The Planning Authority (PA) has, for over a decade, failed to take action against a gas cylinder supplier outlet that is owned by a former property development partner of Prime Minister Robert Abela, despite the Żabbar site’s checkered planning history and pending enforcement action for multiple illegalities from changing land use to building walls and even a road without planning permission.
The outlet belongs to Simon Buhagiar, who was a partner in a property investment with Prime Minister Robert Abela and businessman Gilbert Bonnici in 2016, The Shift discovered, after getting a tip-off from a reader about the problematic site.
The Shift’s investigation into the site’s history revealed that the Buhagiar family often made changes to the site first, then attempted to formalise them through submitting planning applications.
Buhagiar, known as ‘Tal-Gass’, who separately owns a company in which Bonnici is a director known as Malta Gas Distributors Limited, invested in part of a half-share on a property in Iklin with Bonnici, while Abela and his wife, Lydia, contributed the other half of the total €360,000 price. By 2019, the original property was demolished and the shell apartments replacing it were sold off, yielding the investors a handsome €1 million in sales.
The PA has appeared lenient with both the Prime Minister’s erstwhile partners – it has failed to take direct action against illegal development on Buhagiar’s site, and it also decreed in September last year that Bonnici Group’s installation of a large concrete batching plant in a quarry in Dingli did not need a permit.
Our analysis of the planning history on Buhagiar’s site shows how the area, which was once used as a World War II gun-post known as St Mary’s fort, morphed from a gun-post and surrounding farm structures to the gas cylinder site it is today largely due to unsanctioned development which was strongly objected to by heritage and culture authorities in the late nineties.
Besides the direct business link between Abela, Buhagiar and Bonnici through the acquisition, development and sale of the Iklin property, Buhagiar was also Abela’s client when the prime minister was a practising lawyer in 2015.
At the time, Abela represented Malta Gas Distributors in court when the company, together with other suppliers, had successfully obtained an injunction against the Regulator for Energy and Water Services to stop the authority from suspending licences of trucks bearing LPG supplier stickers.
Throughout both the 2015 court procedures and the Iklin property investment in 2016, the Abelas were also making what amounts to hundreds of thousands of euros over the decade in which a lucrative contract for the provision of legal services to the PA was assigned exclusively to their firm.
From chickens to gas cylinders
Virtually every planning application that was actually filed on Buhagiar’s site, which is located adjacent to Triq Villabate, was originally refused, only to be later appealed and granted in favour of the applicant, or made subject to enforcement notices after development occurred regardless of the PA’s verdict.
The first enforcement notice was filed in 1998 after Simon, Joseph and Manuel Buhagiar, along with Joseph Zammit, built garages without a permit, having previously withdrawn a formal application to build the garages two years prior.
In the same year, the Buhagiar family applied to sanction a chicken farm, landscaping works and alterations to the site, all of which occurred squarely within a World War II era structure that could have been preserved in its entirety had the surrounding development been cleared away.
After another application was filed to sanction more structures built around the gun-post in the same year as well as to roof over the gun-post to use it as storage, the Heritage and Cultural Panel had expressly stated that “the works which were carried out cannot be sanctioned” and that “the application should be refused and the recent additions removed”.
After repeated refusals of more applications that were filed in the early 2000s to either sanction the illegal chicken farm or to build agricultural stores, the Buhagiar family shifted its use of the site to gas cylinder storage sometime around or prior 2011.
An enforcement notice filed in that year, which remains listed as pending direct action at the PA’s ‘strong room’ (EC/00290/11), indicates that the Buhagiar family had built a narrow road covered in tarmac, as well as walls overlooking the road while illegally changing the use of the land from agricultural to storage space for cylinders and trucks.
Now, a decade later, in spite of a history of refused applications and illegal development which was not even sanctioned afterwards, no action has been taken and the operation remains unhindered.
In fact, Buhagiar filed another application last year to once more change the use of the land from its current unsanctioned utility as a storage space for gas cylinders to an outlet which has permission to sell the cylinders on-site, another application which has been refused by the PA and is pending an appeal filed by Buhagiar.