A development application on 13,225sqm of ODZ land filed by Marsaxlokk football club is being opposed by two environmental organisations that said such applications are nothing more than ‘fake’ business opportunities on public land obtained on the cheap.
The development in question, classified as a major project on its public application, includes the construction of a ‘sports hostel for team players’, seating stands for the existing pitch and the excavation and construction of an old people’s home that will ‘integrate and enlarge’ an existing public garden.
It also includes the construction of a child care centre, a social club, sports shops and a physiotherapy clinic. Based on the plans made available so far, the old people’s home will be three stories high, while the hostel occupies one floor above ground, with all commercial operations lumped together in the main building.
“I’m not one who believes that nothing at all can happen in ODZ but, on the other hand, I think we have to evaluate what we really need as a community and as a country that requires the uptake of land,” Din L-Art Ħelwa’s executive president Alex Torpiano told The Shift.
“This is also on public land that was given to these clubs for them to engage in sports activities, legitimately so because it is difficult to find a place elsewhere. But then they started changing that land bit by bit – land which was, first of all, a gift but second of all in ODZ – into these fake business opportunities,” Torpiano added.
Flimkien Għal Ambjent Aħjar (FAA) coordinator Astrid Vella echoed Torpiano’s concerns, stating that the organisation “condemns this application solely designed to maximise profit for the developers”.
“Not only is the hostel layout designed to be changed to a hotel, but the replaced ‘public garden’ is totally unacceptable. The footprint to be developed from the past application to the current plans is not reduced as claimed, as the ‘reduced footprint’ is now a tarmacked surface for parking,” FAA told The Shift.
FAA also took aim at the design of the elderly home, pointing out that the designs uploaded to the Planning Authority’s (PA) eApps portal by the applicant’s architect shows that most of the wards have four to five beds each with one shared bathroom, “a ratio that is absolutely not acceptable according to geriatric care standards, and is not seen anywhere in State care facilities”.
Torpiano, an architect by profession, believes the application is designed to make use of public land obtained on the cheap to maximise profits, especially when emboldened by legislation and policies that allow for such land grabs to occur.
“I can’t understand what a sports academy is going to do in Marsaxlokk. To me, it’s a front for business. We’ve seen them all before; these businesses which are favoured through policies and then start slowly changing into something else,” Torpiano said.
“We’ve seen fireworks factories undergo the same process; land is given for fireworks factories only for them to transform into tourism complexes. It’s something we’ve heard too much of and it’s time for that to change,” he added.
Just two weeks ago, the PA refused an application to convert the abandoned Pulvich fireworks factory in Dingli into tourism development, a decision taken following significant public outcry against the application as well as the planning commission’s original recommendation to approve the application which sought to intensify development in a Natura 2000 site.
“If we need a sports academy, then we should have a sports academy, but they have to look at it in the context of land which is up for development, not for land they happen to own. It’s too easy to just own a piece of land and see what you’re going to do with it,” Torpiano said.
“If it’s a commercial venture, they should buy land, go to a bank, prepare their plans and make it work, not develop land simply because they got it on the cheap,” he added.
On 1 January 2017, disgraced former tourism minister Konrad Mizzi had introduced subsidiary legislation titled ‘commercialisation of sports facilities regulations’, which had essentially given sports facilities the right to apply for permission to use premises for purely commercial activities, subject to approval from a commission whose members are all appointed by the relevant minister.
According to the legislation, when a football club files such an application, the commission is meant to instruct the national association of which the club forms part to set up a technical committee that decides on the merits of that specific application. The committee is to include two members from the relevant association, with the commission appointing a lawyer, an architect and an accountant.
“Frankly, I think the root of all this is political patronage, an issue of people going to their local MPs, telling them about owning this land or that piece of land and wanting to do something with it, and MPs being only too happy to help,” Torpiano said.
“People are fed up – people who don’t have those links with politicians, people who want to work within the rules and know this country needs to be saved, are really fed up of this preferential treatment,” he added.