Parliament approves lifting of tourism restriction on Fortina Group’s Sliema land

The Fortina Group will pay government €8.1 million to have restrictions on its Sliema land lifted so that it can develop land previously limited to touristic purposes

An artist's impression of the Fortina development in Sliema
An artist's impression of the Fortina development in Sliema

A motion to allow the Fortina Group to pay government €8.1 million in exchange for the lifting of a restriction that its Sliema land only be used for tourism, was approved by parliament on Wednesday.

The motion was proposed by Infrastructure Minister Ian Borg and tabled by Planning Parliamentary Secretary Chris Agius on Wednesday.

Last week, the company said that the restriction concerned a landlocked plot measuring 1,250sq.m that Fortina has owned for 30 years.

The restriction meant that the company could only use the land in question for tourism-related purposes. The plot formed part of a much larger area on which the Fortina Hotel was built.

Agius opened the debate by highlighting the shortcomings of past Nationalist Party administrations, namely regarding a Spinola property that was transferred from government to private ownership in 2012 for just €35 profit.

The Auditor General at the time estimated the value of the property at around €2.4 million.

"Unlike previous PN administrations, the current government keeps coming to parliament for the sake of transparency. Every piece of land on the contract that has been tabled is the private property of Fortel Services Limited. We are not here to give out government land as the PN did before us," Agius said.

Though the group agreed to pay €8.1 million it claimed that this was an exaggerated amount of money for land it already owned. The lifting of the current restrictions will allow the area to be used for residential and commercial purposes.

"This private land was instrumental to the tourism industry over the years and a now a €55 million investment is planned here which will continue to aid the industry as well as house a large gaming company that will contribute to economic growth," Agius said.

He added that the works planned had already been approved by the Planning Authority.

PN Deputy leader Robert Arrigo replied by saying that the failures of previous administrations could never justify another blunder. He also disclaimed that though his sister was married to the Fortina Hotel owner, he would be voting against the motion.

"I have a duty to vote against this motion because wrong is always wrong and there are no compromises," Arrigo said.

He added that though the National Statistics Office had said that tourism had increased by 1.6% since January 2019, this was due to the number of foreign workers employed in the country.

In reality, he said, every aspect of the tourism industry had taken a dent, with tourists spending less money and fewer nights on the island.

He also insisted that the gaming company that Agius had made reference to was already occupying offices in Sliema and did not need to relocate onto Fortina's land.

Partit Demokratiku's Godfrey Farrugia argued that the government, unlike any level-headed businessman, had not obtained the best deal possible for the country.

"Thousands of youngsters are struggling to have a roof over their heads. These are not allowed soft loans or staggered payments like Fortina are. Our country doesn't belong to the rich and this parliament has lost the loyalty it had to its own country," Farrugia said, echoing Arrigo's sentiments that the PN's past miscarriages did not lend legitimacy to the current government's deference to big businesses.

Farrugia warned that such a motion was part of a pattern that the government had fallen into and reminded parliament of the DB Group's controversial capture of the ITS public land in 2017 for a premium of €15 million spread over seven years.

"We are giving away our surplus and our assets and justifying it by making reference to the bad practice of previous government. We are not saying that we are against business here but very businessman attempts to obtain the best deal. The government isn't doing the latter and has forsaken its duty to its own people," he concluded.

PN MP Ryan Callus claimed that construction works were already being carried out on the Fortina land while parliament, supposedly the highest institution of the country, had not even approved the motion yet.

"Irrespective of what we say, the government has no doubt informed the contractors that this will be approved," Callus said, adding that the first evaluation on the Fortina land came up with the figure of €12 million but that his investigations led him to believe that someone had given instructions to the Lands Authority to lower this figure by €4 million.

Opposition leader Adrian Delia lamented the fact that the government was allowing big businesses the possibility of soft loans and staggered payments when the same was not afforded to normal citizens and small businesses. He also questioned how such motions and bills were always tabled in parliament close to the date when the parliament was meant to be adjourned.

"Three proposals, Fortina, Marsa racetrack and an international school in Mtarfa were relegated to the end of the parliamentary year with as little background information as possible. We support investment in sport, tourism and education but we will never permit government to do so at the detriment of public land and public interests," Delia said, adding that the government interest was to allow the speculators to dictate for profit.

Concluding the debate, Borg lashed out at the Opposition speakers, many of whom, he argued, had not ever read the motion.

He stressed that the land in question already belonged to the Fortina Group, insisting that claims about government land being transferred to private interests did not make sense.

Borg claimed that the business community had no reservations about the price the land was being transferred for.

Regarding comments made by Callus, Borg reminded the PN MP that he personally sits on the Lands Authority board as the Opposition’s representative. He said that since the reform that turned the Lands Department into an authority, an emphasis had been made on there not being interference from the minister or the parliamentary secretary.

“You and your colleagues the governors of the board have a very big responsibility that comes close to that of parliament and you should be there to scrutinise and inform the state,” Borg said.

He said Callus had never voiced any objections within the authority, only to for him to then stand in parliament and act as though the authority was ignoring him.

“I only received a positive letter from the chairman, who ultimately represents you on the board,” he said. “There was zero political interference and that is what is important.”

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