A year after the Labour Party shot to power in 2013, word on the street was that the Institute of Tourism Studies’ building located at St George’s Bay was to be sold to Silvio Debono of DB Group. Both the government and Debono denied such an agreement had been reached.
The government’s reply to my questions in 2014 had been: “There is no form of agreement or arrangement with any entity, whether private or public, regarding the use of the ITS building.” Really.
Two years later, I received a call: “Silvio Debono is selling apartments at values of over €1 million at the ITS site. They’re being sold through Remax”.
This was public land at the time… how could someone be selling apartments on public land unless convinced he would be getting it?
Investigations showed this to be true. In 2016, the apartments were being sold at €3,500 per square metre – a price tag that can reach values of over €1 million depending on the size and level of each apartment. Now we know that was a conservative estimate.
The plans were set, and the whole promotional paraphernalia laid out in 2016. “The hotel and residences are not the project. They are part of a destination… City Centre will be smack in the middle of the Golden Mile. A centre of gravity and a new reality in the bay area”.
Plans shown by Remax to potential buyers at the time revealed two towers to be surrounded by a shopping mall, offices, a casino, a Hard Rock hotel, as well as a café on the beach. Companies had already been approached to operate the retail outlets.
The tender for the land – which cost €10,000 – was won by the Seabank Group, the only bidder. Industry sources had said they had not bothered to apply because the project was not feasible according to planning laws at the time. They all said, ‘if we knew we would have applied too’.
“This is daylight robbery of public land…The government should have been clear with potential bidders that local plans would be adapted to suit such a project… There was no public consultation. It could have then got the best value for money for the land on the public’s behalf,” industry sources had said.
The scandal was revealed, outrage followed, the Auditor General was asked to assess it by former Opposition leader Simon Busuttil in March 2017, but this did not even start. Meanwhile, the PA said it ‘could not stop the process’ pending the outcome of an investigation by the Auditor General, The Times of Malta reported.
When my story was published in The Sunday Times in September 2016, the government had said in a statement: “The Sunday Times’ story regarding the process and the sale of the ITS site is misguided by someone who fed it the wrong information and is riddled with factual errors”.
“Had the journalist asked government for its version of facts, as one would have expected for a story which was given such importance, the newspaper would have learnt that a number of facts and amounts being quoted are incorrect, and that there are currently exercises and negotiations that will ensure that the prices paid for hotel, real estate and commercial components of the project are in line with the market standard”.
We can look back at that now and laugh.
The story was backed by plans and evidence, but what’s that worth to a government with a track record of discrediting journalists to serve its own ends? After all, we’ve had two years of evidence of the involvement of top government officials in the Panama Papers.
What changed? Absolutely nothing.
Over the next two years, NGOs raised awareness and they pursued their campaign till the end, with citizens even getting beaten up at a Planning Authority (PA) hearing in the process. More than 4,000 people submitted objections to the PA – the largest number for any planning application ever considered.
What changed? Absolutely nothing.
Never mind that the site plans were in breach of planning laws at the time. Never mind that Debono did not even own the land on which he was selling property. It all worked out in the end.
Was it fair? Absolutely not.
Real estate agents are selling apartments in the project “as a whole floor starting from the price of €3.5 million up to €10 million, finish target date June 2021”.
The advert boasts that “the project is located in a Special Designated Area”.
Payment terms are 10% on promise of sale, 20% on approval of planning permit, 30% on roofing of floor, 20% on roofing of residential tower, 20% on completion (just in case you’re interested).
DB Group must be raking in that 20% on apartments sold now that the PA approved the permit last week.
Let’s remember this was public land – 25,000 square metres of it – in a prime location that was valued at the level of agricultural land, allowing Debono to make a killing on the project. That wasn’t enough. Debono was given the space to pay in instalments.
On top of losing millions on the sale of the land, the public also has to fork out some €50 million for the relocation of the ITS to Smart City so the land can be freed up to accommodate the project.
In addition, the public may need to cover the costs of a tunnel to deal with the additional traffic the project would create. Transport Minister Ian Borg failed to give the requested details about how much the tunnel would cost and whether the government or the developers would pay for it.
All this is not Joseph Muscat’s to give away.
This is not a national project that prioritises the public interest.
The public got a rotten deal on this from start to end.
Compare this handout to the €40 – €50 government cheque to workers. That ‘social measure’ cost the government €11.4 million. It’s a fraction of what the government gave away to DB Group. Calculations based on the government’s Paceville master plan put the actual value at €212 million.
Fair? Absolutely not.
The DB Group is just another that tops the list of Muscat’s generous give-aways to his supporters of land / property that was never his to give away – remember Cafe Premier, Australia Hall, Old Mint Street (Gaffarena), Zonqor (Sadeen), to mention a few? And this is not the end.
Wait for the White Rocks project. We’re about to get scammed there too.