New policies apply for Tigné’s 40-storey hotel

Original four-storey limit stated in development brief for Fort Cambridge ‘does not apply’

The former military barracks at Fort Cambridge
The former military barracks at Fort Cambridge
If approved the two Sliema towers will be higher than any other building in Malta, surpassing by far the Portomaso tower, which is 23 floors
If approved the two Sliema towers will be higher than any other building in Malta, surpassing by far the Portomaso tower, which is 23 floors

The Malta Environment and Planning Authority is claiming that a policy on hotel heights approved in 2014 has superseded the 2006 development brief for Tigné’s Fort Cambridge, which banned any additional storeys on the historical building.

GAP Holdings’s 40-storey tower hotel proposed atop Fort Cambridge’s former officers’ mess will now be assessed according to the new hotel heights policy, and not according to the development brief approved in 2006, which limited development to just four storeys.

“The proposed development will be evaluated according to current policies,” a spokesperson for MEPA replied when pressed on how the authority is considering the tower building on the former military barracks, when the development brief clearly stated that no additional storeys should be allowed on the historical building.

The proposed 40-storey tower
The proposed 40-storey tower

The new policy regulating the heights of hotels allows four- and five-star hotels to add any number of storeys over and above the number allowed in the Local Plan, as long as the resulting design “constitutes a landmark having unique aesthetic characteristics within the urban context”.

But the development brief, which set the planning parameters for the area before it was leased to GAP Holdings in 2007, clearly banned any additional heights on historical buildings.

The brief, which is still legally binding, had set out the building to “act as a buffer between new higher development on the site and the surrounding residential blocks. No additional floors are to be allowed.”

Delay in scheduling crucial for approval

There is an apparent snag: the new policy on hotel heights does not apply to development on  “scheduled sites” like historical buildings, such as the former military barracks.

But the former barracks is not a scheduled building. A MEPA spokesperson recently confirmed that the site “has been proposed by MEPA for grade 2 protection”, which would not allow the application of the new hotel heights policy.

But no final decision has been taken about the grade 2 scheduling.  

What this means is that any policy allowing an unlimited number of storeys to be added to the former barracks would be applicable only because the government and MEPA have yet to schedule the site.

There are no doubts about the historical importance of the building. The former barracks, an eye-catching structure, are the last remaining military barracks building in Tigné. It was designed and built in the early 1900s, and therefore together with Fort Cambridge offers a valuable link with the British colonial period.  As stated in the Fort Cambridge brief: “Apart from its historical importance, it also significantly contributes to the character, identity and local distinctiveness of the area.”

Moreover the lease agreement signed with the government in 2007 also obliged the developers to restore the barracks before 2017. The proposal made by GAP Holdings is to restore the façade of the building while allowing its internal demolition.

Conflict in interpretation

MaltaToday is informed that there are conflicting interpretations about whether the new policy on hotel heights can supersede a development brief.  

Experts contacted by MaltaToday pointed out that applications are normally determined according to the policy in force at the time of the decision. 

“This has been a long established legal principle,” one expert on law and planning pointed out.  

But the same planning expert also pointed out that in this case the discrepancy is between two completely different documents: between a site-specific brief which sets the parameters for development in a part of Sliema, and a generic policy affecting hotel heights in the whole country. 

In its reply, MEPA failed to specify which “current policies” apply to the proposed development.

But MaltaToday is informed that the new development proposal will be judged according to the policy regulating hotel heights, which allows hotels an unlimited number of storeys over what is permitted in local plans.  

The site is located in Tigné, one of the five zones where building of over 11 storeys can rise using the floor-area ratio, the formula use to make buildings higher of more open space is created around them.

But there is clearly not enough open space left in the barracks site to allow as compensation for a 40-storey high building.

Landmark Portomaso decision paves the way

The question on whether new policies supersede older commitments was the subject of a decision by the appeals tribunal (Environment and Planning Review Tribunal) handed down in December 2013.

The tribunal, appointed by the newly-elected Labour administration, allowed the construction of 46 villas in a new lagoon at Portomaso, despite a prior MEPA commitment not to allow any further development on the site.

Back in 1995 the planning authority had imposed a condition in the original permit, prohibiting further development on the site. In 2012, MEPA cited this commitment as the reason for refusing the application for the villas. 

On appeal, the tribunal held that that condition was no longer applicable since the 2006 local plan, which came in force after the condition was applied, designated the site of the proposed villas as developable. So the local plan was applied and the condition restricting the development was ignored. 

Legal sources say MEPA seems to favour this interpretation too. Not only has MEPA failed to contest the decision of the tribunal in court, but it also used this interpretation itself in granting permits on sites which had similar conditions.

Since MEPA is now preparing a new local plan it can still introduce a specific policy regulating development on this site. In this case the local plan policy would prevail over any other policy, including that regulating hotel heights.