Over the years we got used to seeing economic visions, electoral manifestos, Government budgets and strategy documents with a dedicated section on Gozo. While much better than ignoring issues that affect Gozo, this approach however is far from appropriate. Many times, these Gozo sections are after-thoughts put there just to allay the criticism that Gozo was not mentioned. However, only very rarely do they offer a holistic way forward to address Gozo’s issues.
No one denies that Gozo has progressed greatly over recent years. In the middle of a pandemic that has felled down Gozo’s main economic pillar – tourism – the island only has some 165 persons registering for work, down from 742 in March 2013. The number of Gozo residents in employment has nearly reached 14,000, or 5,000 more than 2012. Four out of five of these new jobs were in Gozo. Under the previous administration the rise in employment was three times less and only one in five of the new jobs were in Gozo itself.
For the last four years Gozo’s GDP has risen at a faster rate than Malta’s. From having half Malta’s GDP per capita, Gozo’s GDP per capita now has reached the two-thirds mark. Gozo’s dependence on the public sector areas of administration, health and education has fallen from 28% to 24%, while that on professional services has risen from 5% to 13%.
While commendable, this progress is not enough. Gozo’s workforce is more educated than that of Malta, and yet its GDP per capita still lags. The double insularity problem still hampers the economic progress of the island, leading to a brain drain of its young. At the same time, there is broad agreement that Gozo needs to be spared the kind of development that has characterised Malta. Gozo has the potential to spearhead the digital and green transformation of our society.
For the last four years Gozo’s GDP has risen at a faster rate than Malta’s.
This is why the launch of the consultation document for the Regional Development Strategy for Gozo: 2021-2030 is very welcome. The document prepared by Gozo Regional Development Authority confirms that the decision to create this agency was a game changer for Gozo. For the first time, we have a comprehensive exercise to draw a way forward for Gozo.
The vision espoused in this document is that “the key to Gozo’s future is the sustainment of a formula that safeguards sustainable development by making optimal use of space”. A process that “requires reconciling the social and economic claims for spatial development with Gozo’s ecological and cultural functions”. The document argues that “standards of living do not depend exclusively on income and the scale of productivity”.
However, this is not the prelude for the usual shallow argument that Gozo should remain unchanged. Anyone who lives or aspires to live in Gozo knows that Gozo needs to change. Instead, the document sets out a strategy that would see Gozo’s prosperity rise through a digital and green transformation that goes well beyond a convergence of GDP per capita. It is a conscious strategy to be different from Malta, to learn from the main island’s mistakes and to chart a better alternative.
The vision envisages eight priority areas: Gozo spatial planning and sustainable urban development; infrastructure and accessibility; economic and talent development; new economy; sustainable tourism; social development; rural development and Eco-Gozo; and culture, heritage, and the arts. Under these different fields, one finds 85 key ideas that serve as a starting point to achieve this vision. But not to worry, this is not the usual bland list of projects, most of them of the castle in the sky variety, that one tends to find in these kind of strategy documents. Instead, one finds a refreshing set of ideas that provide practical ways forward that would make a real difference to the wellbeing of Gozo residents.
Importantly these are not ideas that would work just for Gozo. They can be used throughout the nation. When discussing creating new car parks, the document expressly mentions that the design would mitigate visual impact, that parking would be fitted with electric vehicle recharging stations. When discussing new technologies, such as Internet of Things networks, these are seen as being introduced in areas like waste management and water consumption, not the usual hype about fintech and crypto.
The public sector will be a catalyst for this change, especially given that the public sector relatively speaking is a larger actor in Gozo than in Malta. However, there is a clear indication that several incentives will be set out to drive change also in the private sector. For instance, the document mentions the establishment of a fund to be utilised by the construction industry to incentivise energy and water efficiency in new and existing buildings, improved blending with the natural and historical environment, and increased accessibility. Another innovative idea is to develop a digital application through which users of environmentally friendly forms of transport would earn credits which they would exchange for discounts on local services and products.
Rather than dismissing traditional sectors, the new strategy wants to chart a new path by which to guarantee their revitalisation. It advocates for instance the establishment of a Gozo Centre for Research and Innovation in Agriculture and the creation of a Gozo Agri-tech investment fund. It champions the concept of sustainable tourism, that maximises the contribution of Gozitan agriculture and artisans, and that valorises Gozo’s distinctive features. It also directly addresses particular social changes, such as the ageing demographic transition which has already started to affect Gozo.
This truly progressive agenda is remarkable in its scope and comprehensiveness, and is testament to the success of subsidiarity. When strategies are built directly by those who are affected by them, they make much more sense. The Regional Development Strategy for Gozo is not just great for Gozo. It is great for other Maltese regions and for Malta as a whole. If this strategy is implemented successfully, it will be able to replicate and adapt it for other areas.