One-third of all the planning applications filed by the chairperson of the Building and Construction Authority (BCA), Maria Schembri Grima, are linked to major developers, all of whom are in business with Gozitan developer Joseph Portelli, an analysis by The Shift shows.
Of the 153 planning applications filed by Schembri Grima over eight years, at least 51 of them, or 33.3%, are linked to Portelli’s known business associates. Of those 51 applications, five (9.8%) are linked directly to companies in which Portelli is a shareholder.
Schembri Grima is the same architect who had told The Shift that Portelli is “one of her many clients”, dismissing queries about whether he is her main client. The Shift’s research outlines who filed development applications using Schembri Grima’s services, and the connections between them reveal a tight network of individuals with overlapping interests.
In other words, the chairperson of an Authority originally set up as part of the government’s strategy to rein in the rampant abuses occurring within the construction industry has filed 51 planning applications on behalf of the same industry operators she is now in charge of monitoring and assessing.
All of the developers mentioned in this article are linked with Portelli, a major player in the same sector who flouts planning regulations and slices up major projects into smaller applications to circumvent planning requirements like environmental impact assessments.
Schembri Grima has been chairing the BCA since its inception, an appointment that had raised questions about why the young architect was made chairperson of the Authority since it was set up in 2021.
While it is not illegal for Schembri Grima to work for Portelli, the fact that the architect has continued to represent him and his associates after being appointed chairperson of the regulator has raised questions about impartiality.
The applications analysed were filed between 10 March 2013 and September 2021, and were tracked using Lovin Malta’s Planning Web system. The analysis also takes into account known planning permits filed since then.
Ratcon Ltd is one of the companies owned by Portelli with business partners Clifton Cassar and Duncan Micallef.
While only two permits were linked to Ratcon Ltd, another 17 were linked to Cassar directly, who also happens to be a shareholder in yet another joint venture named CF Developers Ltd.
CF Developers Ltd, which includes two other shareholders named Stephen Falzon and Francis Agius, was the same company linked to permits in Qrendi that were being sold before a decision was even taken on whether to allow the development.
At least another 13 applications were linked directly to Falzon, while another three were linked to Francis Agius. A total of 15 applications were linked to Portelli’s more well-known business partners, Mark Agius and Daniel Refalo. Three of the applications linked with Refalo were filed by individuals later identified as his parents.
The overwhelming majority of applications included in the analysis were approved by the Planning Authority.
The projects often involved demolition works followed by an intensification of development and a build-up of the urban footprint on the same site. Fourteen of the permits linked to Portelli’s business interests were for projects in Outside Development Zones. The largest share of development applications was for projects in Msida (16), Gzira (13) and Qormi (12).
Schembri Grima’s work for Portelli’s associates ranged from sprawling complexes featuring dozens of residential units, garages and sometimes pools and even jacuzzis, to the construction of new hotels, along with minor, more standard-sized projects like refurbishments or complexes consisting of a handful of apartments.
The architect set up her office, MSGPeriti, in 2011 – a majority of all the permits linked directly to Schembri Grima were filed in 2013, after the general elections which led to the Labour Party’s first legislature in over two decades.