Fino’s Australia Hall development set for refusal

Development of three commercial blocks would encroach on 786 sq.m of land which is designated as a garden in the local plan

Australia Hall (Photo: James Bianchi/mediatoday)
Australia Hall (Photo: James Bianchi/mediatoday)

In a major setback for Fino’s plans to build three commercial blocks in the vicinity of Australia Hall, on land sold to the group by the Labour Party, the Planning Directorate is recommending a refusal of a zoning application envisaging the development.

A final decision will be taken by the Planning Authority’s Executive Council on 26 September.  

The Planning Directorate has concluded that the Planning Control application to enable development around the Grade 2 listed building cannot be entertained because the proposed development encroached on 786 sq.m of land which is designated as a formal garden in the local plan.

The case officer report has concluded that the Planning Authoroty can only approve “minor modifications” to the local plan and such a significant change in the zoning of the area cannot be done through a sheer planning control application.  

This means that any development encroaching on the designated garden space can only be allowed if a new local plan is formulated.   

But the case officer also found that apart from this encroachment on the adjacent garden area, the project is in line with a policy allowing the re-use of listed building in the area through their commercialisation.

The proposed development consists of three new building blocks ranging in height between 11 and 16 meters, located on the west of the Grade 2 scheduled Australia Hall grounds and a Public Open Space separating the new blocks from the Australia Hall.

The plans also envisaged the restoration of Australia Hall itself. Some 2,400sq.m of the total 6,331sq.m site was to be retained as open public space.

The development is being proposed by AH Developments, which is owned by the Fino Group. The group had dropped earlier plans for a high-rise development in the area.

The Superintendence for Cultural Heritage has already issued its go-ahead for the approval of the zoning application, while reserving its assessment of the project’s design to a later stage when a full planning application is presented. While the proposed layout of the project is deemed by the SCH to be “broadly acceptable”, issues related to the design of the project and mitigation measures to limit the impact on Australia Hall itself “will require further engagement at full application stage”.

The SCH suggested that it would accept the dismantling and sensitive relocation of protected latrines, located towards the west of the Australia Hall, to allow an improved open space.

In January, Transport Malta informed the PA it had no objection to the development even while adding that the site was in “a traffic sensitive area”. TM warned that if the studies conducted reveal increased traffic generation that would have a “deleterious effect on the road network”, TM would not view the development application favourably.

Subsequently in April, TM said it was not in a position to comment further on this application “in view of the fact that transport studies have not been requested for this application.”

In August 2022 the Pembroke local council had unanimously agreed to object to the development.

Labour mayor Dean Hili had raised the issue in a council meeting arguing that Australia Hall “should not be buried and dwarfed by a number of different buildings being proposed around it.”

The local plan permits “re-use” of Australia Hall 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 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.