In comments published in The Malta Independent last month, Sannat mayor Philip Vella described a block or blocks of flats of Excel Investments Limited as “monstruous”.
Excel is owned by property magnate Joseph Portelli, the Agius brothers (Ta Dirjanu), and Daniel Refalo, and their project in Sannat is one of the most contentious developments in the Maltese Islands. This website has published several investigations about aspects of the project, with the latest, published yesterday, focusing on an EU-funded rubble wall built by the council that is in breach of regulations.
Vella then reportedly told The Malta Independent that the council has adopted the stance that it would not object to proposed developments if these were in conformity with policies.
In a Facebook post sharing the article, he then highlighted one of his quotes that goes like this: “In a situation where local councils were to be given powers to decide on planning permits, and whether to withhold them or issue them, I can tell you that I would be amongst the first to withhold permits for monstrous buildings.”
Vella lives in the neighbourhood, and less than 100 metres away from Portelli’s project he has constructed a five-storey block of flats in a street consisting of 2 or 3 storey buildings.
Built in the past few years, the building is the first five-storey building in three blocks that were originally built as townhouses under social housing scheme in the early nineties. The project architect was Edward Scerri.
Vella’s building appears as the highest on the Sannat skyline when approaching the village and having a broad panorama of the village.
After speaking to Vella about the council-built rubble wall that features in a separate article – click here to read that article – I raised questions about his block of flats in the context of what he had told The Malta Independent as well as the stance Gozitan mayors had taken on these five-storey buildings.
He started by defending his block by saying that he hadn’t “messed any virgin land” and did not build “a block of around 50 flats.”
“If everyone in the street would do what you did,” I said, “it would be more than 50 flats. But instead of being built by one, it would be built by 10, but the effect would be the same.”
He mentioned the “rationalistion of 2006”, which has nothing to do with policies on height-limitation or five-storey buildings. Then he said: “Would you prefer that virgin land is taken up instead of building five-storey buildings?”
In response to a question on whether he opposed five-storey blocks in Gozo, he said: “I will tell you what I told the Independent – make sure you quote me accurately – I was clear in what I said. I told them that as a council we adopted the stand that if the Planning Authority policy allows construction of five-storeys, we would not object because that would be futile. We would object to developments in Outside Development Zones, and in Urban Conservation Areas, we will do our best to stop those developments.”
I asked him about the precedent he had set, and whether he felt it was right if everyone in the neighbourhood had to build five-storey buildings.
Again he said that it was a matter of whether planning policy allowed that or not. He said: “If the policy grants that, why not, they have a right to build that. It’s the Planning Authority that has to change the policy.”
“In the meantime,” I told him, “together with other mayors in Gozo you called on the Planning Authority to suspend the height-limitation policy that allows five-storeys in Gozo.”
In late 2020, all Gozitan mayors joined forces with the Gozo Regional Council and appealed to the authorities to rein in rampant development in Gozo, including suspending the policy that redefined height-limitations in 2015 and allowed five-storey buildings in Gozo’s hinterland villages.
“If the policy changes,” he said, “then yes people would not be able to build up to five storeys. But I think that is the Planning Authority’s problem, it has now issued many permits and none of them is in breach of laws, and conform with policies… I will not talk for the Planning Authority, the Planning Authority can talk for itself. I have done nothing wrong. I have not breached any law.”
Dogs park and horse pool
In the same area, the mayor Philip Vella has been championing the local council’s project to construct a dogs' park and horse pool.
In a meeting of the local council on 16 September 2019, Vella originally asked a councillor to “study” the possibility of a dogs’ park and horse pool as a project of the council’s, so that the council could apply for funding.
Last February, Vella then announced in a post on Facebook that he was having discussions with Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri on funding for the horse pool and dogs' park, and published a flier that also showed the location.
The location is a large government-owned field – amounting to 2,400 square metres – beyond Tal-Bidwi garden, situated 300 metres from the cliff’s edge where there is the largest colony of Scopoli’s shearwaters in the Maltese Islands. Birdlife Malta has been saying that intensification of development is a threat to the nesting seabirds.
The blueprint published by Vella on Facebook shows the horse pool, dogs' park, and parking area.
No planning application appears on the Planning Authority server. The location is outside the development zone.