Is MIDI pay­ing its an­nual ground rent to gov­ern­ment?

Malta Independent - - DEBATE & ANALYSIS -

Dr Si­mon Mer­cieca is se­nior lec­turer, De­part­ment of His­tory

While un­til re­cently, the party in gov­ern­ment could lit­er­ally ig­nore the Op­po­si­tion and ad­vo­cate poli­cies that were not only un­pop­u­lar but reeked of cor­rup­tion, this time round, Labour is start­ing to re­alise that these can be po­lit­i­cally dam­ag­ing to the ex­tent of jeop­ar­dis­ing its chances of win­ning the next elec­tion.

I am stat­ing this in the light of two pieces of news re­gard­ing the fish farms and MIDI’s Ma­noel Is­land project. Let us stop kid­ding our­selves. These or­gan­i­sa­tions were sup­ported, in the past, by the Na­tion­al­ist Gov­ern­ment. To­day MIDI has sup­port from within gov­ern­ment. The change in gov­ern­ment’s heart came about not be­cause of the en­vi­ron­ment but be­cause of the neg­a­tive back­lash from the elec­torate. I bet that the re­cent Na­tion­al­ist meet­ing has played its fair share in all this, other­wise gov­ern­ment would not have changed its stance.

De­spite its con­tro­ver­sial na­ture, the Sliema project to build tow­ers failed to at­tract a strong pub­lic out­cry and it was not fol­lowed by a mas­sive pub­lic protest. Per­haps, one can thus sur­mise that the Sliema res­i­dents are too old now to protest. In truth the rape of Sliema has been on­go­ing for the past four decades.

The de­struc­tion of the nice colo­nial-pe­riod houses that lined up Sliema seafront, started when Lorry Sant was re­spon­si­ble for PAPB. The change in gov­ern­ment did not bring any fresh ap­proach to this pol­icy. On the con­trary the de­struc­tion of these houses con­tin­ued in earnest. Now, it is use­less to pro­tect the re­main­ing few. These di­lap­i­dated build­ings are sim­ply eye­sores be­cause they do not blend in with the rest of the sky­line. Pre­serv­ing them, amounts to an in­jus­tice to their own­ers. It seems that they did not have friends to help them in push­ing their ap­pli­ca­tion through.

In part, this may ex­plain why the Sliema res­i­dents did not go out to protest against the pro­posed Pri­a­pus tow­ers. But as ur­ban stud­ies clearly show, when the cen­tre fails to make its voice heard, it would be the turn of the pe­riph­ery to start ask­ing ques­tions.

The ac­tion against MIDI is show­ing that the voice of the com­mon cit­i­zen is start­ing to pre­vail. If such a protest had hap­pened in the Mid­dle Ages, it would have been tan­ta­mount to a mini-re­volt. I am sure that the Gzira Coun­cil was putting pres­sure in these last months and per­haps even over the years to have the gates opened but no one in gov­ern­ment wanted to lis­ten be­cause this is a purely probusi­ness gov­ern­ment with no true feel­ings for the man in the street. The cit­i­zens took the pro­tec­tion of the law in their hands and forced them­selves in.

Faced with this pub­lic out­cry, the gov­ern­ment de­vised a pol­icy on how to come out clean and pacify the con­science of every Tom, Dick and Harry. And in Malta, there is noth­ing that beats start­ing a court case and ask­ing the Plan­ning Au­thor­ity to is­sue an en­force­ment no­tice against Midi. In the eyes of many, this may ap­pear a good omen: the gov­ern­ment is start­ing to re­act pos­i­tively to en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues.

The truth is that, in the past, these strate­gies were de­vised to sup­port big com­pa­nies rather than forc­ing them to com­ply with the law. Open­ing a court case in Malta means noth­ing for these big busi­nesses. It means that they are given more time, so that an eq­ui­table so­lu­tion is found.

Other big com­pa­nies were faced with en­force­ment no­tices but noth­ing great re­ally hap­pened. The PA en­force­ment against the set­ting up of the gates with­out, ap­par­ently, a proper per­mit can in fact be ap­pealed. In the process, the com­pany will be gain­ing time and the pro­test­ers will cool down.

The idea was to build tow­ers on Ma­noel Is­land. Then, it was planned to use these tow­ers as gates to pre­vent peo­ple gain­ing ac­cess to the fore­shore of Ma­noel Is­land. Then MEPA de­cided to de­crease the height of the tow­ers and to spread-out the project in­stead. The new thought was to cre­ate vil­las where boat own­ers could en­ter with their boats up to the liv­ing room. None of this has ma­te­ri­alised. In­stead, gates were put up to im­pede ac­cess to the shore.

