Malta Today’s James Debono yesterday published an analysis of the planning permit of the Żejtun country villa Robert Abela owns outside the development zone. And yet the front pages of today’s newspapers and websites are about Bernard Grech explaining why he had details about his villa in a Mosta residential street sanctioned by the PA.
Robert Abela and his handlers have once again been successful in turning what should rightly have been a PR disaster into an opportunity for the country to tell itself Bernard Grech is not perfect, and we might as well stick to the devil we know. But this sort of PR success is like the success of a slimy defence lawyer who gets an umpteenth criminal to walk free. It is disgusting and a disservice to truth.
There is no relationship between the scandal exposed by Malta Today about Robert Abela and the wild goose chase Robert Abela sent reporters to “investigate Bernard Grech’s illegal building”.
Robert Abela purchased a property outside development zone which is twice as built up as the maximum allowed. It had so many illegalities on it that its original owners could not sell it. The ‘sanctioning’ happened because the case officer considered “steel sheds” that had been demolished for 20 years saying, falsely, that the excess size of the house was making up for sheds that were in place. They weren’t.
The principle is clear. You can’t claim a building that has been demolished over 20 years previously as a basis for some vested right for a new building to replace it. None of this featured in the case officer’s report. What was in the case officer’s report is a justification for an illegally built gigantic swimming pool. The pretext was huts that had been demolished decades before.
Clearly, the planning case officer presented the planning board with a misleading report that made legal something which is not illegal because of some detail. I have spoken to an expert who has reviewed the planning paperwork for Robert Abela’s visit and he told me that in his decades-long planning career he “has never come across such a biased and one-sided report in favour of a non-compliant application.”
The rules say an ODZ building cannot exceed 200 square metres. The illegal extensions sprawled the building to a footprint of 352 square metres. This grotesque illegality was sanctioned just before Robert Abela became the villa’s owner.
James Debono, rightly, said these things happen. The rules are replete with contradictions that allow for this sort of bending when the planning officers want to accommodate someone. The expert I spoke to explained that this specific application referred to a portion of the policy on rural developments ignoring those aspects of the policy that would have prevented the sanctioning of the illegalities.
This is where the wider context comes into play. This is not any other application. This is the application concerning our prime minister’s personal property.
The original owners of Robert Abela’s villa could not get their outrageous offences sanctioned until somehow, miraculously, these egregious breaches were sanctioned three months before Robert Abela became the villa’s owner.
He bought the villa for €600,000. Look at the arial view of the property. That price is just not credible. This is a 2,200 square metre property with a sanctioned 352 square metre villa and an 80 square metre swimming pool, out in the country with no neighbours and no prospects of any. We were not born yesterday. That is no €600,000 property. It is worth at least three times as much, maybe more.
There’s another thing to keep in mind. All those contradictions in the rules that James Debono laments about: well Robert Abela was the Planning Authority’s lawyer. He not only knew those loopholes and rule-bending opportunities, but he was also responsible for them, or at least responsible for not getting them changed.
Whilst he collected a hefty monthly fee from the planning authority he benefited from his access and his contacts to, as seems likely, swindle the people he bought the villa from if €600,000 is indeed all he paid them. In any case, he swindled the Maltese public and now owns a sprawling and illegally built property in the Maltese countryside which he made his own for good.
How did Robert Abela address James Debono’s story? Did he explain any of this in a way that could persuade anyone that nothing was out of order and James Debono had been wrong?
No, he sent reporters to investigate Bernard Grech’s “illegal” house. Bernard Grech lives in a Mosta townhouse in a residential area within building lines and building heights. When he built his house some of the walls inside the building (I repeat, inside) where not precisely where the approved plans said they would be, and the look of the facade was slightly different than what the plans said it would look like. None of the differences were illegal in and of themselves. And yes, he had solar panels on the roof which the plans did not foresee. Shudder.
This is not making legal something which is illegal, even slightly, or remotely. This is matching a fully compliant building with the approved drawings on the authority’s file. This is a quick administrative process which Labour – they never fail to remind us, except this one time – simplified and made quicker because it has no impact whatsoever on the environment.
But I didn’t want to write this to defend Bernard Grech. I wanted to write this because we find ourselves, the day after yet another scandal about Robert Abela’s conceit, deceit, greed, and personal grasping that should rightly rule him out from heading Malta’s government, debating whether Bernard Grech is eligible for sainthood.
No wonder Robert Abela and his people are certain they can get away with anything. Look at us accommodating their utterly false equivalencies. Look at them laugh in their tacky, sprawling, terracotta-tiled haciendas, built over what is left of our countryside, while they call us established elitists.