Minister cancels PA meetings after Ombudsman raises concern on MaltaToday story

Environment minister says Public Authority will not meet due to coronavirus pandemic, after board was summoned to discuss major high-rise project despite all council, board and commission meetings being postponed

Environment minister Aaron Farrugia
Environment minister Aaron Farrugia

The environment minister Aaron Farrugia has cancelled public Planning Authority meetings until a regulatory framework is adopted at law due to COVID-19 health directives in place.

Farrugia said he met the Attorney General, as well as Public Health Superintendent Charmaine Gauci and the Chamber of Architects, after MaltaToday reported that PA had been called in for a meeting to decide on two high-rise projects, despite a ban on gatherings because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The board meeting was called for Thursday despite the PA having decided last week to suspend all executive council, planning board and planning commission meetings.

Thursday’s meeting was scheduled to discuss and decide on a 14-storey tower in Ta’ Xbiex proposed by developer Michael Stivala and an 18-storey MIDI development in Tigné. It also had to decide on the sanctioning of two major excavations by J. Portelli Projects in Qawra.

Environmentalist Claire Bonello said the decision was unfair to the public and objectors, in view of growing health concerns on the spread of Covid-19.

“It is totally unfair on the board members who may have underlying conditions which may prejudice their health, the professionals who have to choose between representing their clients or putting their health (and that of their family) in jeopardy,” Bonello wrote in a letter asking the PA to stop the meeting.

“While the public is being asked to avoid non-essential outings, the PA is doing this. Staggering the hearings and keeping a certain distance between participants is not an appropriate precaution - when the health authorities are prohibiting even outdoor gatherings,” she said.

In a previous board meeting on an application to sanction the illegal excavations in Qawra board chairman Vince Cassar had expressed his intention to vote against the recommendation of the Planning Directorate to sanction the illegal works in Triq it-Tamar, a project proposed by Daniel Refalo and Chloe Portelli, on behalf of J. Portelli projects.

Cassar had insisted that it was totally unacceptable that illegal excavations were carried out on site. Such irresponsibility, he had said, may lead to tragic accidents.

Prof. Victor Axiak and Simone Mousu also expressed their intention to vote against the recommendation of the Planning Directorate for the same reason indicated by the chairman.

Following the public outcry the PA announced that it “is in liason with the health authorities” with regards to the Planning Board meeting scheduled on Thursday.

This confirms that the Authority intended the meeting to go ahead despite last’s week decision to stop all public hearings. “The decision regarding the upcoming board meeting will be communicated as soon as possible,” the PA said in a statement on Monday afternoon.

The PA also made a U-turn on its decision to stop all planning commission and board meetings, by announcing that cases with no registered objectors will be held through video conferencing facilities.

Environment Ombudsman writes to minister in dismay

Environment Ombudsman Alan Saliba also wrote to Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia to express his dismay at what he considers to be a very serious issue, after news of the PA board's meeting was published by MaltaToday.

Saliba was acting on a complaint filed by independent candidate Arnold Cassola, who asked him to intervene in the matter.

The Ombudsman told Cassola that he was expecting the PA to follow its own notices and the official sanctions and not hold any meetings until further notice.