Tens of thousands euros in EU and local public funds used to build high rubble walls in a remote and ecologically sensitive rural area in Dingli, leading to a controversial abandoned fireworks factory that its owners want to transform into a ‘hotel’, are currently the subject of a magisterial investigation ordered by Magistrate Josette Demicoli, The Shift can reveal.
The main subject of the inquiry into the possible misuse of public funds are Parliamentary Secretary Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi, responsible for EU funds at the Office of the Prime Minister and the Dingli local council.
Ordering the inquiry after reviewing rafts of documentation (evidence), following a formal complaint from a Dingli resident, Magistrate Demicoli concluded that there exists a possibility that criminal acts, which are punishable by more than three years imprisonment, were committed by those responsible for the alleged misuse of public funds.
In her decision, the Magistrate ordered that the opening of an inquiry by another magistrate was necessary, to establish the facts and decide whether any criminal procedures should be taken against Zrinzo Azzopardi, representatives of the Dingli local council and any other person or authority.
In a comprehensive complaint, Dingli resident Noel Ciantar submitted detailed ‘evidence’ showing how the rural area, close to the iconic Dingli cliffs and in a Natura 2000 site, has been transformed through the construction of high rubble walls – more than a kilometre long – without any planning or any other sort of permit, while using EU funds.
The complainant alleged that the unnecessary walls were constructed in order to conceal illegal tenements built along the road, to hide illicit activities, including trapping and hunting, that take place there, and to allow them to continue without any hinderance.
The ‘illegal’ development, along Bufula Road, which has no residents but leads to the abandoned Pulvic explosives factory – which is awaiting PA approval to be converted, against all policies, into a hotel – is the latest in a series of ‘sinister’ developments taking place by government agencies in this remote area.
So far, it is not yet known which government department or agency carried out the illegal works, although it is suspected that Infrastructure Malta – falling under the remit of the Dingli constituency Minister Ian Borg – was responsible.
The works, carried out during the height of the pandemic last year, continued unabated until they were fully completed, despite reports filed to both the police and the Office of the Prime Minister.
The PA did not intervene to stop the illegal development.
Interest in rural road increases as ‘hotel’ permit edges closer
The latest enhancement of Bufula Road with new, high rubble walls was the latest in a series of mysterious interventions by the government, all of which were carried out on the approach to the abandoned fireworks complex.
The Shift has already reported in detail how the area, known for its still unspoilt ecological settings – one of the last remaining in Malta – has suddenly become the hive of activity for government road ‘improvements’ with new tarmac laid in a place hardly used except for country walks and weekend afternoon family outings.
Instead of the usual light works, normally dedicated to such roads, this ‘special one’ was dug up for more than a kilometre to install a heavy-duty water main, leading exactly to the entrance of the abandoned Pulvic factory.
When revealing this €350,000 ‘project’, Infrastructure Malta told The Shift that it was just following the orders from the Water Services Corporation as water was needed by farmers in the area. However, there are no farmers on the route of the pipeline while agricultural holdings normally do not use potable water for their crops, but second-class water extracted from drilled boreholes.
Still, Infrastructure Malta insisted that its ‘project’ had nothing to do with the pending development application to turn the abandoned factory into a luxury tourism project.
The ‘hotel’, if approved, currently has no supply of water and would need such a heavy-duty installation to be able to function. Under normal circumstances, when this type of infrastructure isn’t already present to service a site, it would be paid for by the developers themselves.
Decision on Pulvic ‘hotel’ next month
Meanwhile, having already issued a positive recommendation to grant a permit for this remote site to be turned into a hotel, the PA has also set a hearing to decide on the permit for next month.
The land in question, owned by the Pugliesevic family from Dingli, was granted a permit on the eve of the 1987 election, to build an explosives factory only on condition that the area is used exclusively for explosives. The ‘rare’ permit in this area was given purposely so that dangerous explosives work would be far away from any residences and areas frequented by people.
While the factory later closed down, the Pugliesevics have tried, unsuccessfully, for the last two decades to use their land for more lucrative business activities, although this was specifically excluded under the conditions of the original permit.
All the family’s attempts – ranging from fireworks depot to residential complex – were turned down by both the Planning Authority and the Environment and Resources Authority. Both entities insisted that no development was permitted to take place in the highly-sensitive ecological area.
However, things now appear to have changed – especially since the time when Dingli politician and Infrastructure Minister Ian Borg was responsible for the Planning Authority, though as the result of a recent reshuffle the PA no longer falls under his remit.
A fresh application was filed for the conversion of the abandoned factory into a holiday complex. This was immediately given the green light by the Malta Tourism Authority – now headed by the former Chair of the PA Johann Buttigieg. This led to a qualified nod of approval by ERA despite its previous objection.
Instead of shooting down the application at screening stage, the PA opened the application for consultation, which received some 500 objectors.
Still, the PA’s directorate has now found a way of recommending the granting of a permit, following “the scaling down of the project” – a now-familiar tactic used by developers to get their permits approved.
Although the land is still owned by the Pugliesevic family, the development application was submitted by Sunroute Hotels Ltd – owned by Maria Sant and her business family which owns the JB Stores of Iklin. The same family also owns the Hotel Santana in St Paul’s Bay.
Incidentally, this hotel is managed by George Micallef – an old hand in the industry and a member of the MTA board of directors under both the PN and PL administrations. He is also a high-profile member of the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association.