Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Intriguing public land issues

Intriguing public land issues

The Ramblers’ Association receives frequent calls and letters from non- members about land issues. We always do our best to follow up.

A recent note concerned an idividual who likes roaming around on the Wardija ridge. Some time ago he was surprised to discover “No Entry” signs on reaching the hilltop used by the British as a cannon battery during the war. Thinking that the signs were abusively placed he proceeded on his ramble since it was his customary route, only to be accosted by one of three persons lingering there. He was told that it was private land, their land, all of seven tumoli (approximately two acres).

He wrote to us and in turn we wrote to the Lands Department asking whether the land in question was government land. We received an affirmative answer: government property given out some years back on “agricultural lease” – a type of land-lease (in Maltese qbiela), generally for agricultural purposes, that is annually renewed unless stopped by notification in advance.

We visited the place peculiarly named Il-Ħotba ta’ Gaba – a rock outcrop commanding such high ground over the bay of St Paul’s that no wonder the British set up a battery of powerful cannon there in defence of the harbour. The panorama is breathtaking with a wide-sweeping horizon that takes in Selmun, Xemxija, Mistra, St Paul’s Islands, Qawra, Magħtab, Madliena, Għargħur, Naxxar, Mosta and Mdina, with the fertile slopes from corresponding ridges in the foreground and the blue Mediterranean at the back.

The concrete platforms of the British cannons are still very evident on the otherwise very barren terrain that sparsely supports maquis. This baffled us: how come the land was leased for agricultural purposes when there was not one square inch of arable land? Does this signify that the department has no idea of the nature of the land it leases out? Does no department officer visit a site before it is leased out? Unbelievable.

Agriculture is conspicuous by its absence. There is, however, unmistakeable evidence of hunting and trapping: hides, spent cartridges and steel fixtures in the rock. Certainly no farmer was earning a living from these two acres! Seeing is believing and one can only believe if one visits the place.

We asked for a meeting with the Department of Lands and were cordially received. It was a session that gave us the first insight into the conventional methods of management of government or public land, which leave much to be desired.

We asked for a copy of the contract but were politely told that such contracts were not accessible for public viewing. Interesting indeed! So officials from the Lands Department can lease out government (read public) property without the owner (read public) having the right to know the terms and conditions! This raises various questions: Does government land belong or not to the people? Is it socially just that for the meagre sum of less than €100 annually such a vast tract of historical and scenic land is bestowed upon one person while the people are deprived from enjoying it?

Another land issue was brought to our attention by the Wardija residents and farmers. It concerned a tender issued by the Lands Department for a site in Ġnien Busewdien. The tender called for offers for a three-tumoli field, for a period of 50 years: lowest acceptable offer €1,500 annually. The tender heading clearly said that the field was to be used “solely for agricultural purposes”. The price sounded oddly expensive so we decided to probe deeper. We felt we had to visit the place.

To our surprise we found that the topsoil was rocky and sparse, not economically feasible for agricultural usage at that rate. Also a large part of the land was garigue and bare rock. But, the field bordered on one side a new three-storey construction on the very edge of the cliff overlooking Wied Qannota, in an outside development zone area. This fact duly stirred the residents because the new construction was out of the ordinary, to say the least. They felt that since the developer succeeded somehow to build in ODZ they could only suspect the worst: the spread of more construction where it should not occur.

We were in full agreement and to stress home the point asked the Audit Office of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority to carry out an investigation.

Back to the tender: The tender was won by the one and only offer for €1,510. And it came from the same tenant who had held the same field on agricultural lease (qbiela) for many years before. Why would the same tenant opt for a 50-year lease at such a price rather than carry on with the agricultural lease which did not exceed €100 annually? We found the answer in the terms of the eventual contract, published in the tender. Condition 4 gave the winner practically a free hand of what he could do with the land! The rate of €1,510 is prohibitive for agricultural use but is peanuts for speculative purposes.

At this point we asked for a meeting with Parliamentary Secretary Jason Azzopardi who wisely called the presence of the respective heads from the Lands Department. The two issues above were raised together with others, about which more next time.

On the issue of Il-Ħotba ta’ Gaba we asked the department to stop the lease forthwith, as it has every right to do, since the present tenant was not earning his living from the land and neither could agricultural use be made of it. Ramblers even offered to take over the land to see to the upkeep of its natural and historical aspects and to render it accessible and amenable to the public.

To date, 15 weeks after our first letter and two subsequent reminders, there is still no answer from the Lands top people. The no entry signs at the Ħotba have been removed but we have no idea why.

On the other issue of Ġnien Busewdien we asked that the tender be withdrawn and an investigation be carried out, for the reason that we had serious doubts about the contract conditions and the way the tender was worded.

The heads of the Lands Department explained it was a standard contract ­– in our opinion a surprisingly naïve admission. The Parliamentary Secretary understood our surprised remarks and opined that the contract conditions should be reviewed and amended. The department is in duty bound to maximise revenue from public land, and that we understand; but surely not at the cost of paving the way for land speculation.

There are other land issues that we hope to put forward in future for the scrutiny of readers. Our purpose behind this is solely to raise awareness of conventional practices that the Lands Department has inherited.

Overwhelmed as the department undoubtedly is by the intricate nature of land ownership and its management, the intention of the Ramblers’ Association is to point out objectively any weaknesses in the system that may be taken advantage of by the crafty self-seeker as well as the more unscrupulous opportunist. It is common good that we seek to champion.

Mr Vella is president of the Ramblers’ Association of Malta.


Keith Aquilina

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