The Malta Independent 10 December 2016, Saturday

Astrid Vella claims Mepa officials overheard warning developer of pending enforcement visit

David Lindsay Sunday, 17 January 2016, 10:30 Last update: about 12 months ago

The successive developments of the Grand Hotel in Ghajnsielem have allegedly been riddled with abuse over the years.  This track record of abuse, according to Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar’s Astrid Vella, ranges from the usurpation of public property, being the ground underlying the belvedere next to the hotel, to the construction of foundations for the hotel extension and the takeover of the belvedere itself as an open storage area for building materials. The latest development is a current application before the Malta Environment and Planning Authority for a supposed extension to the hotel which, in reality appears to be a block of flats.

The hotel has an application to this effect currently pending before Mepa (renewal of permit PA 4617/08 – Amendments to permission PA 1461/05 including additional rooms to existing Grand Hotel. Sanctioning of amendments to facade on Triq Hamri from that approved in PA 1461/05), for which the period for representations from the public expires on 22 January.

“Are we going to allow this abuse to continue unabated?” Mrs Vella asked yesterday when contacted.  “This hotel’s height has been contentiously raised, blocking views of the homes behind, it has become an eyesore, and still the abusive behaviour continues.

“If Mepa now approves the present application, sanctioning abusive works, this would make the present Mepa officials party to past abuse.”

Speaking of past abuses, Mrs Vella recalls how back in May 2010 she had coincidentally been at the same hotel for an unrelated meeting, when she overheard a group of Gozitan Mepa employees instructing the hotel’s owner on how to conceal his multiple building abuses.

Mrs Vella says that both she and the person she was meeting at the hotel clearly heard Mepa officials warning the developer that he was to be subjected to a ‘surprise visit’ by enforcement officials from Malta.

Mrs Vella says the officials were overheard telling the hotel’s owner to “get a crane and remove all the planki tal-konkret that you have on the Belvedere because enforcement officials from Malta will be coming on Monday, and they’re not like us, they don’t turn a blind eye”.

She says the Mepa officials also urged the developer to rebuild a ramp that allowed the disabled access to the public belvedere, to which the developer replied: “I can’t, I built my wall there”, referring to the wall of his building that was later found to have slightly encroached under  the public belvedere.

The Mepa officials then advised the developer, according to Mrs Vella, to reinstate the belvedere so that the abuse would not be noted.  The developer was heard explaining that the problem was that one of the concrete bollards had been broken when it was uprooted to make space for his building.

“No problem,” one of the Mepa officials replied, “I know the person who used to make them. When he retired he kept one of the moulds in his garage. He can make you a replacement and no one will realise that it’s not the original.”

Reports of the incident and what had been overheard were eventually filed to then environment minister Mario de Marco and then Mepa chairman Austin Walker. While the former had pledged action would be taken, Mrs Vella accuses the latter of having carried out a “whitewash exercise” (see Mrs Vella’s full version of events in box). 

Build first, apply later

Mrs Vella describes the hotel’s development application case history of the applications and enforcements show a “pattern of build first, apply later”.

She explains, “The hotel’s application to build an extra floor was highly irregular, and when we confronted the Case Officer, telling him this violated the Local Plan ridge regulations for the area, he simply replied, ‘But I like the way it looks’.”

Mrs Vella says that a meeting had been held with Mepa Chairman Austin Walker about this and the fact that the façade had not been built according to plan, “but he covered up for them, insisting that the irregularities had been sanctioned, which we knew they were not at that point. 

“In fact, they were only sanctioned six months later.

“We also pointed out the application was for an extension to the hotel, but was built as a completely separate block of flats, lacking the lift and communicating corridor to the hotel shown on the approved plans. This was also ignored in spite of the fact that the constructed layout could be seen from the street, let alone to Mepa’s enforcement officers.”

Astrid Vella’s explanation of what she heard and what transpired afterward

On 10 May 2010, the day of the Hondoq hearing, I had arranged to meet an FAA member at the bar of the Grand Hotel. As I waited I was within close earshot of a group of men who I realised were Mepa employees, giving advice to a developer – the hotel owner – on how to hide his building abuse.

