The Malta Independent on Sunday, 2nd November 2008, by David Lindsay

An audio recording and documents from the European Parliament Petitions Committee obtained by The Malta Independent on Sunday have revealed what appears to be a concerted pattern of deception over the controversial application to develop a tourist complex at the Ulysses Lodge site at Ramla Bay, Gozo.

They also expose how the Malta Environment and Planning Authority’s rejection of the would-be developers’ application in October 2007 was a foregone conclusion as the government had already decided, at least by September 2007, to give the ‘thumbs down’ to the development before the Mepa DCC board rejected it on a technicality raised by an objecting party.

Although the application is still pending a Mepa appeal hearing scheduled for 28 November, the Petitions Committee dropped three petitions against the project on 7 October after the Commission was informed the application had been rejected and following a statement to the Committee by Maltese MEP Simon Busuttil to the effect that the application had been rejected following “public pressure”.

Dr Busuttil, however, failed to mention that the application was still subject to an appeal process or that the application had been rejected on a technicality.

A Petitions Committee document containing European Commission’s response to the Committee on the application obtained by The Malta Independent on Sunday inexplicably states that the Commission had been informed in September 2007, presumably by the Maltese government, that no permit would be awarded for the project – although Mepa did not reject the application until 4 October.

The Commission’s reply states, “In relation to the proposed tourist development at Ramla l-Hamra, the Commission received information in September 2007 stating that no permit for the proposed project would be granted. Consequently, there are no grounds for identifying a breach of EU environmental law and no further action is proposed.”

It appears from the Commission’s statement that a Mepa verdict rejecting the application had already been decided upon by the government, before the Mepa DCC board convened on 4 October to hear the case.

The DCC board had unanimously rejected the application on a technicality raised by an objecting party. The issue deals with the fact that a public pathway runs through the property in question – an issue the project’s opponents feel could be circumvented by the developers at an appeal hearing later this month.

The proposed developers have filed an appeal against the judgement, which will be heard on 28 November.

Additionally, an audio file of the 7 October Petitions Committee hearing obtained by this newspaper records Maltese MEP Simon Busuttil informing the Committee that the application had been dropped by the national authority due to public pressure, not because of the technicality and without making any reference whatsoever to the pending appeal, which has been common knowledge since the appeal was filed on 5 December 2007 – 10 months before Dr Busuttil’s statement to the Petitions Committee.

In the recording, Dr Busuttil told the Committee, “Very briefly, this happens to be a case in which, due to public pressure, the authorities have had to reject an application for development that had caused a great deal of environmental concern and the application in question has been rejected by the national authority.

“So I think that here is a case where, on the basis of public pressure, the authorities do move and when the public is right, that right is given to them.

“That is why I agree with the Commission that there is absolutely no basis for continuing with the petition – precisely because of the pressure created by this petition the application in question will now not proceed.”

The Committee, on the basis of the Commission’s reply and Dr Busuttil’s statement, closed the petitions against the development there and then.

The following day Dr Busuttil’s office issued a press release that the Petitions Committee had rejected a petition against the government’s Sant’Antnin recycling plant, but made no reference whatsoever to the dropping of the three separate petitions against the Ramla development.

The Sant’Antnin petition had been number 36 on the Committee’s agenda and directly preceded the hearing of the Ramla petitions, which was item 37 on the agenda.

The state of affairs now leaves the Ramla petitioners in a somewhat grey area, with their right to petition compromised since the petition has been dismissed before the appeal process is concluded and with the case still open.

It also places the government and Dr Busuttil in an uncomfortable position with the European Commission and the EP Petitions Committee. Despite their assertions that the application has been rejected, an appeal hearing at the end of the month could very well end up approving the project if the developers, who have a legal right to appeal the decision, find a way around the technicality (Article 39A of the Development Planning Act) that saw the application being denied.

Contacted about the issue, Victor Galea, AD secretary general and one of the three petitioners – confirmed he had received notice from the Petitions Committee that the petition had been dropped.

“As such,” he commented, “it makes no sense for Mepa to convene a meeting on 28 November to examine the application.”