Malta’s beloved historic buildings come tumbling down amid government ‘orgy of development’
Malta and its small island Gozo are descending into “a hellish construction nightmare”ByNick Squires GOZO13 November 2021 • 8:00pm
The Boathouse restaurant is demolished
The first crunch of steel against stone came as tourists tucked into rabbit stew and plates of spaghetti on a sunny terrace overlooking the sea.
A huge yellow digger, just unloaded from a flatbed truck, started clawing away at The Boathouse, an attractive whitewashed restaurant just a few feet from the water’s edge in Xlendi Bay, a resort on Gozo, Malta’s sister island.
Clouds of dust billowed over startled holidaymakers, who sat having lunch in the sunshine less than 100 yards away.
Within a couple of hours The Boathouse – once lauded by guidebooks as “a restaurant where you can eat fresh fish with the sea almost lapping at your toes” – was a pile of rubble.
In its place will be built a new eatery but with storeys of apartments on top – the latest addition to the chronic overdevelopment of Xlendi, a bay which is now crowded with dozens of high-rise apartment blocks despite the fact that it does not even boast a beach.
“They’re greedy. They want more, more, more. It’s like the mafia. They do whatever they want,” said a waitress in a bayside restaurant.
The owner of the nearby Mille Gusti gelateria and snack bar was equally indignant. “It’s too much, this development. The buildings are going up so high that they’re blocking out the sun.”
Construction on St. Julian’s Bay in Malta CREDIT: Michael Rooney / Alamy Stock Photo
A petition was filed to parliament to try to stop the destruction of the restaurant, with protesters saying that the proposal for a block of apartments would “destroy the heart and soul of the village. Malta is fast losing its culture, heritage and appeal to tourists and this approval is a step too far.” The petition was ignored.
The demolition of The Boathouse is the latest project to infuriate environmentalists and civil society groups on Malta, the EU’s smallest but most densely populated country.
They say that the main island of Malta is already close to being ruined by an “orgy” of development and that Gozo, the small island to its north, is next in the sights of developers.
Gozo is descending into “a hellish construction nightmare”, in the words of The Times of Malta.
“It’s an orgy of construction, a frenzy – it’s construction on steroids,” said Claire Bonello, an environmental lawyer who is involved in fighting many of the archipelago’s developments.
A spokesperson for Malta’s environmental agency said: “Malta is not ‘overdeveloped’. It has however developed at a fast pace, as many countries have, and we understand that the people expect intelligent planning and more open spaces.
“The government is continuing to launch many schemes to facilitate Malta’s transition to a more sustainable, resilient, greener and carbon-neutral economy.”
Campaigners say the pace of building went into overdrive after 2013, when Joseph Muscat, of Malta’s Labour Party, was elected prime minister.
They say that since then, planning rules have been bypassed and hotels, apartment blocks, marinas and roads have cropped up all over the island.
“Most of the planning laws and regulations were relaxed, allowing for crazy development everywhere. There was a feeding frenzy,” said Ms Bonello.
Now, however, a backlash is underway. Campaigners are trying to block projects. On Gozo, the island’s 14 mayors have united to call for an end to unbridled development.
One of the worst examples is the resort town of Marsalforn, now a cluster of concrete canyons, apartment blocks and hotels.
A recent survey found that 90% of young people in Malta feel that the environment is deteriorating, with most blaming too much construction. Nearly 60% said they would like to leave the country.
The scars inflicted by excessive development are chronicled in a Facebook page called Ugly Malta.
Environmentalists accuse developers of being in league with politicians and public officials.
But many ordinary Maltese have also been happy to go along for the ride, investing their savings in new apartments in the hope of earning high rental incomes.
“On a small island like ours, it has always been difficult for people to invest their money. Over the last decade, interest rates have been almost nil, there have been crashes on the stock exchange, so people invested in property,” said Alex Torpiano, a professor of architecture and urban design at the University of Malta.
“It’s become big business and governments are afraid to rein it in because they don’t have alternative investment opportunities to offer. But it’s extremely short-sighted, because it damages the environment. They are destroying Malta’s quality of life. It’s crazy.”
A hotel manager in Xlendi says that in the small village in which he lives, he can rarely sleep beyond 6am. “There are now four or five building projects around my apartment,” he said. “I’ve had enough. I’m leaving the island.”
Ms Bonello, the lawyer, draws chilling parallels between what is happening on Malta and the fate of Nauru, the tiny island nation in the South Pacific which was strip-mined for phosphate rock, enjoying great wealth for a few years, before being plunged into poverty and dysfunction.
She fears Malta is going the same way – pursuing short-term gain at the expense of long-term environmental destruction.
But as the tide of public opinion turns, there may be glimmers of hope, she says.
“When you reach rock bottom, the only way is up. At some point in time, everyone will realise what a terrible mess this cronyism and laissez-faire attitude has created.”