National Heritage Minister Jose Herrera’s choice of business partners on two development projects he has entered into in Senglea and Gzira has raised questions, despite the minister’s insistence that all is above board.
In Senglea, Herrera is involved in a project to turn an old townhouse into a number of units through various alterations and the building of two extra floors. His partner is Keith Seychell, the owner of Capo Crudo restaurant in Valletta.
It is Seychell who appears on the planning development applications, shielding the minister and another unknown investor. Herrera owns one third of this project, but he would not name the third investor when answering questions sent by The Shift.
Despite the other investors, Seychell declared he is the sole owner of the property in the planning application submitted to the PA.
His restaurant on the Marsamxett shoreline in the country’s capital is built in breach of planning laws and sits on land that belongs to the public. When Herrera was environment minister, Capo Crudo was served with enforcement notices for a raft of illegalities.
The restaurant replaced what used to be the old regatta club and boathouse. The additional structures set up for the restaurant has allowed it to increase the restaurant’s area as well as its turnover.
The infringements included illegal internal and external alterations, the installation of a large retractable canopy, illegal services at roof level including chimney, installation of signage and lighting along the facades and the installation of an aluminium room and planters on public land.
Despite enforcement notices issued more than four years ago, nothing has changed. Seychell appealed the notices and while the Environment and Planning Review Tribunal grinds through the process, Capo Crudo continues to operate, promoting itself as a high-end restaurant in a unique location.
The property is still owned by the Lands Authority, but no action has ever been taken to address the abusive use of public property. The PA has already highlighted the fact that there is no change of use permit.
The restaurant has been described by heritage organisation Din l-Art Helwa as “an illegal development marring the city’s iconic vista.” And Malta’s national heritage minister has entered into partnership with its owner on a development project.
When questioned about this, the minister replied: “With reference to any alleged infringements re third party, I would like to stress that I have no interest whatsoever in that business and at no point was there any intervention from my end. It is the remit of the relevant authorities to consider the appropriate and relative proceedings.”
Seychell is also involved in other questionable deals, such as the Metropolis Towers in Gzira, launched with great pomp by disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat in 2015. The project involving also Jalal Husni Bey, who made a fortune during the Gaddafi regime years, never actually took off.
Apart from Herrera’s development in Senglea, the minister is also involved in another project to turn another old house in Charles Cemeron Street in Gzira into several flats.
Again, the development application related to this project, which has now disappeared from the PA’s online portal, did not mention the minister’s name, even though he owns half the project.
And again, Herrera would not name his partner in his replies to The Shift. But the individual fronting the application process is Daniel Bonello, a property agent with Dhalia. It is unclear whether Bonello is Herrera’s business partner or submitting the application on the minister’s behalf, which would be illegal.
In his replies to The Shift, the minister stated that everything is above board: “I reiterate that the investments being referred to are above board, followed all required planning permitting procedures and duly declared in the cabinet and parliamentary declarations.”