Once upon a time the Jerma thrived

The power of the press release cannot be matched by a deed that buys land - this is the perfect middle finger to both speculator and government

The Jerma Palace was not going to be green-lit for redevelopment as anything but a hotel
The Jerma Palace was not going to be green-lit for redevelopment as anything but a hotel

There was a motion at the Marsascala local council the other day, for the Jerma Palace Hotel site to be reclaimed by the government. The Montebello brothers, as we all know, legally own the now derelict hotel, a name synonymous with four burning topics.  

The first is the sale of ladies underwear at the Monti, the second is Tonio Fenech, the third are white elephants, and the fourth are indescribable debts.  

The Montebello brothers, former canvassers to Nationalist finance minister Tonio Fenech, were the talk of the town after their well publicised link to one of Fenech’s right-hand men. They had paid the minister’s private secretary cash in return for some help with some fiscal issues. That story was a front-page MaltaToday story; but they were also at the centre of another very well publicised event because of their involvement in the refurbishing of the minister’s new home.

And of course they were also the highlight in the drama that unfolded, when they attempted to sell the Jerma site to some very well known businessmen. The latter were silly enough to have invited Tonio Fenech on a private jet to see a soccer match in the UK, and Tonio Fenech was even sillier in accepting.  

The catch in the sale: the Jerma Palace was not going to be green-lit for redevelopment, according to a planning decree by then MEPA chairman Austin Walker, as anything but a hotel. But the place itself could only be financially viable if it was altered to also accommodate private residences, a status that could be changed with the venerable intervention of a politician.

Which is why the Montebellos were eager to have seasoned businessmen purchase their derelict hotel, and perhaps to draw in some political influence to have the deal sealed.

Needless to say the Montebellos plodded on. The Mistra project. which they had kickstarted, is for now, not on the cards, but their millions in debt are as the unhappy Bawag Bank will attest. They also have their empty hotel in Marsascala, a denuded monument for all to see.

In the process, the brothers left countless investors in the red. Millions are owed, and many of those who invested were either short-sighted or never considered carrying out a proper due diligence of the brothers’ intentions or capabilities.

So when a Nationalist councillor and prominent Front Harsien ODZ campaigner, came forward asking the government to effectively fork out millions to bale out the brothers and leave the taxpayer 20 million euros in the red, I can only say that the motion in itself was downright insane.

Every government should put pressure on the Montebello brothers to sell, and not to hang on to a white elephant. It is an open secret that the brothers do not even have the slimmest of liquidity to pay for architectural designs, let alone invest in the project.  

And from a common sense point of view, the solution would be for the brothers to sell and settle their debts.  

The thinking behind the motion is not linked to the Jerma, but to the notion that the promontory there should be returned to its pristine state.

But that is not possible – not in a world where ownership of such an asset, fiscal responsibility and the non-existent respect for common law, collide. And beyond the wishes of those who dream of retaking Malta and reverting it back to its glorious past, the commercial realisation of these assets is a basic right that cannot be denied.

Which is why, until all this land remains owned by the private sector and money has been invested for development, the chances of seeing this land claimed in the name of the public, are slim indeed.

Then there is another argument, why shouldn’t the Jerma Palace be developed into a prime-site development? It is a ruined site and I for one would prefer to see this site developed, rather than the white cliffs of Munxar, which face Marsascala. On that reasoning, would we be better pulling down the Excelsior, the White Rocks, and the Radisson Blu in Golden Bay?

The second point is the realisation that the private sector will continue to work very hard to develop land that it has purchased or invested in for the future.

And this raises a very important issue: that abroad, most environmental and heritage groups are purchasing land and declaring it protected. In the UK, trusts and nature groups have bought hectares of land as protected. 

It is high time that NGOs fight big development with the same approach that speculators and construction companies have. That is, by matching their investment with the money of normal folk who want to leave a legacy.

The power of the press release and the local council motion cannot be matched by the deeds that buy tracts of land. 

This, I believe, is the perfect middle finger to both speculator and government.

In the UK there are families who bequeath their land and inheritance to heritage and environment groups. It is about time that we start thinking in the same way.


The fish farm controversy has reached new heights. And the government has taken the bold step of saying enough is enough. But even though fish farms are unsightly and smelly affairs and have their negative aspects, there are also arguments which favour fish farming.

If farming is carried out sustainably, it does reduce pressure on certain fish stocks.  

Critics of fish farms must surely see that they cannot be completely negative. Thirty years ago, when I was an avid collector of State of the World reports, one of the visions put forward by leading conservationists were fish farms. They could address the dearth of protein in certain communities and dramatically reduce the pressure on natural fish stocks. But there is usually a marked difference between theory and practice.

That argument still holds. The government has a duty to regulate and it must act now, but to ban them outright would only mean that it is trying to score some brownie points for its shaky environmental record.

One of the economists who carried out a report for the aquaculture industry had very clearly underlined the contribution of this €100 million industry to the Maltese economy. His words were emphatic. His name was Edward Scicluna, today Malta’s finance minister. I wonder, does he still feel the same way?


I have the privilege of knowing a thing or two about people. So it was quite amusing reading an article in The Times of Malta the other day about a businessman and his trips abroad. The story listed the individuals who joined him on his trips but conveniently omitted the names of those people who were directly connected to The Times of Malta, and MPs from the Opposition benches who also accompanied him.

The same applies to the stories about the power station and other major projects.  Most stories and the probing that goes with them are more than justified. What is not, is the fact that very senior PN officials, MPs and spokesmen act as legal advisers and are kept out of the news by journalists who have more of an interest to serve a master than the reader.


When many were thinking that a third party would bring some hope, the first signs of activity from the Partit Demokratiku have been very disappointing. Marlene Farrugia is very vocal when it comes to hitting out at Labour’s governance deficit but she has the biochemistry of all other MPs.

It could be irrelevant, but her sponsorship of the Kirkop women’s football team with her name and telephone number emblazoned on the gear of the muscular girls is very, very telling.


The James Piscopo front-page story shows that CEOs with government agencies need to be guided by standards and guidelines.

Just as it was not correct for Mark Portelli when he was Transport Malta chairman to remain active in his own private business (which included tendering for TM concessions), the same applies to Piscopo, who surprisingly cannot see red when there is red. Someone needs to inform him that this is not a non-story but a very relevant one.