliths it builds on their own land, or the Gasan family, seeking to destroy the heart of the town most of their friends and family grew up in (though they’ve apparently now sold that project on to other developers, they are still responsible for having made it possible) while vandalising, together with the much tainted Tumas Group, the skyline and views of Mdina with hideously garish, giant towers that no-one in their right senses wanted or applauded.
These large-scale developers, and a handful of others, are responsible for the wholesale destruction of Malta. They don’t use the warped argument for precedence to get their outrageous permits, of course. They use political leverage, backroom dealings, Party donations, alleged corruption of officials, helping ministers find jobs for their constituents, and a host of well-documented methods to ensure they get the permits they want, with absolutely no concern for the harm they’re doing to the country as a whole.
You and I, the man-in-the-street, are ignored, our voices drowned out by the sound of cash clinking into developers’ and politicians’ coffers.
The big projects, ugly, unsustainable, destructive, as they are, go ahead, in total disregard of the public’s feelings and, in most cases, the express disapproval of a host of environmental, social and heritage NGOs, academics and professionals.
So, the Munxar mayor claimed, as the other side of Xlendi Bay has already been ravaged by seven-storey monstrosities looming over the narrow bay like sinister hallucinations of the apocalypse – much of it courtesy of Portelli himself – we can’t deny The Boathouse and The Stone Crab developers their chance to jump on the bandwagon too.
He’s wrong. But like him, a host of others use this justification too. They shrug their shoulders and say, oh well, it’s not fair to refuse x or y after a, b and c got the same thing. We need to stop doing this. Preserving the little that’s left of this island’s charm and beauty is becoming more urgent by the hour.
Spiteri was right about one thing: he said we need to nip these things in the bud, “stop the first application that threatens to ruin an area before a precedent is created and everyone starts riding on it”.
That’s why the devious Comino project, to take one example, that was only supposed to renovate the old hotel and rebuild its bungalows but turned out to be a sneaky plan to sell off those buildings to private owners, is so dangerous. Who knows what those private buyers will seek to do in the future? ‘Mis-saba’ jieħdu l-id’ is one of the first Maltese proverbs I remember learning, and it’s no coincidence, in this country.
It’s also why we mustn’t allow this twisted logic about precedent to dampen our protests. Yes, every attempt to invade a yet unsullied area must be fought tooth and nail. But if, as has happened all too many times, those attempts fail – because of the big developers who are almost always the culprits in these cases – then the battle to save what’s left must continue anyway. We can’t just sit back and accept that “everyone starts riding” on a precedent, as Spiteri suggests.
It’s no-one’s right to destroy a landscape, a view, an environment that belongs to the entire population. Xlendi was already ruined, many have said, in defence of The Boathouse debacle. But that little corner of Xlendi had survived. It’s now gone. The perverted thinking of the precedence brigade has once again rewarded greed and run roughshod over common sense and the greater good.
Featured photo: Din L-Art Ħelwa Għawdex