Silvio Schembri kindly asked to meet me to explain his side of the story about the property that he is currently renting at Ta’ Xbiex

This site published a blog entitled “A tailor-made Scheme for the Prime Minister and woke journalists do not even question!” In this article, reference was made to a Facebook post about a press conference by the Minister of the Economy, Silvio Schembri, about a scheme that was introduced concerning individuals who are renting government property on temporary emphyteutic. On Tuesday, 11th July 2023, the Economy Ministry held a press conference to explain the new legal notice issued by the Lands Authority to facilitate the regularisation of expired leases and other concessions. Meanwhile, Silvio Schembri also released a statement about the new government scheme to extend ground rents that belong to the Government, which have expired or will expire by December 2030. In this blog, it was argued that one must read the legal notice carefully. Among others, this scheme covers expired emphyteutic. Therefore, a person who would benefit from this scheme was Prime Minister Robert Abela himself, whose chambers concession in Valetta expired in 2017!

Furthermore, this blog criticized the journalists for not asking the Minister the hard questions about this scheme, who would benefit from it, and about the apartment at Ta’ Xbiex, where he resides. What is striking about this press conference was that the journalists attending the press conference did not grill the Minister on these issues.

The Minister contacted this site and cordially invited me to his office to explain his position. On my part, I accepted. During the meeting, I asked Minister Schembri about this story concerning the Prime Minister’s chambers in Valletta. The Minister gave me a frank reply and showed that he was well-prepared to answer questions concerning his ministry and operations.

He started by saying that it is true that he is currently living in a flat at Ta’ Xbiex. However, he is not the owner of this flat. He is renting this flat from third parties. This flat is situated in a block that was built in the sixties. This block had its facade renovated and a floor added to it. However, he denied that its market price value is over a million. He denied renting this flat from Dimech, who had recently been in the news. He showed me the name of the landlord from whom he is renting this property. However, when asked whether his landlord bought it from Dimech, he stated that he had no knowledge and could not answer that question. He insisted that there was nothing sinister about this rent and provided proof that he was renting the property at the market price. In other words, the price he is paying as rent is the same as that being asked from properties in the same block. It is not astronomical, and a minister can afford it with his salary.

About the last Land Authority scheme, he confirmed that one who will benefit will be the Prime Minister himself. Still, he insisted that there were over 1500 individuals who were either in the same situation as the Prime Minister or would be in the same position in the years to come. Therefore, as a minister, Schembri insisted he wanted to address an anomaly and create a proper mechanism that would permit the Government, or better, the Lands Authority, to renew expired emphyteusis of those who own government properties that were taken over on lease. He made it a point to stress that this was not the only scheme that his ministry had introduced. Schembri said that he had introduced three other schemes. During the informal discussion on these schemes, he knew very well how they worked, even though I sometimes disagreed with the philosophy used for these schemes.

However, this last scheme is not intended for ordinary residences or properties designed only for residential use. These residencies are already covered by another existing scheme issued in October 2019, during the time of his predecessor. Most of these properties benefitting from this new scheme are boathouses, summer residences, offices, garages, unbuilt plots, etc. For sure, these cannot be considered typical residential properties which require any form of government assistance or protection. Therefore, the best praxis would have been that once the emphyteutic on these properties had expired and the Government did not intend to make use of these properties, these properties were issued to the public by tender to the highest bidder! Thus, there was an equal chance for everybody to acquire such property on a freehold or emphyteutic basis. 

We also had a word about the way he had declared his assets. He admitted to having made a mistake in writing that he has a personal loan without specifying its type. He told me that it was a loan paid by his parents, and as proof, he showed me a copy of a cheque made out by his parents in his favour.

When asked about certain decisions taken by the Lands Authority, starting with the huge tract of land in Mellieħa, he said that when the board of the Lands Authority first discussed it, the Nationalist representative voted in favour. He said anyone can write to the Lands Authority to inquire and demand to purchase public land. If the Authority agrees to sell, it would be subject to a public tender. However, my point was that there is land and land that belongs to the Government. I am sure the Government could have avoided selling this land in Mellieħa to third parties. The Minister pointed out that the Lands Authority carries out hundreds of transactions concerning government properties. The Minister explained that in the case of the Mellieħa land, third parties were also interested in creating a controversy that had nothing to do with the environment. While I do not exclude this, I reminded the Minister that the environment has played a critical role in this story. Thus, this land should have been kept as an open space to be enjoyed by all. Now we are ending in a situation with the Government purchasing land from private individuals to turn it into an open space when the Government has land, as was the case of Mellieħa, which could have been kept for the benefit of all. Instead, the Government decided otherwise.

Our discussion ended with his views about the law that regulates the Land Authorities. He admitted that this law could have been better. On my part, I reiterated my thoughts that there was no need for Government to abolish the Lands Department and create an authority. The situation has gone from bad to worse. It was not perfect before, but the imperfections in the past were not in the system but due to political interference. Thanks to this new law, there is still space for political interference, and the system is awful and is giving rise to corruption.

As an example of government interference, I mentioned that his chief of staff is the secretary to the board of the Lands Authority. The Minister reiterated that on his part, he did not nominate all the board representatives and assured me of no political interference from his end. However, the fact remains that most of the board members are appointed by the Government of the day. 

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