Portelli’s illegal excavations in Qawra regularised by the Planning Authority

Palm Court hotel excavations carried out in emergency works for road stability went beyond area impacted by geological fault 

The Planning Authority has regularised illegal excavations in Qawra in its first streamed meeting online, after developers claimed they had carried out emergency works approved by the Building Regulation Office, on faults threatening the stability of the road from demolition works. 

A €2,400 fine was imposed. 

While six board members, including PA board chairman Vince Cassar, voted in favour, Environment and Resources Authority chairman Victor Axiak, NGO representative Annick Bonello and two other board members, Omar Vella and Gilmore Camilleri, voted against. 

But J Portelli Projects’ architect did confirm, when challenged by ERA chairman Victor Axiak, that the illegal works went beyond the area impacted by the emergency works. Nobody disputed their illegality. 

In a meeting held last month, PA chairman Vince Cassar had issued a stern warning against the sanctioning of illegal excavations in Qawra. While the PA’s planning directorate was recommending the sanctioning of the illegalities, Cassar insisted that it is “unacceptable that excavations are carried out without any authorisation” and for developers to then “apply to sanction”. 

When declaring his intention to vote against the recommendation of the directorate he warned that “this kind of irresponsibility may lead to tragic accidents similar to the house collapse in Santa Venera”. 

But in today’s meeting, Cassar explained that in last month’s meeting the board was not provided with the full information submitted during today’s meeting.  He also lamented the absence of documentation presented by the developer and the lack of communication between the BRO and the PA. 

The applications in question proposed the sanctioning of the excavation works on the site of the Palm Court Hotel, executed prior to the issuing of planning permits, and the construction of four blocks of seven-storey residential apartments as proposed in four different planning applications. 

ERA chairman Prof. Axiak remained unfazed, describing the arguments of the developers as “weak”. 

He insisted the works were not limited to the area covered by emergency works but went beyond this.  

The project’s architect confirmed that this was the case and that he would not justify the illegal works. 

The site overlooks three connecting streets, namely Triq it-Tamar, Triq ir-Rizzi and Triq il-Bekkun. Prior to its demolition and excavation, the Palm Court Hotel consisted of a five-storey construction spanning the whole site. 

The architect claimed that the excavation was conducted after a fault was found during demolition works and that they had asked the BRO for “emergency works” in the area to reinforce the road. He insisted that the hotel already had an extensive basement so the additional illegal excavations were not substantial. “This was done to protect the road from the fault,” he said. 

Speaking on behalf of the developer, lawyer Ian Stafrace – a former PA CEO – pointed out that all the documentation related to the excavations had been submitted to the BRO. “I would never justify illegal works but it is wrong to assume that all works were illegal.  Only about a metre of (illegal) excavations was made…” 

But he admitted the excavations went beyond what was foreseen in emergency works. He also insisted that sanctioning is part of the planning process. “As long as a permit is in line with policy, sanctioning is permissible. We cannot stop a project simply because of an illegality which can be addressed through fines.” 

He described the project as a regeneration project in a site of an abandoned hotel which was used for abuse. 

The meeting was one of four for which PA board members were asked to decide upon two weeks ago despite a ban on public meetings issued due to the COVID-19 emergency. The meetings were later cancelled following the intervention of Minister Aaron Farrugia. Subsequently, a legal notice was issued to enable the PA to hold online meetings. 

An objector pointed out that the project will result in a shortfall of 51 parking spaces which will be compensated by a planning gain of €59,000. But the project’s architect replied that an extra basement floor for parking would have posed safety problems.