Since mid-2022, the Planning Authority has seen more than a dozen separate applications for the construction of sheep farms in Gozo, prompting NGOs to call the situation “ridiculous,” raising questions on their authenticity.
Almost two-thirds of the applications were submitted through Alexander Bigeni, one of Malta’s most prolific architects with close ties to Gozo and Planning Minister Clint Camilleri, Gozitan developer Joseph Portelli, and the incumbent Labour Party government.
The list of applications was tabled in parliament by Camilleri, who was recently handed the planning portfolio. The data shows 16 applications for the construction or conversion of properties into sheep farms since June 1 2022.
In comments to The Shift, NGO Għaqda Bdiewa Attivi President Malcolm Borg called the situation “ridiculous.”
“In the majority of these cases, the persons applying for these ‘sheep farms’ would not be farmers themselves,” he said. “Many are advised by their architects to apply this way to obtain a permit on ODZ land,” he concluded.
Humorously noting the number of sheep farm applications, Borg said, “Had they all been genuine, Malta would become one big ġbejna,” referring to the traditional cheeselet made from sheep’s milk.
The majority of the applications have also been objected to by environmental NGO Din L-Art Ħelwa, which has raised concerns about their “take-up and formalisation of Outside Development Zone land through requests that can neither be deemed necessary nor justified.”
In comments to The Shift, DLĦ President Alex Torpiano said the NGO does “not believe all these applications are genuine.” While advocating for a clear strategic policy surrounding the applications, he claimed that “the authorities know of this suspicious activity but have not done anything about it.”
In its objections to the applications, DLĦ warned that the sheep farms’ construction “will result in a formalisation through groundworks which will act as a possible pretext for future developments.”
The published list shows Alexander Bigeni is the architect behind almost two-thirds of the sheep farm applications in Gozo.
Bigeni, whose livestock farm development spree The Shift reported two years ago, is one of a handful of architects close to the Labour Party who have enjoyed a notably high approval rate for their applications.
Bigeni is closely associated with Gozitan developer Joseph Portelli and Minister Camilleri, with whom he shares a close link spanning years, as well as being his cousin.
Suggesting improvements to the current system, Torpiano advocated for a “national strategy for sheep farms,” questioning the number of applications. Until last year, Gozo had more than 600 sheep and goat farms, one for every 56 residents.
Asked about the apparent authenticity of some of the applications, he said that while this may be the case for some, “the high number of applications is nevertheless suspicious.”
“It’s a creeping issue,” Torpiano said, noting how while “one may have a right to build a farm on ODZ land, its need should not be taken for granted.” He concluded that the current system allowed “people to identify loopholes [in the planning approvals system] and take advantage of them.”
He referred to the recently approved application for constructing six villas on ODZ land in Miżieb, noting how an existing building was used to justify ODZ encroachment.
The Shift has extensively reported on ODZ planning applications submitted ostensibly for agricultural buildings, but utilised to construct residential dwellings. In 2022, a three-story building approved under the guise of a sheep farm was allowed to be constructed in Bidnija, causing public outcry at the lack of action by the authorities.
Both Borg and Torpiano advocated for better monitoring by the authorities of the structure’s use after it is approved. “What actually happens after it is built?” Borg asked. Torpiano called for a policy which enforced the dismantling of the buildings if owners are found to be using the structure outside its intended purpose.