MaltaToday | 20 April 2008 | GonziPN’s secret deal on election eve

NEWS | Sunday, 20 April 2008|NEWS | Sunday, 20 April 2008

GonziPN’s secret deal on election eve

PM promised to appease Armier squatters in six months
By James Debono

Nineteen days before the general election, and just five days after announcing he was taking over responsibility for the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (MEPA) to redress the country’s “environmental deficit”, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi had written to the Armier squatters promising to legalise their seaside shanty-town six months after being re-elected.
The Prime Minister was replying to a petition calling on the government to issue an amnesty for the owners of illegal boathouses, and to intervene with MEPA to issue the relevant permits. In a veritable case of pre-electoral political blackmail, the boathouse owners’ petition states:
“We call on the government to issue the relevant permits and to issue an amnesty for the boathouse owners, as already promised by the Opposition leader.”
In his reply dated 18 February 2008, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi made it clear that “those boathouses built before 1992 will not be demolished.”
He also promised that “within six months of being re-elected the government would consult with MEPA on the relevant permits” for the approval of a new development set to replace the existing shanty town with an even larger but more organised boathouse village.
Coming just five days after promising to take MEPA under his responsibility, the PM’s commitment to intervene in MEPA’s pending decisions on Armier blurs the distinction between political and planning decisions.
Lawrence Gonzi also informed Tarcisio Barbara – the President of Armier Developments Ltd – that he had written to MEPA chairman Andrew Calleja to inform him on the position of the government on this issue.
Gonzi also promised the boathouse owners that following MEPA’s approval of the project, the government would present a resolution in parliament through which public land in Armier would be passed through “a title of temporary emphyteusis” to the Armier boathouse owners.
The Prime Minister’s letter refers to an agreement signed eight days before the 2003 election between the boathouse owners and Tonio Borg in his role as Minister for Home Affairs.
According to the agreement published in Mill-Bajja – the boathouse owners’ newsletter – the government agreed to hand over 230 tumuli of public land in Armier to Armier Developments Ltd.
The land was to be leased for 65 years against the payment of Lm157,000 a year. This would amount to just Lm100 a year for each boathouse owner, the boathouse owners’ newsletter claimed.
The agreement also included a provision for the building of 500 new units “reserved for persons who are not presently occupying any boathouse in the area.”

OPM’s reaction
Contacted by MaltaToday, the Prime Minister’s head of secretariat Edgar Galea Curmi at first denied that the government had reached any agreement to regularise any illegal development in the month preceding the election.
“Our only pre-electoral commitment was to dedicate ourselves body and soul to demolish any illegal structure. For this aim we have taken a commitment to strengthen existing legislation to enable MEPA to demolish any illegal structure.”
When pressed to state whether any agreement was reached with the owners of illegal structures, Edgar Galea Curmi hinted that “there was talk of finding a solution for developments preceding 1992.”
When questioned whether this entailed sanctioning any pre-1992 developments, Galea Curmi acknowledged that before the election the government had taken a commitment to honour an agreement signed with the Armier boathouse owners in 2003.
“This was a five-year-old commitment which we are obliged to honour. We could not honour the commitment during the past five years because MEPA is still processing the design of the project which is set to improve the situation in the area,” Edgar Galea Curmi replied.
When asked whether it’s fair to regularise an illegal development, Galea Curmi replied that “it is difficult to speak of illegality when some of the owners are paying rent to the Lands Department, and when government authorities have supplied the owners with electricity and water.”

Armier: a saga of political blackmail
Back in 2001 the government proposed the replacement of the existing 1,200 boathouses with 1,600 new beach houses rented for Lm250 a year covering an area of 231,000 square metres – the equivalent of 28 full size football fields.
The Marfa Action plan published by MEPA in the same year identified four zones to be used for the development of beach rooms with Zone One, at Ramlet il-Qortin, being the largest.
But amidst public outrage against the proposal, the project was put on the backburner until the eve of the 2003 election. “Since the election was approaching we increased our pressure to ensure that by election day we would have something in writing… We also talked to the Opposition which gave us a satisfactory deal in 2002,” Tarcisio Barbara wrote on the boathouse owners newsletter Mill-Bajja published on April 2003.
With the Opposition giving the boathouse owners what they wanted, the government started to panic offering the boathouse owners a deal. The first draft was rejected by the boathouse owners. According to Barbara the government expected each boathouse owner to pay Lm20,000 over a period of 20 years, and another hefty sum after 45 years.
But in the days preceding the election the boathouse owners intensified their efforts. “A number of meetings were held with PN general secretary Joe Saliba, Minister Tonio Borg and parliamentary secretary George Pullicino,” Barbara wrote.
The agreement was finally reached on 3 April, following a meeting with Tonio Borg and PN general secretary Joe Saliba.
In 2005, replying a parliamentary question by Charles Mangion, Austin Gatt reiterated the government commitment’s to lease the land to the Armier boathouse owners adding that discussions were taking place between the boat house owners and MEPA on this issue.
But with the agreement still on the government’s backburner a year before the election, the boathouse association recommenced its lobbying with the opposition, opening a new chapter in this veritable tale of political blackmail.
In October 2007, the association’s newsletter Mill-Bajja refers to a meeting with Opposition leader Dr Alfred Sant, in which the latter promised to honour the party’s 2002 agreement with the boathouse owners.
Tensions between the government and the boathouse owners escalated after MEPA issued two enforcement orders against two boathouses in Armier. Barbara was incensed when a MEPA official told him that MEPA did not recognise the agreement signed with the boathouse owners and the government, because it was never informed of the agreement.
Finally, on the eve of the 2008 election, the government through the Prime Minister’s letter renewed the promise made in 2003 strengthening it with a commitment to satisfy the boathouse owners’ demands six months after his re-election.

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