The public shockwaves following the ITS land giveaway have barely subsided, when the country is presented with yet another dubious land concession on the spectacular peninsula. 

This time round there is no oddly termed “Request for Tender Proposals” as in the ITS case. No. This time we’re told that it is a “renegotiation” of the concession, with the fortunate Corinthia group no longer being bound to use the public site granted to them exclusively for tourism purposes but being able to use that fantastic seafront location for super-lucrative real estate.

Not only that. Newspaper reports revealed that that the government has conceded to let the group reclaim the seabed surrounding the whole peninsula. The Corinthia Group can then use the newly claimed land to build apartments, offices and retail space for purely commercial purposes. According to the same reports, the draft contract does not impose any sort of limitation to how much of the seabed the hotel group will be allowed to reclaim. 

The justification for this excessive largesse directed towards the Corinthia Group is apparently the utterly pressing need to have a six-star hotel with large suites. The usual adjectives were trotted out. The hotel would naturally be a unique one, would put Malta on the map, would be iconic, a landmark, unparalleled, cutting-edge and a flagship. We are informed that the over-arching aim is to deliver a luxury holistic environment to guests who would be waited on hand and foot by concierges, butlers and chauffeurs.

So far, so very similar to every single proposal for every single hotel applied for. What is not being explained is why this internationally acclaimed hotel group needs to be given such extensive rights to upgrade their product. Because shorn of all the PR-speak, what is being contemplated is a subsidy so that a private business concern can rake in the profits. And it is not the same kind of treatment which is meted out to everyone – a situation which results in a gross distortion of the market.

Because the hotel group was originally granted the site concession at discounted rates specifically for use for tourism purposes. The reason for this favourable treatment was that the industry would attract tourists and the work generated would benefit the wider community. There is absolutely no reason for one particular business to be granted rights or favourable rates when it is not carrying out work for a public purpose or benefit.

Why shouldn’t every single commercial estate developer be granted a slice of public land?

If it comes to this, why shouldn’t every single commercial estate developer be granted a slice of public land? What are the criteria for granting land rights to X and not to Y? Why is this specific company being allowed to have this condition waived at such an advantageous rate?

After all, when ordinary citizens acquire social housing at favourable rates they have to pay a whopping amount to the Housing Authority when they want to sell it for a purpose other than housing. Why doesn’t the same thing apply to the Corinthia?

And what is this business of granting a private company rights to reclaim the seabed bypassing all other legal and environmental concerns? Does this mean that all public coast is up for grabs for the chosen few in this most undemocratic, obscure, legally-fudged process imaginable?

Why the unholy haste to railroad this deal – with the relevant parliamentary committee being convened practically on Christmas Eve to give it a thumbs-up?

We have been here before – when the Portomaso concession was granted. The then Ombudsman had investigated the concession. He concluded that “the substantial changes to the original grant conditions, though they may not be in breach of the law, constitute a case of bad administration without due consideration to the national interest”.

The Ombudsman also found that the government “failed to use its negotiating powers to maximise the benefits to be derived from the deal”.

And in a prophetic way the Ombudsman also recognised the danger of the government being able to give away sovereign territory. He stated that “the major issue is whether the executive government can allow public land given on long lease at a non-commercial rent for a specific purpose to be utilised for other purposes. In this case changes to the original conditions regulating the grant of land were so substantial, that in the public interest and in the interest of good administration, the government had a moral obligation to refer the proposed concessions for the scrutiny of Parliament”. 

The most horrific prospect of these constant land giveaways is that there are clearly more lined up. White Rocks will be the next in line. This will lead to great tracts of land being hived off as private estates for the super-rich “investors” while the general public is isolated in the crummy, congested rest of the country.

So much for the greatly vaunted equality of opportunity – reserved for the few.

drcbonello@gmail.com

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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