Gov­ern­ment is play­ing on the per­cep­tion that it is do­ing some­thing in favour of the en­vi­ron­ment and against an af­flu­ent class of cit­i­zens. The arch­bishop has de­nounced gov­ern­ment of be­ing more in­ter­ested in mak­ing gold than in the favour of the com­mon good and our com­mon her­itage.

In­ci­den­tally, the arch­bishop was not alone in voic­ing opin­ion. He was joined by Ja­son Mi­callef, the ex-Labour Party Sec­re­tary who stated that Malta is dom­i­nated and con­trolled by three fam­i­lies. And he is right. The per­cep­tion of many is that if the po­lit­i­cal par­ties do not make agree­ments with these fam­i­lies, the par­ties do not stand a chance of win­ning. To­day these three fam­i­lies are with tagħna llkoll.

In this sce­nario, I ad­mire the courage of Si­mon Busu­till who is not will­ing to ne­go­ti­ate any pre­elec­toral deals. If he sticks to his word, he will have quite an up­hill strug­gle.

These fam­i­lies had power un­der the Na­tion­al­ist Gov­ern­ment and ap­pear to have even more power now. One needs to re­mem­ber that the restora­tion of the Fort Ma­noel was speeded up so that it could be ready as a wed­ding venue for Austin Gatt’s son where in­deed this min­is­ter hosted the re­cep­tion. This goes to show how MIDI was close to the gov­ern­ment dur­ing the Na­tion­al­ist ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Have things changed? No. This is an as­tute pro-busi­ness gov­ern­ment and those in busi­ness who were in part re­spon­si­ble for the Na­tion­al­ist de­feat, thanks to their ras­cal projects, are now stat­ing that Mus­cat’s gov­ern­ment is the best gov­ern­ment ever. This should teach the PN a les­son, and for this rea­son, I be­lieve what Si­mon Busut­til said dur­ing the mass meet­ing, that the top busi­ness­men to­day are more with Joseph than the PN.

I am stat­ing all this be­cause the most im­por­tant ques­tion has not been asked. The em­pha­sis is on the ac­cess to the sea. The free ac­cess to the sea is guar­an­teed even in Ro­man Law. There­fore, even if it is not writ­ten in the con­tract signed by MIDI and the gov­ern­ment, it is still there be­cause there are other laws, which guar­an­teed com­mon moral ac­cess to the sea.

Un­like what MIDI has stated, such an ac­cess can­not only be by boat. Ro­man Law is very clear with no faffing around. Ac­cess has to be guar­an­teed from land. There­fore, when MIDI is stat­ing that we, com­mon mor­tals, who have no boat, can­not ac­cess this place across land, it is deny­ing the cit­i­zens a right, which is guar­an­teed by the laws of the land.

But there is an­other as­pect, which con­firms that all this is a cha­rade, and the real rea­son why Mus­cat has opened a court case is only to cover up his back un­til ev­ery­thing calms down. In the mean­time, he would gain some Brownie points.

The con­ces­sion given to MIDI was against pay­ment. If my mem­ory does not be­tray me, the com­pany has to pay an an­nual rent, in the form of ground rent to the gov­ern­ment for the con­ces­sion of Ma­noel Is­land.

The ques­tion that the me­dia should be ask­ing is whether the ground rent is be­ing paid to the gov­ern­ment cof­fers or not and if there are any ar­rears in pay­ment? If the ground rent has not been paid, and MIDI is in ar­rears, gov­ern­ment can start pro­ceed­ings to ter­mi­nate the con­tract and get Ma­noel Is­land back.

In­stead, the com­pany wants to sell Ma­noel Is­land back to the gov­ern­ment for €145 mil­lion. I am sure that they did not fork out more than €5 mil­lion in restora­tion work. In the process, they would be earn­ing €140 mil­lion on a piece of land, which from the start was never theirs but ours. This is how big fam­i­lies make money in Malta; on prop­erty that they do not pos­sess.

This is the crux of the whole saga. Should MIDI not be pay­ing the ground rent for what­ever rea­son, we are wit­nesses to a big cha­rade. In any case, I strongly doubt that if for­mally asked, we would get a straight an­swer from the pow­ers that be.

There is a les­son to be learned. Gov­ern­ment should start putting clauses that in case those given con­ces­sions de­fault in their pay­ment, the con­tract col­lapses and the prop­erty re­verts au­to­mat­i­cally back to the State. The lack of such a clause shows that those en­ter­ing into this sort of agree­ments on gov­ern­ment prop­erty are in bad faith.

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