Is MIDI paying its annual ground rent to government?
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.