A victory for common sense

So while it remains welcome, that Abela is now committed to rectifying mistakes made by his predecessor; it would be a bitter pill to swallow, if the country ends up forking out more money - or land - for that purpose

The government’s decision to reverse the infamous transfer of public land at Zonqor point, for the construction of a private project, marks a welcome change of heart from the days of the Muscat administration.

Not only does it overturn a truly indefensible deal, which would have ceded 31,000 sq.m of public land at Zonqor (including the national pool) as well as 18,000 sq. m of ODZ land, and even a public square in Senglea (presently used as a carpark)… but it also signals a movement away from the previous administration’s modus operandi: characterized by shady deals with obscure business interests, having no track record in their respective fields.

In this sense, the land-grab at Zonqor was similar to the sale of public hospitals: only this time, ceding public land to a Jordanian construction group with no experience in tertiary education, and in the absence of any tendering process.

Nonetheless, actions speak louder than words. By taking this decision, Prime Minister Abela is distancing himself from one of the most controversial deals concocted by his predecessor; and this may go a long way towards reclaiming his party’s social and environmental credentials.

Separately, Abela’s decision also vindicates the demands made in the 3,000-strong national protest in June 2015: which had represented a watershed in environmental awakening, that emboldened citizens to mobilize against the take-up of ODZ land, and the degeneration of urban spaces.

Back then, protestors were depicted as ‘enemies of progress’ in the south of Malta.  Now, Abela takes  pride in giving back the land to the public, in an admission that the original decision had been a mistake.  Clearly, this is a victory for common sense.

Yet it remains to be seen whether this decision represents an equally watershed change in government environmental priorities; or whether it was a simple recognition that the project itself had failed to reach its overtly optimistic targets.

In 2015, Joseph Muscat announced that the ‘American University of Malta’ would attract some 3,000 students by its fifth year of operation, saying the government was finally giving the south “a project that will enhance economic and social regeneration”.

In reality the project is still making financial losses to the tune of €3.3m in 2020; €5.37m in 2019; and  €5.89m in 2018; with the latest figures (published in 2019) showing that only 143 students have enrolled.

It is also unclear whether the country will incur more costs to compensate Sadeen for the loss of land, ceded through a parliamentary resolution in 2015. Abela has hinted that the university’s facilities, originally earmarked for Zonqor and Bormla, will be relocated to Smart City, “where the ITS campus will be housed.”  He also announced that the agreement with Sadeen Group will be tabled for approval in parliament, as required by law.

But it remains to be seen how the AUM will impact the proposed ITS campus at Smart City – which, according to plans submitted in 2016 by Project Malta (then under Konrad Mizzi’s portfolio), included a 12 storey hotel, and a hospitality campus to cater for 2,500 local and foreign students.

The planning application has been pending for the past six years, as the ITS campus was temporarily relocated to Airmalta offices in Luqa.  This disruption of a reputable and established educational institution, relocated from a central touristic location to make way for a speculative project, still stands as a reminder of the skewed priorities of the Muscat administration.

It is therefore ironic, how the future of three projects - all involving the transfer of cheap public land to private developers, who failed to deliver the goods - have become intertwined. The Ricasoli land – a vast industrial wasteland, the size of 40 football pitches – was offered by a Nationalist government to Tecom Investments for a ground rent of Lm65,000 (€150,000) a year, increasing by 5% every five years.

Instead of paying a premium on the land, the developers offered 9% of the company shares to the Maltese government. Twenty years on, the promise of 5,600 jobs in the IT sector has never materialized; and the land is now being offered for other purposes. Meanwhile, the ITS campus was ‘evicted’ from a historical building in Pembroke, to make way for the monstrous City Center project: transferred to the DB group against a premium of €15 million, to be paid over seven years; €23.3 million to be paid to the State upon the redemption of the land by the individual buyers of apartments; and €22 million in ground rents which will be paid over the next century.

Now the same area identified for the ITS campus is being earmarked for the AUM, another project which failed to deliver on its promised outcome.  While it makes sense to put already-committed land at Smart City to better use, it is also crucial that both the tax payer and ITS students get the best deal in the process.

So while it remains welcome, that Abela is now committed to rectifying mistakes made by his predecessor; it would be a bitter pill to swallow, if the country ends up forking out more money - or land - for that purpose.