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NEWS | Sunday, 27 April 2008

Senior ministers met Armier squatters in election run-up

James Debono

Representatives from the association of illegal squatters at Armier met up with various government ministers in the run-up to the 2008 election, including Louis Galea and Censu Galea, as well as deputy Prime Minister Tonio Borg and Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi – and Opposition leader Alfred Sant.
The meetings paved the way for a renewal of vows between the illegal squatters and the Maltese political class on the eve of the election.
Gonzi committed himself 19 days before the election not to remove any of the illegal boathouses built before 1992, and to honour a 2003 agreement to cede the land to the company the squatters formed, Armier Developments Ltd.
The 2003 commitment was taken eight days before the 2003 election, when the government promised to lease 230 tumuli of land to the squatters for a ground rent of Lm157,000 a year.
This time, Gonzi promised to “consult with MEPA” on a pending application for the redevelopment of Armier, within six months of being elected to power.
In comment to MaltaToday, former education minister Louis Galea said his role was “to listen to the representative of Armier Developments and confirm that a PN government would respect the terms of the 3 April 2003 understanding.”
Asked whether it was appropriate for ministers to intervene in pending planning issues such as the redevelopment of the Armier beach rooms, Galea replied that politicians ought only to intervene in planning issues strictly as permitted by law. “In this case the commitment of the government is to fully observe MEPA procedures and decisions and to present a resolution to parliament if MEPA decides to issue the permits relevant to the Armier Development Ltd’s application.”
Former minister Censu Galea candidly acknowledged meeting the Armier squatters on various occasions. He was credited by the boathouse owners of having encouraged them to send the petition to the prime minister. Galea said he was even asked to sign the petition but refused to do so as this was not compatible with his role as a minister. “At that time I was worried by rumours that the government intended to demolish the boathouses. Since an agreement was already signed, I felt the government should honour it.”
As Home Affairs Minister directly responsible for the Lands Department, Tonio Borg met the squatters to discuss technical details of the agreement he had signed on the government’s behalf in 2003. Borg was reported to have told the squatters’ representative Tarcisio Barbara that if MEPA does not issue the permits for the rebuilding of the boathouses, the government was ready to “leave everything as it is”.
Borg told MaltaToday he always insisted any concession to the squatters was subject to the issue of MEPA permits. “This was as a sine qua non, and I added that I had no authority to influence in any way what MEPA would do.”
Borg said the association always insisted that should the permits not be issued, a title of lease should be granted to the current occupiers. “I objected to this and told them they should not expect a better legal or factual position other than the one currently held should the permits not be issued. I gave no other guarantees on behalf of government.”
Borg said that government had for years pursued a policy to demolish the boathouses built after 1992 while a solution would be found for the pre-1992 boathouses.
The only minister to earn the rebuke of the squatters was former environment minister George Pullicino, who according to Tarcisio Barbara, turned down eight requests to meet the association.
But Pullicino is foursquare behind Gonzi’s pre-electoral commitments, a spokesperson said, communicating the minister’s position is the same as that taken by Gonzi on Armier.
The only meeting between the prime minister and the squatters took place on 20 February 2007. On 29 May 2007, they also had a formal meeting with Labour leader Alfred Sant, Charles Mangion and environment shadow minister Roderick Galdes, in which the MLP renewed an earlier agreement signed in 2002 promising that all beach rooms in a good state would be retained, while those in a bad condition rebuilt at the squatters’ expense.

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