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The earliest report which I could find about the infamous gate in Baħrija (featured photo) was published in March 2021.

I remember being somewhat incredulous at the audacity it takes for someone to block off access to the coastline so they can effectively occupy a whole swathe of countryside like a low-budget invading army erecting fences made out of chicken wire and timber. The illegally built gate was obstructing access to open space a year into the COVID pandemic, the kind of luxury which, at a time of restrictions on the number of people who could congregate in a group, came at a premium.

When I’d reached out to the Planning Authority’s (PA) spokesperson for a comment, I was informed that the PA had issued an enforcement notice ordering the removal of the structure. Shortly afterwards, a planning application requesting permission to sanction the gate was filed through a company named Touchstone Ltd, rendering the enforcement notice effectively useless until the application process was completed. The application was filed by Ian Galea through his architect, Labour government adviser and architect-turned-lawyer Robert Musumeci.

That sanctioning process took until April 2022 to be concluded. Meanwhile, access to the countryside from the pathway upon which the gate stands remained out of reach. By April of that year, the PA refused to sanction the gate, with the authority’s planning commission citing the right to access coastlines – which was legally established in 1967 – as well as the Strategic Plan for the Environment and Development as reasons for refusal.

A week later, Ramblers Association Malta, an organisation that positively promotes Malta’s rural environment by organising hikes and educational events across the Maltese islands and is actively campaigning to open up access to Baħrija’s coastline, attempted to hold a press conference at the site in question to call out the gaping flaws in the planning process which enabled the gate to remain standing in spite of its blatant illegality.

Besides appealing the refusal to sanction, Galea also filed an appeal against the enforcement notice itself, creating two parallel processes which tend to take years to resolve, and that’s without considering that decisions taken by the PA and the Environment and Planning Review Tribunal (EPRT) can also be appealed in court. Even if all legal avenues are finally exhausted and the offending development finally gets the all-clear for removal, the PA has been known to hold back from enforcement without providing any clear or reasonable justification for doing so.

I remember – yet again – being even more incredulous at the audacity of the self-declared masters of the land who had practically sabotaged Ramblers’ press conference by physically preventing them from holding the press conference at the site. Members of the police force had to be called in to address the stand-off when unidentified men claiming to be landowners made aggressive remarks in the organisers’ regard, refusing coastline access to the media who were present. Reports at the time had clearly suggested unauthorised trapping activity in the area.

Evidently, the so-called landowners have managed to obtain what they want. The sanctioning appeal remains ongoing at the EPRT and the gate remains in place, stubbornly obstructing access to the coastline and the alleged illegalities occurring behind its unadorned frame.

Just last week, Samuel Muscat from ADPD’s youth wing, EkoXellugin, sent me the featured photo of this article, reminding me that it does indeed remain in place.

“Members of Ekoxellugin were taking a walk in Baħrija but had to turn back because of gates blocking public paths. This means that access to Blata tal-Melħ is blocked. Besides this path, Blata tal-Melħ can be accessed from a dangerous path along the cliffs from Miġra l-Ferħa so people must risk their lives to visit this beautiful place because someone decided to block public paths. The law cannot be clearer on this, but the gate has been there for years because PA is blatantly acting to protect these illegalities through infinite deferrals,” Muscat said in a note accompanying the photo.

And what’s been happening throughout the appeals process, you may ask?

Both of the appeals – one against the PA’s refusal to sanction the gate, the other against the subsequent enforcement notice – remain ongoing. Ramblers, supported by thousands of objectors who had signaled their clear disapproval of this gate and other organisations who came forward to provide evidence in the case, is still spearheading the opposition towards landowners’ attempts at claiming the pathway and access to their land as their own.

The entire process is so banal and surreal that NGOs have had to come forward to provide volumes of sworn evidence to prove that the pathway really was used for coastline walks and that its use has been established for over half a century. And yet, in spite of the thoroughness of their work and the obvious truth to their claims, the gate remains in place, all because a few assholes who trap birds in cages for sport said so and nobody in power bothered to lift a finger to claim otherwise.

Remember this story the next time you hear someone saying that the country’s planning regime is broken. This is not a broken system – the system is misfiring like a deliberately sabotaged weapon, with the broken barrel of the gun being the desired outcome.

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