The PN’s rising star and the grand birthday bash

Sister of developers who partner with Joseph Portelli on many developments appeared at MP’s side in recent weeks

Alex Borg, the PN’s shadow minister for Gozo who has been touted as a potential PN leader, did not reply to this website’s questions on who paid for a grand birthday bash he threw last July. The lavish event took place at the rooftop of a four-star hotel and featured the works of various companies normally involved in the organization of weddings or events – these included professional décor or stage elements, and music by two DJs as well as the singer Ira Losco.

It is not known whether any of these entities offered their services for free. In a Facebook post, Borg wrote of having collected €1,250 in donations for a conservative church NGO and then tagged all the entities.  

Neither did Borg answer questions on the nature of his relationship with Maria Agius, who stood at his right prior to or during the cutting of the cake (a matter initially raised with this website by sources present at the party). Agius was also seen seated next to Borg on the front row during a Ministry of Gozo concert held at the Citadel just over a month ago.   

Alex Borg with his mother (on his left) and Maria Agius (on his right) at the birthday party. Source: screengrab from video published on Borg's Facebook page.

Maria Agius describes herself on LinkedIn as owner of Agius Projects Limited (in business registry listings, Maria is a shareholder in the family-owned Agius Services Limited – family is known as Ta Dirjanu – and the shareholders listed in Agius Projects are her brothers Mark and Joseph.)  

Agius Projects Limited is in turn one of the three shareholders of Excel Investments Limited, the company whose majority owner is Joseph Portelli. Excel is the largest development company in Gozo by far, and one of the country’s largest and most controversial.

One of Excel's large projects in Qala

Its developments in Gozo include two residential projects of more than 150 flats that were put in development applications incrementally, sometimes under different names, a practice known as salami-slicing.

In another project in Qawra that also featured various applications under different names, a Maria Agius was one of the applicants in a cluster of applications that amounted to a project of almost 200 flats. She applied to build 58 flats, 6 maisonettes, and two “Class 4B commercial spaces.” The other applications were put in by Chloe Portelli (daughter of Joseph Portelli), Daniel Refalo (owner of DTX Projects, one of the shareholders of Excel), and Mark Agius. This development in Qawra was then marketed as a project called The Palm Residence.

Alex Borg asked about salami-slicing

In yet another site, a project that partly sits within Nadur’s Urban Conservation Area was put in in four separate applications under the names of Mark Agius (for Excel) and Maryanne Cauchi, a developer who is also separately involved in the development of a seven-storey block of flats on Xlendi’s seafront partly owned by the family of Alex Borg.

Putting that Nadur project into separate applications – the entire project consists of around two dozen flats, four maisonettes and four houses with small pools – presumably allowed the proposal to get less public scrutiny and opposition. This may in turn have a bearing on planning decisions because public pressure matters, and planning law holds that so-called ‘representations’ by the public are one of the factors that the Planning Authority has to take into account when deciding on development applications.

A part of the Nadur project with its blank wall overlooking Urban Conservation Area in breach of policies according to planners.

Investigations by this website last January had found that part of the land on which the development took place was bought by Excel, and the other part by Maryanne and her husband, Anthony.

At the time, when the fourth development application of the Nadur project was being heard at the Planning Authority last January, I had asked Alex Borg if he had a comment to make about salami-slicing tactics, and if he denounces such practices. I put the question to Alex Borg in the context of Maryanne Cauchi and her husband being codevelopers of the Xlendi flats with the family of Alex Borg and another individual.

Borg had replied: “I have no stake in that property. Therefore, I would ask the pertinent persons involved.”

Extract of Facebook post put up after a meeting between PN and Ghal Ghawdex, which is calling for far-reaching measures on overdevelopment – the PN has not taken a stand on the proposals.

Xlendi flats in breach of planning policy

The flats on Xlendi’s seafront have been recipient of various development permits over the years. It also appears that different persons owned parts of the Xlendi site, among them the Labour MP and minister Anton Refalo.

The block of flats on Xlendi's seafront (marked by red line)

The first application for the Xlendi flats was put in in 2003 by Anthony Borg – Alex’s father, and, at the time, the chief aide of then Gozo Minister Giovanna Debono – together with another individual.

The proposed building of five storeys was higher than the permissible height at the time, and the application remained undecided after the applicants’ architect requested postponing decision until publication of the Local Plans, which were being prepared. The application was eventually discussed by the Executive Committee of the Planning Authority, and the commission, which approves or rejects applications, then minuted in November of 2005 that it had “no objection in view of the Executive Committee guidance.”

