No land reclamation planned for Corinthia project, minister insists

According to Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi the Corinthia Group has agreed that it would not even ask for land reclamation over the duration of the emphyteutical deed on land at St George's Bay • Luxury apartments release on market capped

Corinthia has agreed not to ask for land reclamation over the duration of the emphyteutical deed for land at St George's Bay, Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi has told MPs at a meeting of the Environment and Development Planning Committee, chaired by Labour MP Alex Muscat.

Mizzi gave a brief presentation at the committee that discussed the environmental aspects linked to the six-star hotel and residential project being proposed by Corinthia. The project is dependent on a new lease agreement that will allow residential development on a site earmarked for tourism purposes.

Both Mizzi and Environment Minister José Herrera said that the foreshore was within public domain and it would not be correct for the foreshore to be given to a third party for the purpose of land reclamation. 

"This doesn't mean that a political statement is being made on land reclamation," Herrera said. "We want to debate with the general public on the possibility of land reclamation elsewhere."

But Mizzi also lifted the lid on some other aspects being renegotiated with Corinthia, including a capping on the number of luxury apartments that could be placed on the market at any one time.

The Malta Developers Association had expressed its concern over the market being flooded by luxury apartments, especially so because of the cheap price Corinthia would have paid for the new concession agreement.

The MDA was seeking legal advice on whether the transfer of land at St George’s Bay to the Corinthia Group amounted to state aid given the low premium being requested.

Mizzi told MPs that IHI had agreed to a cap on how many apartments would be put on the market and that this issue was being agreed upon with various stakeholders. 

Mizzi said that the aim of the Corinthia project was to attract the higher-end market, to present world class events and that within seven years, Malta would have made a quantum leap into the luxury market.

"Back in 2015, IHI proposed the idea of a holistic qualitative project of a six-star hotel and this tallied with the government's vision to head towards a more qualitative level of tourism," Mizzi said, adding that IHI already held an emphyteutical title on the land that currently housed three hotels.

IHI plans to have a six-star flagship hotel on the site of the current Corinthia San Gorg hotel with an additional two floors. IHI also promised corporate social responsibility donations to the local councils of St Julian's and Pembroke for a period of 10 years. 

Mizzi explained how certain conditions were changed since the 2015 memorandum of understanding was signed between the government and IHI. Payment of a €17 milion premium had increased from the €12 million proposed in 2015 while a 99-year concession was reduced from 125 years in 2015. 

"At least 50% of the entire site will be focused on tourism as well as soft and hard landscaping and other open areas," Mizzi said of the negotiations with IHI. "The volume of residential property that may be released on the market at any point is capped at 25,000 square metres." 

Commenting on the media criticism of the project, where Corinthia was said to be able to pass on pieces of land to third parties, Mizzi said that transfer of the unfulfilled obligations has to be first approved by the government of the day over a period of 25 years.

Reactions from the public

Former Alternattiva Demokratika leader Arnold Cassola: "As environmentalists we feel we have a different definition of regeneration. Anyone in the area, if this project goes through, will face the two towers of Villa Rosa, the two towers of DB Group, the two towers of Corinthia and loud music emanating from Hugo's Terrace in the Paceville area."

Former assistant director at the Environment Protection Directorate, Alfred Baldacchino: "Article 6 of the Habitats Directive, known as the Appropriate Assessment, says that sites of EU importance, like Natura 2000, which is very close to the Corinthia project, should be evaluated in terms of the significance of the impacts of a proposed plan. Has this been done? This project will definitely have negative impacts—traffic, overpopulation of the area, danger to people on the site since it's a peninsula without an immediate exit. How many people per square metre are expected to be on the site once the project takes place?"

Moviment Graffitti, André Callus: "This discussion here today should have never taken place before anyone saw the plan or the contract or assessed the social and environmental impacts on nearby areas. How can we discuss this without having seen the Masterplan, and whose aspirations are we serving? The people, the negotiators who stand to make a lot of money? I can't understand how this project can even be considered when the potential impact is tremendous, that thousands of residents could be forced to leave the area. While photomontages have shown IHI building at least 11 towers on the peninsula and the same IHI saying this is misleading, I would say that IHI is being misleading since we need to see the masterplan of the whole project and not have a phase-by-phase explanation. Will there be something in the contract, for example, that ties IHI to not develop more than 30% of the land in question for example?"

Zminijietna Chairman, David Pisani: "On projects like this, the people should have their say on public land."

PN MEP candidate, Michael Briguglio: "Did a Social Impact Assessment take place? If not, when will it take place? Who will be carrying it out and what are the qualifications of whoever is undertaking it?"

Swieqi Mayor, Noel Muscat: "Between the DB project, other projects and projects in the pipeline, this will have a tremendous impact on the localities around the area and this should be addressed immediately."

PD reaction

PD noted that it has been established that the contract between IHI and the government will be one that will supersede and go against the Local Plan regulations, which government is legally bound to follow.

"The land at this peninsula is earmarked solely for tourism and not for accommodation purposes. It is noted that only 50% of the footprint is going to be defined for tourism," PD leader Godfrey Farrugia said.

Farrugia argued that the government is not leading by example that it is useless stating that the decision will be taken by Planning Authority when, in practice, the Development Planning Act does not dictate that it is truly autonomous and independent.

If the Local Plan had to be changed it would involve a process that is set out in the legislation, PD argued.

"By committing itself in the MOU with Corinthia, the government has rendered a sham any future public consultation on the local plan change and on the eventual development permit application," Farrugia said.

Earlier: Opposition MPs demand Corinthia contract

At the start of the meeting, PN MP Jason Azzopardi and Democratic Party leader Godfrey Farrugia asked that the Corinthia contract between International Hotel Investments (IHI) and the government be made public. This was backed by PN MPs Marthese Portelli and Karol Aquilina 

"We ask Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi to make the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) public right now as well as the contract so that we can discuss them from an environmental perspective," Azzopardi said. "We cannot work in a vacuum and waste time. For the sake of the ones who came to this meeting and for us who want to adequately discuss it, make it public. We cannot work without the tools."

Portelli asked why the government was so unwilling to publish the relevant documentation and implied that it had something to hide. 

Mizzi said the government had no problem publishing the contract. "We are taking cognisance before we publish the contract and discussions are still taking place, not to mention the fact that the National Audit Office committee is also discussing the contract."

"The MOU will be published. Once all processes are concluded. The existing contract is an improvement over the last three years of negotiations with IHI," Mizzi said.

"How can we know? Do we trust your claim? We need to see the document," Azzopardi insisited. 

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