The process of building a new yacht marina in Xemxija, already 17 years in the making, will have to start afresh as a concession agreement granted by Transport Malta has been declared invalid by the Public Contracts Review Board (PCRB).
For the umpteenth time, Transport Malta has been found to have acted irregularly and against the law, including EU directives, as it tried to revive a process which the same regulator had declared was cancelled 10 years ago, in 2011.
Following a challenge by the owners of Beachaven, a restaurant that also offers berthing facilities in Xemxija, the PCRB decided that Transport Malta could not make an agreement with the concessionaire – Harbour Management Ltd – after it had already declared it null.
The PCRB upheld the arguments brought forward by the owners of Beachaven that there should be a new Request for Proposals if Transport Malta wanted to continue with its plans to establish a new yacht marina in the area.
The 2009 process
Plans to establish a new yacht marina facility in the north part of Malta were originally announced in 2004 by then-minister Censu Galea.
A Request for Proposals was issued in 2009, following permits sought from the Planning Authority. The Maritime Authority, now forming part of Transport Malta, awarded the tender to Harbour Management Ltd – owned by businessman Pierre Balzan who already manages the Mgarr Marina in Gozo.
Yet, the formal concession agreement was never signed as the concessionaire wanted to charge boat owners tariffs which the regulator found exorbitant.
In 2011, Transport Malta issued a declaration stating that since there was no agreement. The concession process was cancelled.
Following this development, Harbour Management Ltd filed a case against Transport Malta in court, contesting its decision.
While the court case dragged on for years, the new Labour administration decided to conduct informal talks with the preferred bidder, which led to the signing of a still secret ‘compromise agreement’ last November with Harbour Management Ltd.
The latter cancelled its court case against Transport Malta a few days later declaring that it was no longer interested in litigation. A few months later, a ‘concession agreement’, also unpublished, was signed between Transport Malta and Harbour Management for the yacht marina.
No details were ever given on this agreement.
Last March, Transport Malta issued a directive for Xemxija Bay to be cleared of all boats so works could start on the marina.
At this point, the owners of Beachaven challenged Transport Malta’s decision arguing the move was illegal as the concession had been cancelled. They said that according to public procurement rules there should have been a fresh process including a new call for tenders.
In its decision, the PCRB agreed with the owners of Beachaven and decided the concession agreement between Transport Malta and Harbour Management Ltd was null and void.
A history of illegalities and abuse
Transport Malta has been embroiled in a number of illegalities and abuses during the past years, particularly since Minister Ian Borg has been put in charge and James Piscopo was placed at the helm of the Authority.
Dubious multi-million euro contracts and direct orders for the building of roads and various concessions in the transport and maritime sector have come under scrutiny although no proper investigations were ever conducted.
Its conduct has not changed since Piscopo was replaced with Joe Bugeja, also handpicked for the role.
The concession for the fast ferry service to Gozo got stalled following irregularities found by both the PCRB and the courts. After years of court litigations, all lost by the government, Minister Ian Borg had to concede and allow the fast ferry service to be operated in a competitive environment.
Meanwhile, a public service concession for the Gozo-Malta maritime transport route, currently controlled by Gozo Channel, has been dormant for years even though it came to an end in 2017.
Another Transport Malta concession, this time for the operation of passenger ferry transport services in the Grand Harbour, is also being challenged as the government secretly extended the concession without issuing a new tender, as required by EU rules.
The beneficiaries of this concession also involve the Zammit Tabonas, who, during James Piscopo’s tenure as Transport Malta boss, was in business with Julian Zammit Tabona – one of the shareholders of the Fortina Group and the father of Edward, the group’s current CEO.
The concession extension agreement, deemed abusive by rival companies, is now to be decided in court.
The list of abuses by Ian Borg’s Transport Malta does not end there. It was recently revealed that the daughter of Ian Borg’s advisor was put on a lucrative contract at Transport Malta through a direct order to give legal consultancy before she had even graduated.
The contract was cancelled on the prime minister’s orders only after the press exposed the facts.