The following month, when it became clear the proposal would be approved, the Refalos’ (Anton Refalo and his wife) and the Borgs’ (parents of Alex Borg) as well as another individual sold parts of airspace where the flats would eventually rise to one another. A permit was then granted four months later, in April of 2006.

But according to the Planning Authority case officer who processed a subsequent application for change of plans in 2008, the five-storey development was higher than the height limitation policy. The limit was for four storeys and a semi-basement. Yet the case office then wrote that he had “no objection” to five floors since it was “similar” to what had been approved two years before.

I asked the Planning Authority to see the file of the application granted permit in 2006, but officials only allowed me to see ‘approved documents’ – and the letter of the Executive Committee, which had opened the way for approval of application, was not an approved document according to officials.

The Xlendi building was not constructed in the years after the initial permit was granted. And 10 years later an application was put for an expanded seven-storey building, which the Planning Authority approved in 2017 despite the fact that four of the flats were smaller than the minimum size required in planning policy. The applicants in 2017 were four individuals, including Anthony Borg (Alex’s father) and Maryanne Cauchi.

One of the flats smaller than policy on minimum size of dwellings permissible – click to enlarge

In yet another application in 2020, the applicants were Maryanne Cauchi and Mary Borg – Alex’s mother and the director of the Gozo Courts – together with a third individual.

Questions I sent to Anton Refalo, the agricultural minister, and separately to Alex Borg, on whether they own any of those flats that are smaller than the minimum size required by policy remained unanswered.

Neither Anton Refalo nor his wife Lina ever appeared on any of the applications, and Refalo declared ownership of two flats in the building in his declaration of assets for the first time last November after I sent him questions. Prior to that, he had declared part ownership of property on Triq Ix-Xatt in Xlendi. Last November, Refalo had responded that he had “erroneously not included [the flats] in the last filing of Ministerial assets,” and amended the declaration of assets that same day.

The Refalos’ and the Cauchis’ are long-time associates in property dealings, and the house where the Refalos’ live is registered under joint ownership of the Refalos’ and the Cauchis’. That is the same house where a VR marker, a historical relic, had been mounted in his courtyard.

The birthday bash and Maria Agius

Alex Borg’s birthday bash last month was held at the rooftop of the Grand Hotel, and various companies that are normally engaged in putting together weddings appear to have been involved in the organization of the party. These included a wedding florist, a wedding planning service, a company that specializes in gifts and decors for parties, a company that sets up stages to support live music events, two DJs, and the singer Ira Losco. Dozens of people were invited to the party.  

Alex Borg and Ira Losco during the birthday party. Source: screengrab from video published on Borg's Facebook page.

Borg posted a video of the party on Facebook, as well as a post saying he had collected €1,250 in donations for Dar Guzeppa Debono, a church NGO that supports single parents with a strong emphasis on preventing abortions.

As already pointed out, it is not known whether any of the entities involved in the organization of the party offered their services for free. I sent questions to Borg via email and text message, asking him to reveal how much the party cost and who paid for it, as well as to confirm or deny whether Maria Agius was his girlfriend. Agius, as already pointed out, is the sister of developers that partner with Joseph Portelli in numerous developments.   

Screengrab from video of birthday party published on Alex Borg's Facebook page

Although there is nothing inherently wrong in Alex Borg having any personal relationship with a developer, people are bound to question whether having a personal relationship with Agius, whatever its nature, could influence Borg’s political stance or position towards development. Such questions are more likely given that Agius’s siblings are partners with one of the country’s largest developers, if not the largest – and these are developers who have carried out numerous developments, particularly in Gozo, that are controversial or contentious.

Many people have also been critical of Borg for being scathing of the Planning Authority for issuing permits for destructive developments, yet not apportioning any blame or responsibility on the developers themselves.

In a controversial Facebook post last year, he wrote that he does not blame developers. He wrote rhetorically: “Tell me who has a piece of land and would not try to get the maximum [return/development] from that land even if he knows that this should not be.” Then he blamed the government and the Planning Authority that, he wrote, had “sold itself from top to bottom.” 

Alex Borg's Facebook post

I asked Borg if he had a comment to make for people who would say that his personal friendship or relationship with Maria Agius, whatever its nature, could at least be part of the reason why he criticises the Planning Authority but not specific developers or specific developments.  

Last year I had asked him a similar question in relation to the Xlendi flats in which his parents have been codevelopers. At the time I had not yet discovered that the block of flats had twice been given a permit in breach of policies, on height limitation and four flats being smaller than minimum size required. He had replied that the permits had been issued before he had gotten in politics, and that he does “not own or am involved in any property of my family, whatsoever.”

This time round, in preparation for this article, he did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did he respond to any of the other questions.

Featured Image: screengrab from video of birthday party published on Alex Borg's Facebook page.

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