Of the five areas short-listed as potential golf course sites, the area at White Rocks including Pembroke is considered to “stand above the rest,” and can either be developed into a golf course or a tourism complex but not both, MEPA’s report prepared following a request by the Prime Minister states.
The Prime Minister had asked MEPA to identify sites that could be suitable for golf including at least one in Malta and one on Gozo and MEPA has delivered eight in all, even if not all of them can be utilised in the short or medium future.
The tourism industry has been putting forward the golfing argument for years and following the presentation of the report the MHRA announced that an additional 30,000 tourists yearly would be attracted to Malta should the islands boast three golf courses. It is argued that conference tourism would be boosted by more golf and that golf tourists tend to be higher than average spenders.
While the proposed sites have now been identified, uncertainty exists as to how the planning process will continue. Lawrence Gonzi would not comment on what planning process is to be adopted to decide which site is to be chosen. He would not reply to questions as to what sort of application process is to be put in force for the sites, or whether some sort of tender process is being considered.
In the normal planning process people usually apply to develop land they own, although applying to develop other people’s or the government’s land has also occurred, but with MEPA indicating preferred sites, it remains unclear what the next step will be and theoretically MEPA could be faced with several applications on the same site.
The chosen sites concur with Structure Plan policies in ways that other proposed sites at Verdala and Habbel Bellu did not, and one is to presume that since the sites have been approved by the MEPA Board, planning policy will be in favour of approval; always subject to environment impact assessments.
The chosen sites are at Ta Zuta (in the Dingli/Siggiewi area); the White Rocks area including part of Pembroke; Maghtab; the Mqabba quarry area; the Marsa golf course site which can be extended; Tal-Gawhar (Safi); Ghajn Melel (Zebbug, Gozo) and Ta’ Cenc. Of those, in the report prepared by tourism expert Anthony Ellul, the preferred three did not make the final list.
Ellul’s report identified Maghtab, Mqabba and Ta Zuta as the best areas, but said none of these would be available in the short to medium term. Maghtab is indicated as not being suitable at the moment because it is a contaminated area, too close to the future landfill and even when levelled out not big enough for a large golf course, although the report states it may be suitable for a nine hole course. The other selected areas are discounted because of the current quarrying operations within the sites.
According to the report the five ‘suitable’ sites - White Rocks including part of Pembroke; the Marsa golf course site which can be extended, Tal-Gawhar (Safi), Ghajn Melel (Zebbug, Gozo) and Ta’ Cenc – all enjoy some plus and minus points and it is stated that “each site poses different constraints both environmentally as well as from golf course design perspectives.”
According to the report the White Rocks area “would require a reconsideration of the development of the area into a tourist complex since it would not be possible to accommodate both.” The site presents a variety of challenges and the report states: “the topography of the White Rocks area and the coast road limit the development of this site for an international championship course, but nonetheless an 18 hole golf course can be accommodated. The design would have to be sensitive to the environmental features in the area. However, should development be restricted to the degraded parcels, currently occupied by bird trappers, the environmental impact would be rather low.”
The report continues: “Although parts of the site are of ecological or agricultural value about 63 percent of the site is made up for degraded land and low quality agricultural fields,” and “development of this site should also entail the improvement and better management of the scheduled areas in the Pembroke area.”
The area is considered to the best site of all those short-listed and available immediately: “the vicinity of the site to the main tourist areas is an important consideration from a tourism point of view that makes this site stand above the rest.”
Ta Cenc: are 18 holes possible?
According to the report drawn up by MEPA, “the Ta’ Cenc site can accommodate a good 9 hole golf course and should this site be chosen it must be ensured that the design respects the sensitive environmental, especially ecological, features of this area.” However, it is then stated: “within the area identified the consultants indicated that it would be very difficult to accommodate an 18 hole golf course. However, preliminary designs submitted by the developer… indicated that an 18 hole golf course could be accommodated and this excluded the area which was proposed for villa development.
Ghajn Melel: not of international standard
The Ghajn Melel Zebbug Gozo site “could accommodate an 18 hole golf course, but not of an international championship standard,” the report concludes. “However, this site is not considered a significant environmentally sensitive area. Some areas being cultivated on the flatter part of the site will be taken up for development. Should this site be chosen, considering the topography of the site, levelling of terraces would be necessary to achieve the required gradient.”
Tal-Gawhar Safi: used for bird trapping
MEPA’s report does not consider the Safi site to be best because it is “well away from the main tourist areas,” but states that a golf course “would certainly upgrade the environmental state of the area.”
The report explains: “The quality of the agricultural land is generally very low and the area has been used for bird trapping activity. The lie of the land would lend itself to golf course development being a rather flat expense of land and therefore an 18 hole course would easily be accommodated.”
Marsa expansion: would involve relocating sports facilities
Expanding the Marsa golf course site is deemed not to create any planning and environmental problems, however according to MEPA’s report: “the topography is not such to create an international golf course.”
There would be additional problems and the report notes: “Extending the site would require the take up of and relocation of existing sports facilities.”
Environment groups’ concerns
Some of the chosen sites have not received a warm welcome from environment groups. Nature Trust’s president Vince Attard is not pleased with some of the sites selected and told the Malta Financial and Business Times: “In general we are very shocked to hear that sites for example like White Rocks/Pembroke and Ta’ Cenc have in fact been proposed when these sites are ecologically very rich. Nature Trust had suspected from the very beginning that there was something fishy for example as to why Ta’ Cenc was not included in the special areas of conservation and designated Natura 2000 sites.”
Attard said “With these new proposed sites (with the exception of the Marsa one and maybe the Safi one) one cannot understand how the authorities keep on proposing large areas of land for development when we have a big land use problem with a high population density. Just when we there is an increase in oil prices affecting energy costs and the Reverse Osmosis plants which would be needed to produce water we are embarking on projects that will continue to take up more water.”
Friends of the Earth’s Martin Galea de Giovanni also expressed concerns about the chosen sites and said: “given Structure Plan policies it is difficult to see how the Ta’ Cenc and White Rocks/Pembroke sites could be chosen. The principle that agricultural land should not be given up should be observed religiously.”