A multi-million-euro government project to provide accommodation and other essential services for persons with special needs that was scheduled to start operating next year has instead lain abandoned for almost two years.
Announced in 2016 as ‘Project Reach’, the €32 million facility situated next to the Trade Fair grounds in Naxxar, was originally meant to be part-funded by €9 million in allocated EU funds. This money has now been lost because of the unexplained delay.
Responsibility for the project has been shunted through six different cabinet ministers since its inception, resulting in a complete standstill for two whole years.
While initial excavations initiating the project began in mid-2019, the work came to an abrupt halt a few weeks after it started and has still not been completed.
The Shift is informed that the company that won the tender for excavations, Rockcut Ltd, has now started legal procedures against Aġenzija Support – the government entity responsible for the project – claiming damages over pending works.
So far, the government has not given any explanation for the delay or any indication as to when the project will be continued.
Government sources described the undertaking – now under the auspices of minister Julia Farrugia Portelli – as “a complete mess with no one actually knowing what is going to happen”.
Minister Farrugia Portelli has refused to reply to questions about the project, citing the pending court case as justification. However, she has also failed to appoint a new board of directors for Aġenzija Support, the entity that was supposed to be leading the project.
The Shift is also informed that due to the missed target dates of the project – earmarked to open in 2022 – the government is going to be forced to find a further €9 million from national funds as the EU funding earmarked for the ‘hub’ have now been lost. According to the ministry, the EU funds will now be used elsewhere.
The ‘hub’ project
Announced in 2016 by then parliamentary secretary Justyne Caruana, the project involved the building of a ‘village’ for persons with special needs, divided into 78 residential units in four separate blocks.
The plans also included a 26-room hostel, a restaurant, retail outlets, offices, gym and a therapy pool.
The idea of the hub, opposed by NGOs in the sector, is to offer the opportunity of independent living to persons with special needs. The NGOs argue that this will continue to segregate these people from the community.
Millions already spent
So far, the government has already spent millions of taxpayer euros on this project, even though there is nothing yet to show for it.
Caruana had selected architect Frank Muscat’s Doric Studio to draw up the plans for the facility, for which he was paid tens of thousands of euros.
Incidentally, Caruana continued to use this same architect when she became Gozo minister, during which time he was awarded multiple direct orders as part of various projects carried out under her ministry.
Other allocated tenders related to the Naxxar facility amount to millions of euros in total.
While Rockcut, now in court over the project, was awarded the excavation tender, worth some €1 million, the largest contract went to BC Joint Venture – which includes mega-contractors Bonnici Group – which was allocated a €20 million deal to eventually build the hub.
The Shift revealed last month that Gilbert Bonnici, Bonnici Group’s managing director, was up to a few months ago a business partner of Prime Minister Robert Abela in a property speculation project in Iklin.
At the same time, BAC Ltd – controlled by Alex Bezzina and Keith Cole – were awarded a €2 million contract for project management.
Apart from the incomplete excavation, none of the work has started yet even though contracts were awarded in 2019 and the project was earmarked for completion next year.
Farrugia Portelli is the sixth cabinet member to hold responsibility for the project in five years. It was initiated by Justyne Caruana, then passed on to Michael Farrugia, to Michael Falzon, to Anthony Agius Decelis and to Silvio Parnis before landing on Farrugia Portelli’s desk.