Three commercial blocks proposed next to Australia hall


Local plan permits re-use of Australia Hall for a variety of public, cultural and recreational uses but does not foresee development in its immediate vicinity

Three new “mixed use” blocks, ranging between five and six floors are being proposed on a 3,870sq.m area that envelopes the historical Australia Hall.

In planning jargon, mixed-use developments normally include a combination of residential, office and retail development.

A zoning application presented by the Fino Group in 2018 had been removed from the public information system in 2019 when the application was deemed to be incomplete; the latest plans from January 2022 were published earlier this week.

The application no longer makes any reference to the application of the ‘high-rise’ Floor Area Ratio mechanism as originally proposed, which would have allowed a high-rise development in the area.

The latest plans foresee development over some 12,000sq.m in total floor area, which includes the three massive blocks and the restoration of Australia Hall itself. Some 2,400sq.m of the total 6,331sq.m site will be retained as open public space.

The development is being proposed by AH Developments, which is owned by the Fino Group.

How local plan limits development in the area

The local plan approved in 2006 makes no reference to development around Australia Hall and only permits the “re-use” of the historical building as a “public meeting hall, for commercial use, exhibition space or other suitable cultural or recreational use”, including shops, offices, food and drink establishment or educational facilities.   

The local plan also specifies that any development must respect the “architectural integrity of the site” and “any views from and onto the scheduled buildings.”

The policy map setting height limitations in different areas of Pembroke does not foresee any development around Australia Hall and fails to set any height limitation in the area where the development is being proposed. Another map designating the zoning of different areas in Pembroke limits development on this site to uses outlined in policy regulating the re-use of historical buildings. This excludes residential development.

Australia Hall is currently listed as a Grade 2 scheduled building, which precludes demolition but permits internal alterations. In this case the development will inevitably impact on the setting of the scheduled building.

A policy introduced by the PA in 2020 specifies that the PA is duty-bound to “safeguard the context and setting of sites that carry heritage value”. When assessing applications, planners have to conduct detailed assessments of how a proposed development would impact on protected buildings and identify mitigation measures with the support and approval of the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage.

Pembroke under siege

The development is being proposed just 60m away from the approved Chinese embassy complex, which will also include 20 residential apartments. Two of the embassy blocks will rise to six floors.

The Superintendence for Cultural Heritage has warned that the development “is evidently one of very high intensity and visibility” which will have an “inevitable impact on the spatial and visual context of the surrounding scheduled buildings”.

Pembroke will also see the development of two 17-storey towers on the site of the former Institute of Tourism Studies.

A major road tunnel project passing through a Natura 2000 site will also link Pembroke to the DB project, on the site of the former ITS, and this will also involve a new road passing from undeveloped land linking Triq Sant Andrija and Triq Suffulk with the tunnel.

The Australia Hall saga

Back in 2005 Fino had applied to turn Australia Hall into a supermarket but the application was withdrawn by the Planning Authority’s planning directorate. In 2014, the new Labour administration used its power to stop a court action instituted by the Lands Department under the former Nationalist government, to take back the Pembroke land accorded to the party back in the 1970s as compensation for the expropriation of the party’s land in Marsa, for the Malta Shipbuilding Corporation, by the same Labour government of the time.

The PN protested the Labour administration’s decision in 2014 to stop the court action, accusing it of using its overweening power for its party’s financial gain.

In July 2014, Labour sold Australia Hall to A.H. Development for just €582,343, with the final price taking into consideration unspecified outstanding debts with the buyers.

But the Labour Party was subsequently accused by the Inland Revenue Department of undervaluing the land and property by millions. The Commissioner for Tax first insisted that Australia Hall land was worth nothing less than €5.5 million, and then revised the value downwards to €2,025,000. The party is opposing the tax assessment in court, after it was told to pay an additional €14,426 in capital gains tax over and above the €23,296 first incurred on the original selling price.