Four of 14 flats in a seven-storey block on Xlendi’s seafront, in which Agriculture Minister Anton Refalo and family of PN MP Alex Borg have had a longtime stake, are smaller than the minimum size requirements for one-bedroom residencies set in planning policies, an investigation by this website can reveal.
Initial moves to develop the site got underway with a development application in 2003, and since then there has been another four applications, with the latest one in 2020. Construction got underway in 2018 to a permit granted in 2017 – the case officer had recommended refusal due to the small size of some of the flats.
The Refalo’s and parents of Alex Borg have owned parts of the property – either the property itself or the so-called airspace (where the flats eventually rose) – since before the issuance of the first permit in 2006, which was then superseded by subsequent permits, the latest one in 2020.
In the latest ministerial declaration of assets filed three weeks ago, Refalo declared ownership of “two studio flats” in the block on Xlendi’s seafront. The flats in the building that best fit the definition of ‘studios’ are the four that are smaller than the minimum size requirement – amounting to 46 square metres including the balcony – as well as one of the penthouses, with an inner area of 52 square metres (and overall area only slightly larger than minimum size requirement). The remaining flats in the block are 79 or 97 square metres, while one is 67 square metres.
There was no response to a question sent to Refalo asking if he had a comment to make about the size of the studio flats he declared in his declaration of assets.
Refalo had only originally put the two flats in the declaration of assets on 31 October 2022 in response to questions by this website on why he had been omitting the flats from his declarations. Prior to that he had been declaring ownership of a part of a property on Xlendi’s seafront. At the time, on 31 October, he had responded to questions by saying that he had “erroneously” left out ownership of the flats “in the last filing of Ministerial assets.” He had then amended the declaration of assets on the same day.
This website’s latest investigation into the size of flats was triggered by the additional detail given in the latest declaration of assets. Last October’s description of “two flats” became “two studio flats” in the declaration of three weeks ago – the whole entry reads “two studio flats on Triq Ix-Xatt, Xlendi, Ghawdex [Gozo].”
The development permit for the block of flats in its existing form was granted in 2017 to an application filed by four individuals, including an old business partner of Refalo in some property dealings, Maryanne Cauchi, as well as Anthony Borg, father of PN MP Alex Borg.
Anthony, who is now deceased, was a PN stalwart who remains best known for the 15 years he served as chief aide (head of secretariat) of Giovanna Debono, who was Gozo Minister prior to the change of government in 2013.
Maryanne and her husband Anthony, aside from having been involved in property dealings with the Refalo’s in the past, also appear on the certificate of title together with Refalo and his wife of two twin farmhouses in Qala, named Il-Ferrieha and In-Newwieha. Refalo has listed In-Newwieha as his “residence” in the ministerial declaration of assets.
Neither Refalo nor his wife ever appeared in any of the development application forms pertaining to the Xlendi block of flats.
In processing of the application in 2017, the Planning Authority’s case officer had recommended refusal of the application due to the small size of the one-bedroom flats, which he held were in breach of policy P32 of the Development Control Design Policy, Guidance and Standards 2015, a policy document known as DC15 and published in 2015.
P32 stipulates that one-bedroomed flats cannot be smaller than 55 square metres – the smaller flats are 46 square metres (balcony included).
In its minutes, the Planning Commission “noted that the site lies within an Entertainment Priority Area and P32 allows this type of area for development.” Analysis of the relevant policies and laws by this website could not find anything that justifies exception from minimum size requirement of one-bedroom residential units in Entertainment Priority Areas or – for that matter – in any other area designation. (The exception in Entertainment Priority Areas, and Student Priority Areas, is that there is no capping to the number of one-bedroom housing units in any given block or development.)
The Planning Commission then instructed the case officer to ‘please submit condition for permit’ – and delivered permit two weeks later.
The Superintendence of Cultural Heritage had also objected to the development due to the presence of a vernacular building. It said that the building was “one of the last intact surviving buildings located on the seafront. Any proposed development should respect and enhance the architectural value of the existing building.” It asked for the building to be “incorporated in the proposed development.”
Yet the case officer argued that the area was not an Urban Conservation Area and there were other blocks of flats, dismissing the Superintendence’s objection.
Architectural plans were slightly changed during the construction, and a further application was put in in 2020 to sanction the changes. In that 2020 application, the name of Mary Borg appeared instead of Anthony Borg. Mary Debono Borg is the widow of Anthony Borg, who died in 2019, and the mother of Alex Borg, the PN MP and spokesperson for Gozo. Debono Borg is also director general of the Gozo Courts.
In the report on the 2020 application, the case officer also wrote that the “one-bedroom units do not satisfy the requirements [on minimum size] of Policy P32 of DC15”. He then added that since these were approved in the previous application in 2017, “the provisions of DC2015 Policy P1 apply.” Policy P1 refers to commitments that have to be taken into account, which includes “existing legal developments that are physically present on site.”
The Superintendence of Cultural Heritage said in response to the 2020 application that since the application in 2017 had been approved – despite its objection – any further comment would be superfluous.
This website sent various questions and request for comment to Anton Refalo and Alex Borg. Questions were sent via email as well as text message. There was no response from neither of them.
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