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From vending machines to a fully-fledged restaurant: NAO asks how

The Cliffs paying €46.60 annually for sub-lease

Updated Tuesday 11.30am

The National Audit Office has said it was baffled how plans to limit the Dingli Interpretation Centre to having a vending machine on site ended up with a permit for a fully-fledged restaurant.

In a report on the centre, tabled on Monday night in parliament, the NAO said that the chair of the Planning Authority’s Development Control Commission said this was an “oversight”, whereas it regarded them as “weak work practices, including a broad lack of clarity as well as poor internal communication.

The NAO started its investigation after receiving a letter in January 2016 alleging collusion and insider information involving governmental officials, after a piece of public land in a Natura 2000 area was devolved to the Dingli local council to establish an Interpretation Centre – but ended up as a catering establishment: The Cliffs.

The main allegations implied that the mayor at that time (Ian Borg) had a personal interest and that there was misuse of EU funds in this venture. The letter also referred to shortcomings by governmental institutions involved in this project.

However, the investigation did not uncover or receive any evidence to support the allegations. It also ruled out allegations that the sub-leasee registered its company with the Malta Financial Services Authority just three days before the local council tender due to insider information – saying that there had been ample information available within the public domain.

However, it noted that the annual sub-lease and the devolution fee of Lm20 (€46.60) and Lm100 (€233) were not reflective of market prices.

Sources told the Times of Malta that this annual fee may be misleading as it did not reflect the fact that the operator had invested some €600,000 on the centre, and that the site concession closes in 2019.

"The operator has the right of first refusal with the council - but the land will revert to the government and it is up to the Lands Department to see whether it wants to give the land back to the council for a further period," the sources said.

This report may be accessed through the National Audit Office website www.nao.gov.mt or Facebook page www.facebook.com/NAOMalta.

COUNCIL REACTION

Dingli Local Council said it welcomed the NAO report .

"The Had-Dingli Local Council welcomes the positive conclusions of the National Audit Office’s investigative report confirming that there were no irregularities or wrongdoings by the local council’s current or former officials in the establishment and operation of the Dingli Interpretation Centre and other related projects," it said. 

The report, it said, unequivocally states that “this investigation did not uncover or receive evidence to corroborate allegations of fraud, corruption, insider information or conflict of interest from any of the officials or parties involved in the processes to establish an Interpretation Centre at Dingli.”

The investigation, it added, disproves all the allegations made by individuals who have been trying to denigrate this important development which, for the last few years, has been giving the public a unique opportunity to discover, enjoy and appreciate this locality’s remarkable natural, cultural and archaeological heritage.

The Auditor General also refuted allegations of misuse of EU or national funds in the development of the Dingli Heritage Trail, or of the Interpretation Centre forming part of the same trail. 

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