This is an investigation that is split into a total of four separate articles. This article is the second in the sequence. The links to the other parts of the investigation can be found at the bottom of the main article, which you can access by clicking here.
Liam Sciberras, the Nationalist Party’s sole local councillor in his hometown of Santa Luċija, greeted me outside the party’s club, a lone outpost if there ever was one.
Given the locality’s heritage as a bonafide socialist project from prime minister Dom Mintoff’s time, the Nationalist Party’s foothold in the neighbourhood was always shaky, even if one considers that the party furthered Mintoff’s legacy in the area when it was elected to government by continuing the locality’s expansion process.
As he welcomed me into a small room that once served as an office but fell into evident disuse, he picks up on the fact that I instinctively reached for my camera while I looked around at the somewhat decrepit surroundings and lighting.
“Perhaps we should take photos somewhere else,” he suggests hurriedly, smiling as he did so. I signal my agreement as a few old-timers shake off the cobwebs from the bar in the adjacent room.
In spite of the staleness in the air, Liam radiates energy and vigour. In spite of his party’s somewhat overshadowed historical presence in the locality, he is bucking the trend by managing to become one of the most beloved local councillors in Santa Luċija after eight years of being at odds with the rest of the local council. The other local councillors – mayor Charmaine St John, vice-mayor Frederick Cutajar, and local councillors Terrence Ellul and Kylie D’Amato – were all elected on the Labour Party’s ticket.
Ironically, Liam himself hails from a family with proud socialist roots which intertwined with the Labour Party. He refused to join the Labour Party because, he says, he realised that he could not represent his constituents’ wishes by being associated with a party that had forgotten all about those socialist roots and, most of all, the importance of its duty to provide a service to the electorate.
As we chat and I coax a bit of background out of him before getting down to brass tacks, he tells me he’s spent all of his 31 years on this earth living in Santa Luċija. All of his memories are linked with the locality’s idyllic streets, its wide open spaces, and its verdant surroundings.
“I live a few metres away from the church, so obviously, one of the first steps I took in life was to get involved with the church. I was an altar boy until I was almost 18 years old. I spent a lot of time working with younger kids at that age too. So Santa Luċija taught me to use my time well by passing on what I’ve managed to learn to others,” Liam says, adding that he wishes to use his seat on the local council to give back to a community that has given him so much to cherish.
By and large, Liam seems to have lived up to his promise to give back to the community. He’s been serving as a local councillor in Santa Luċija for most of his adult life, and intends to serve for another legislature by contesting the upcoming local council elections once more. He has been at the forefront of every major effort by the locality’s residents to oppose three large developments that are set to take up a significant chunk of the diminutive locality’s remaining open spaces.
In fact, when asked to mention the high point of his stint as a local councillor, Liam beams with pride as he recalls the long, drawn-out battle that led to a significant victory: the case of the thwarted pencil development in Triq il-Ġibjun, a legal saga that took almost two years to be brought to a conclusive end.
Thanks to Liam, a dedicated group of residents, and some help from a few colleagues in the legal field, the development, which would have led to the construction of a five-storey building that would have mutilated the street’s character, was eventually turned down by the court of appeal. Liam’s campaign had successfully conveyed one key message to the locality’s residents: one pencil development approved in Triq il-Ġibjun could have easily meant more similar developments being approved elsewhere within Santa Luċija.
The ruling from chief justice Mark Chetcuti set a positive precedent that sparked an important legal discussion within official fora like the Chamber of Architects.
“However, with your permission of course,” he says politely, “I cannot help but express my disappointment about the ugly moments I experienced within the local council. I remember the first time when I brought up this issue in the local council. I did so at the time when Miriam Pace, God rest her soul, was killed in that accident. Malta ground to a halt when that happened – everyone was talking about how developers just don’t care about putting others at risk.”
“In Santa Luċija, people made the connection between this permit and that risk. There was a lot of panic, and people can’t be blamed for that. If they’re building right next to you after something like that happens, you’ll automatically worry about the risk that is involved.”
Liam says that he knew the land on which this application was filed is fragile. There were no solid foundations there, the bedrock was not made up of hardstone, and the worries extended beyond mere aesthetic concerns about the character of the locality. His attempt at conveying these concerns to his fellow local councillors did not get through. He called for an urgent meeting. The request was refused.
“Obviously, as the sole representative of the Nationalist Party in the council, I didn’t find any support. I find this to be quite heartbreaking because when I attend a local council meeting, I am very focused on being as objective as possible, I don’t go there to look at the differences in our party colours,” he adds.
The Labour Party’s local councillors had claimed that they would not intervene in the Triq il-Ġibjun application because it was a private development, a stark contrast with their more recent position against the private development that is being pushed forward by Labour Party grandee and major developer Anton ‘Tal-Franċiż’ Camilleri.
Given that the Tal-Franċiż development is the most recent among the three major ones being proposed in Santa Luċija and that the local council had previously failed to oppose others – the Triq il-Ġibjun case, the Santa Luċija football complex, and obviously, the local council’s own civic centre proposal – residents who spoke to this website at length voiced unease about whether the council could definitely be trusted to safeguard their environment.
His fellow local councillors’ failure to join forces to oppose the Triq il-Ġibjun case had marked a turning point for Liam. He had publicly called out the local council for its “disservice” to the community, and vowed to fight alongside residents whenever such major projects showed up on their locality’s doorstep. To add insult to injury, the vice-mayor had joined one of the PA meetings to publicly state that Liam’s position on the development was not contiguous to that of the local council and that his position was untenable.
