The Malta Independent 18 October 2021, Monday

Government drops claim on scheduled buildings neglected by PL

Malta Independent Sunday, 3 November 2013, 11:30 Last update: about 8 years ago


The Labour government has dropped a state claim to revoke a permanent lease on scheduled buildings in Pembroke which have been passed on to – and long neglected by – the Labour Party, after the two sides reached an amicable agreement.

As a result of the ruling, the party will retain possession of Australia Hall and a building which had once been the Raffles Discotheque. The case also involved a third building, but the party had already transferred its lease on this building for a sum believed to be close to €600,000.

The other two buildings, on the other hand, have long been neglected: both coincidentally, were gutted in fires which raised suspicions of an arson attack, although enough remains intact for restoration to still be possible.

But no such restoration has taken place over the years, and in October 2009, the Commissioner of Lands sent a judicial letter to the party in which it warned that legal proceedings would follow if it failed to respect the terms of the lease and maintain the scheduled British-era properties.

That deadline was ignored, and a court case was filed on 9 February 2010. The case dragged on, however, until a few days ago, when proceedings were brought to a close by Mr Justice Joseph Azzopardi after both sides – the Labour government and the Labour Party – dropped their claims against each other.

In its counterclaim, Labour was seeking the return of the property it had surrendered to the government when it obtained the perpetual lease on the Pembroke properties: its former headquarters in Marsa.


The 1979 party-government agreement

The three Pembroke buildings in question were all part of the St Andrews Barracks, which were established in 1903.

Australia Hall, the largest of the three, was built by the Australian branch of the Red Cross in 1915 – during World War I – to serve as a recreation centre and theatre to entertain wounded soldiers who were being treated in Malta, which had acquired the wartime nickname of the “nurse of the Mediterranean”.

Raffles Discotheque, which dates back to 1902, had actually served as the Junior Ranks’ Club, while the third property was the soldiers’ cookhouse and dining room.All three sites are scheduled, with the Raffles building enjoying the highest level of protection, Grade 1, and the other two being Grade 2.

St Andrews’ Barracks were vacated, along with many other British structures across the country, in 1979, when British troops withdrew from Malta in what is now celebrated as Freedom Day.

That same year, the Labour government was seeking to extend the premises of Malta Shipbuilding in Marsa, but the site earmarked for the extension – on Labour Road, close to the busy traffic junction by the Addolorata cemetery – was occupied by the Freedom Press building, which served as the Malta Labour Party’s headquarters. The building still stands and the engraved words “Labour Party” are still faintly visible to motorists heading towards the junction.

The glut of vacant buildings provided an opportunity that was seized on 22 August 1979 by way of a contract signed by notary Alex Sceberras Trigona, who was the party’s international secretary and who subsequently became Foreign Minister. The agreement also saw the Labour Party acquire a lease on what was to become its next headquarters, the historic Macina in Senglea.

Much of the St Andrews military complex was transferred to Air Malta and converted into the Medisle holiday village, a development which was exploited in the re-use of two of the three structures in Labour’s possession.

Australia Hall remained unused, but the cookhouse became a pub, while the Junior Ranks Club was rented to the sons of former minister Joe Grima, who transformed it into the Raffles nightclub.

But the Medisle village was short-lived, and the area’s appeal as an entertainment area soon faded, a situation exacerbated by the growth in popularity of nearby Paceville. Raffles closed down in the late eighties, after the building was extensively damaged in a fire, and the pub itself did not stay in business for long. Air Malta’s land was actually sold to Transport Malta for €3 million this year, shortly before the general election.

Development plans, and eventual neglect

Australia Hall faced the same fate as that suffered by the Junior Ranks Club in 1998, in a fire that completely destroyed a ceiling made up of trusses and corrugated sheeting and extensively damaged what had been a stage.

The only one of the three buildings to remain intact was transferred to the St Michael’s Foundation that same year and used, with some modifications, to extend the adjacent school operated by the foundation.

But both Australia Hall and Raffles have been considered for development over the years.

According to Mepa’s website, three development applications concerning the Raffles site were filed in the 1990s, although the website lacks records of the first application, which was filed in 1991.

The second application, which was filed in 1994 by Penza Group owner Carmelo Penza, proposed the erection of “a business and pleasure centre with underlying car parking garage space”. The plans suggest that the building – which was only scheduled in 1996 – would have been demolished in the process: but the application was eventually withdrawn at the applicant’s request.

The third application, for the construction of a “child development centre”, was filed in 1996, and actually led to the issuing of a development permit to applicant Wallace Fino two years later. However, this permit was left unused.

Only one application to re-use Australia Hall was made, and that had to wait until 2005, when Lawrence Fino, on behalf of Tamarac Ltd, applied to restore it and convert it into a supermarket. But this application was ultimately withdrawn by the planning authority as it was not followed up.

However, a second development application concerning Australia Hall was filed on 12 February 2010, just three days after the government instituted legal proceedings to reclaim ownership of the building.

In this application, in which the Labour Party sought to restore “Australia Hall and its environs”, the then party president Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi was listed as the applicant and MP Charles Buhagiar was listed as the project’s architect.

No similar application was made to restore the Raffles building, despite the fact that it enjoyed a higher level of protection which prohibits demolition under any circumstances. Australia Hall had also originally been scheduled as a Grade 1 building, but was downgraded to Grade 2 protection, for which permission to demolish “will not normally be given”, by a Labour government in 1997.

The application appears to have been an attempt by the Labour Party to cover all bases, but ultimately, the party failed to follow through.

Requests for further information and subsequent reminders were ignored by both Dr Zrinzo Azzopardi and Mr Buhagiar, and in March 2012, in line with the Development Planning Act, Mepa cancelled the application.

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