By that time my contact had arrived and we both heard the Mepa officials warning the developer that he was to be subjected to a ‘surprise visit’ by enforcement officials from Malta – “get a crane and remove all the planki tal-konkret that you have on the Belvedere because the Enforcement from Malta will be coming on Monday and they’re not like us, they don’t turn a blind eye”.

The Mepa officials urged the developer to rebuild the ramp that allowed the disabled access to the public belvedere, but the developer replied “I can’t, I built my wall there” referring to the wall of his building that was later found to slightly encroach on the Belvedere. 

Moving on, the Mepa officials told the developer to reinstate the Belvedere so that his abuse would not be noted. The developer said that one problem was that one of the concrete bollards had been broken when it was uprooted to make space for his building “No problem” replied one of the Mepa staff. “I know the man who used to make them. When he retired he hung onto one of the moulds in his garage. He can make you a replacement and no one will realise that it’s not the original”.

Discussing reports of the abuse that had been received at Mepa Gozo, the more senior official identified the neighbours as being the source of the objections, saying “we are sick of their almost daily reports (“Qazzewna jcemplu kwazi killjoy”). 

At this point I phoned then Minister Mario de Marco, as I wanted to inform him of what was going on in front of a witness, so that later it could not be said that the authorities were not aware.  Dr de Marco asked me to get as much evidence as possible, so before the meeting ended I stood up and took two photos of them. When they realised this, the Mepa officials leap up aggressively at me. I stalled them saying “This is on orders of Minister de Marco, I’ve just spoken to him, here, phone him and he’ll confirm.” That stalled them and I got away. My colleague left after me and witnessed all of this.

In the days following this incident, FAA requested an inquiry into this matter but the attitude on the part of Mepa Chairman Austin Walker was immediately defensive, claiming that the Mepa officials were only doing their duty in urging the developer to remedy his abuse “You NGOs are always complaining, if we don’t do our work you complain and if we do our work you still complain.” We countered saying that if the Enforcement staff were really doing their work, they would have put up an enforcement notice on the site – which was at the same time subject to a Lands legal action for encroachment. The meeting should have been held at Mepa office and been regularly minuted, rather than being held in a suspicious huddle at a bar. We also maintained that if Mepa Gozo were really intent on rectifying abuse, why had they steadfastly refused to meet objectors on this case for two whole years, claiming that they were too busy, and yet four of them found the time to meet with the developer in his bar? This is especially remiss on the senior Mepa official who was also Mayor of Ghajnsielem, elected to look after the interest of Ghajnsielem residents.

When Austin Walker eventually conceded to hold an internal enquiry, I offered to send him my report of what I had witnessed, but he said it would not be necessary! I did so just the same. The enquiry turned out to be a two-page report noting the officers’ claims that they were clearing abuse, and claiming that nothing irregular had taken place, as Austin Walker maintained all along. We were called to a meeting with Austin Walker where we were permitted to read this ‘whitewash’ report but our request for a copy was refused.  It goes without saying that no disciplinary measures were taken.

We then requested a meeting on this matter with Minister de Marco which was eventually granted. Minister Demarco offered to hold an external inquiry and retired Judge Caruana Colombo was suggested.  We did not accept this suggestion as we maintained that Judge Caruana Colombo would not be up to date on the development issues involved. We therefore proposed Perit Joe Falzon, however this whole process dragged on for so long that Perit Falzon was by then ending his term of office as Mepa Auditor and we do not whether this proposal was ever actually put to him.

Seeing that there was little interest in getting to the bottom of this matter, we felt it would be more effective to take it to the press than to waste more years on cover-up jobs. This was not the first time we had encountered and reported abuse on the part of Mepa Gozo Enforcement as well as the Planning Directorate in Malta both as regards the Grand Hotel which is mired in irregularities, as well as other Gozo cases.

We maintain that it is not up to an NGO to root out corruption in an authority like Mepa – once this matter was brought to the notice of the Mepa Chairman, with proof provided and witnesses available to testify, it should have been up to those responsible not to leave a stone unturned to get to the bottom of this matter. Their failure to do so makes them complicit to the rot inside Mepa.

If Mepa now approves the present application, sanctioning abusive works, this would make the present Mepa officials party to past abuse.

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