When asked point blank if he felt like his colleagues were trying to get rid of him at the time, he answers in the affirmative.
“Yes, that’s it. They also took a stand against the position I chose to take. So this was very hurtful for me. I joined the local council to defend my locality, and was placed in a situation where my fellow elected councillors were working against me so they could stop me from defending what we were all obliged to defend. It was a moment in which I experienced a crisis of identity, to be honest,” he admits.
Except for the rare truce that was evidently called to unite against the Tal-Franċiż development, the pattern remained the same. When Santa Luċija’s local council commissioned a survey to gauge residents’ feelings about a major football complex proposal spearheaded by the local club, the Labour-led council pronounced itself in favour of the project in spite of a majority of responses which clearly suggested residents did not want the project to go ahead.
One of the local councillors – Terrence Ellul – failed to declare his glaring conflict of interest before the local council was meant to announce its position on the proposed football complex, which was only revealed because Liam verified that Ellul was previously a member of the council’s executive branch. Even the process of drafting the questions for the survey itself took hours of bickering to resolve.
As for the local council’s bizarre proposal to build a civic centre with a spa attached to it, Liam faced an uphill struggle yet again. While vice-mayor Frederick Cutajar had always envisioned the development of a “state-of-the-art” civic centre, the young, defiant councillor suggested otherwise, with more back-and-forth discussions leading to an eventual revision of the plans.
Now, Liam, who admits that his habit of going above and beyond the local councillor’s call of duty has also meant lots of personal sacrifices and time lost with loved ones, is yet again at the vanguard of the fight against a residential project that is owned by a major developer whose ties with the Labour Party are so intimate he hired their deputy leader as his architect.
On 20 January, a week before a crucial PA hearing that was later postponed, the Labour-led local council organised a protest against the development. In spite of the fact that they were the organisers of the protest, the Labour Party’s councillors did not accept a request for a filmed comment when approached in-person at the protest. The mayor offered a contact point and said that she preferred to answer questions in writing.
By the time this investigation was published, no responses from the Labour Party’s local councillors were received in spite of confirmation that the questions were seen by the local councillors in question.
Describing the logistics of the fight against the project and the build-up towards the eventual truce, Liam does not pull punches with his criticism.
“They (the local council) were afraid of doing anything about this development towards the beginning. So I decided to make better use of our time. We created a team, we divided the town into ten districts so we could go speak to people, gather signatures and so on. Absolutely nobody wants that project. People know the place as that agricultural plot of land that the guy with horses maintains. It’s a pretty spot with some nice olive trees,” he says.
“We gathered over 1,300 signatures. I gave a comment to Times of Malta that day. I said that we were doing all this to ensure that Santa Luċija’s serene, authentic harmony is preserved, and that this project would jar with its surroundings,” he added.
When asked whether he believes the Labour Party is too compromised by its close affiliation with the developer in question and the construction industry at large, he argues that the Labour Party stopped listening to its constituents a long time ago, in the same exact way the Nationalist Party had towards the end of its last term in power.
“There is a plan for developers but there is no plan for residents. The Labour Party doesn’t care about its socialist roots, it only cares about whoever throws money at it. Labour doesn’t care about social mobility, it cares about making money so it can have enough of a war chest to fend off the Nationalists,” he concludes.
The questions Labour’s local councillors did not answer
1) This website is informed that the four local councillors who were elected on the Labour Party’s ticket had failed to vote in favour of a motion to urgently discuss the planning application that was filed in Triq il-Ġibjun. The same councillors had claimed that this was ‘a private project’ and that it had no say in it.
However, the local council was quick to oppose the proposed development on Triq Katerina Vitale, even though this project is a private project as well. Can the local council explain this discrepancy?
2) In relation to the same application that was proposed in Triq il-Ġibjun, can vice-mayor Frederick Cutajar explain why he had vociferously opposed fellow local councillor Liam Sciberras in a public hearing against the proposed development when the latter was attempting to stop development residents didn’t want?
3) Given his former involvement in Santa Luċija’s football club, can local councillor Terrence Ellul explain why he had not declared his conflict of interest when the council was asked to take a position about the proposed football complex?
4) Generally speaking, how can the local council justify its failure to oppose the football complex project given the fact that the proposal clearly clashes with its surroundings and the council’s own survey determined that the majority of the locality does not want it?
5) Regarding the local council’s proposed civic centre, can the local council explain why it is going to be built on an undeveloped plot of land? What is the justification for the inclusion of an underground spa in these plans?
6) Regarding the ring-road development, can the mayor, the vice-mayor, and local councillor Kylie D’Amato explain why they had voted in favour of the project going through in spite of the significant opposition that was voiced by residents at the time?
7) We carried out multiple interviews with residents who live near Triq Katerina Vitale, where the major development spearheaded by Anton Camilleri and designed by architect and deputy Labour Party leader Daniel Micallef is being proposed. Every resident we spoke to accused the local councillors of failing to call out the Labour Party for its close association with major developers like Camilleri.
Residents also accused the local council of pretending it is supporting residents in their fight against this project solely because the Labour Party’s councillors are seeking re-election and are aware that the project is likely to go through regardless.
What is the local council’s response to these accusations?