National Heritage Minister Jose’ Herrera was busy ripping up old houses and turning them into flats while he was the minister responsible for Malta’s environment, sustainable development and climate change policies between 2016 and 2020.
Herrera, a lawyer who has formed part of the Labour government since 2013, is involved in at least two property development projects, both in the urban development zones of Gzira and Senglea, an investigation by The Shift has found.
Both projects, in which he is a partner with other property developers, involve the gutting of old houses, making internal and external alterations and adding new storeys to accommodate a number of flats.
While Hererra’s name doesn’t appear on any of the planning documents related to these two development projects, he is the co-owner on a project to convert an old two-storey house in Gzira into three apartments with an additional duplex penthouse.
He is also a co-owner, together with two other businessmen, in a project to remodel an old townhouse in Senglea into two separate units, one a duplex, through the building of two additional floors.
Herrera included his ownership of part of the property developments in his latest declaration of assets – unlike other members of the Labour government, including Prime Minister Robert Abela, who did not list any details of the properties they own.
But Herrera has refused to divulge any further details, including the names of his business partners in both projects.“These properties are being developed in full conformity with all the applicable laws and due processes,” was Herrera’s only reply to several questions from The Shift.
The heritage minister was also asked to state why his name doesn’t appear on the application and to explain whether it was appropriate for a government minister, particularly the minister responsible for the environment and sustainable development, to be involved in property development.
Further investigations by The Shift show that in the case of his property development project in Sir Charles Cameron Street, Gzira, the application was filed by Daniel Bonello, who seems to own a 50% share with the minister on this project.
The Senglea development, in which the minister owns one-third of the project, is being fronted by Keith Seychell, a property developer.
In both cases, the minister – who was also responsible for the Environment and Resources Authority in the period the applications and development permit were processed – did not appear on any of the applications. The ERA forms an integral part of the planning approval process.
It is not known whether this conflict of interest was declared to the prime minister, the ERA and the PA during the development application process.
Both applications appear to have been processed and approved within normal timeframes and the ERA did not object to either of the applications.
Herrera is obliged to declare any income from this business through his declaration of assets.
According to the ministerial code of ethics, “upon appointment, a minister is expected not to continue with his private work and shall dedicate all his time to government work. This applies in so far as the Cabinet does not decide otherwise in exceptional cases where the national interest so requires”.
The code, which entails the prime minister and the standards commissioner as its watchdog, also says that ministers shall ensure that there is no conflict between their public duties and private interests, financial or otherwise.
It further states that it’s the personal responsibility of every individual minister to decide whether steps have to be taken and what needs to be done in order to avoid such conflict of interest.