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Reply to developer’s claims on Fomm ir-Riħ project: ‘Don’t muddy the waters’

Fomm Ir-Rih
Fomm Ir-Rih, where Ballut Blocks proposed the development

The developer behind the controversial development proposed Outside Development Zone at Fomm ir-Riħ sent a right of reply to the article published by The Shift on 25 January titled ‘Mġarr Council has not objected to Fomm ir-Riħ project by Mayor’s cousin’. 

The law dictates that such replies are published in full, within 48 hours, and without comment. This is unfortunately used by private companies and government ministries alike to muddy the waters on facts presented in news reports. In this regard, and in order to set the record straight, The Shift is presenting its arguments to the points raised by Ballut Blocks in its statement.

The point made in the article was that despite more than 300 objections to the project received by the Planning Authority, the local council led by the developer’s cousin, Paul Vella, did not register any objection to the development. On the contrary, the mayor told the public to “look at the bright side”.

Ballut Blocks states: “Any assertion to the effect that clients’ application is not compliant with the applicable policies is rebutted as altogether unfounded in fact and at law.”

The article published by The Shift never stated the application was not compliant with planning policies – that is for the Planning Authority to decide, whatever that’s worth.

The point of The Shift’s article was that despite over 300 objections filed by residents, the local council – led by a Mayor who is a cousin of the developer – did not object to the project.

On planning policies, the article refers only to the objections filed by Moviment Graffiti, FAA and Nature Trust having sent in objections, with the latter saying that “the site in question is identified in the Northwest Malta Local Plan as a Category 3 Rural Settlement. Policy NWRS4 re Category 3 Rural Settlements [that] does not permit new development taking up more land” and adding that “only rehabilitation, and redevelopment of existing buildings, as defined in policy NWRS 3 is allowable”.

Ballut Blocks states: “Your article suggests that the Mgarr local council did not file an objection to the application in question owing to the fact that the Mayor is related to the shareholders of Ballut Blocks Limited”. 

Nowhere in the article is it stated that the Mgarr local council did not object to the project because the mayor is related to the shareholder. It states the fact that the mayor is the cousin of the developer and refers to the fact that when questioned on why the council had not challenged the project despite hundreds of objections filed, the Mayor told the public to “look at the bright side”.

Ballut Blocks states: “It must be pointed out that your article was published before the expiry of the deadline for the submission of representations and, to this extent, any conclusion that you may have drawn was clearly premature”. 

Since the council did not object to the project even after the deadline expired, this statement begs the question as to why this point is being raised. It seems to imply that The Shift’s “premature” article did not recognise an objection filed by the council. This is not the case. The council has not objected to the project and the Mayor has not changed his stand since his comments to The Shift.

The article clearly states: “The Mayor of Mġarr, also called Paul Vella, has not taken up residents’ concerns despite a large number of objections filed on the project. On the contrary, he told the public to ‘look at the bright side’ of such a development.”

The article also noted that there was still time (a week) for the council to object: “At the time of publishing this article, no objection was filed on the Planning Authority portal, with the deadline for objections set to 3 February”.

The deadline for the submissions closed and the council did not file an objection to the project despite the fact that more than 300 citizens objected to the controversial project in one of the most pristine areas in Malta, proposing 16 suites, a 50 square metre pool, a reception and luggage area, a breakfast and dining area and a space for a gallery.

Ballut Blocks states: “Secondly, you seem to be unaware of the fact that in terms of L.N. 162/2016, Local Councils, within whose boundaries an application is located, qualify as external consultees who must be consulted during the processing of a development application, independently of whether they would have filed a representation within the statutory term or otherwise.”

The Shift is very very well aware of this fact. The article was published two weeks after the council meeting was held to ensure that it was consulted and clearly stated, “they have not yet filed an objection” while pointing out the deadline by when objections had to be submitted.

The fact remains that the developer’s cousin heads the council that was “being consulted”.  This “consultation” does not compensate for the council failing to take up residents’ concerns by means of an objection properly filed with the Planning Authority.

Ballut Blocks states: “To this extent, your insinuation that there may be some form of collusion between clients and the Mgarr Local Council is altogether baseless and libellous.

The collusion was mentioned by the mayor himself who pointed out that the contractor filing the application was his cousin – also named Paul Vella. The fact remains that the council, led by the developer’s cousin, did not object to the project despite clear opposition in hundreds of applications filed by residents in the area.

Ballut Blocks states: “Your article incorrectly states that ‘in 2003, the Vella brothers, who had been running the family businesses selling tiles and blocks hand in hand since 1950, split. Halmann Vella was set up and run by Vincent Vella and his family, while his brothers continued to run Ballut Blocks’. The shareholders of Ballut Blocks Limited were never involved in the Halmann group.”

Again, Ballut Blocks is contesting a point the article never made, which can only be interpreted as an attempt to muddy the waters. The article included an infographic that showed the links between the individuals and companies, being reproduced here

Paul Vella Fomm Ir Rih Mgarr
The infographic showing the connections between the Mayor and the developer – both named Paul Vella.

Ballut Blocks states: “Similarly, the shareholders of Halmann group never had any involvement in Ballut Blocks. The shareholders of Ballut Blocks were extraneous to the 2003 division which you mention in your article. A simple search on the Registry of Companies website would have sufficed to enable you to get your facts right.”

The article never stated that the two are directly involved and clearly points out that the two families kept their businesses separate. But, both are shareholders in the Cottonera Waterfront group.

Ballut Blocks states:Finally, I wish to emphasise that there is no involvement in the Fomm ir-Rih estate by any third party who is not a current shareholder of the Ballut Blocks group. Hence all the various references in your article to the Hal Mann Vella Group and to (Finance) Minister (Edward) Scicluna is altogether superfluous and libellous.”

The article shows that they share an economic interest in the Cottonera Waterfront Group. Nowhere in the article is it stated that the Mayor or the Finance Minister holds shares in Ballut Blocks. But we find it interesting that Ballut Blocks feels the need to defend the Finance Minister’s interests.

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