As AX Group continues to take on larger and more challenging projects, Chairman Angelo Xuereb, recipient of the Malta Stock Exchange Lifetime Achievement award for 2021, reflects on his 47-year entrepreneurial journey and is confident of a bright future for the AX Group.
AX Group’s beginnings can be traced to 1975 when the entrepreneur first launched AX Construction using a €500 wedding gift as an initial investment.
Founder and Chairman of AX Group Angelo Xuereb celebrated his 70th birthday on Wednesday. The company shared a selection of pictures dating back to the early years when Mr Xuereb founded the Group via AX Construction in 1975 thanks to a €500 wedding gift.
Today, the Group has evolved into a household name and is made up of four major divisions: AX Hotels, AX Care, AX Construction and AX Real Estate.
The Group is made up of over 30 companies spanning the hospitality, real estate, construction, healthcare and maritime sectors and employs over 1,000 people.
Mr Xuereb’s journey at the helm of the company as it ventured into different markets is characterised by several milestones. His life experiences have also seen him appointed the first mayor of Naxxar and Ambassador of Knowledge by the Life Learning Academia. In 2016, he was selected Employer of the Year and was named EY’s Entrepreneur of the Year in 2018.
In 2021, the Malta Stock Exchange awarded him the Lifetime Achievement Award.
As featured on Who’s Who’
Over the years, the AX Group’s Annual Long Service Employee Awards Night has become one of the most highly anticipated events as it seeks to recognise employees and show gratitude for their years of unwavering service to the company across all the divisions. AX Group Chairman, Mr Angelo Xuereb, said he was elated that over 40 of the Group’s employees were receiving the recognition for long service ranging between 5 and 30 years, as it not only showcased their loyalty, but positioned AX Group as an employer of choice by retaining employees for decades.
During the event, which was held at AX The Palace’s State Hall and Alexandra Gardens, Chief Executive Officer Mr Michael Warrington stated, “I’m very proud that AX Group has the knowledge, skill and vision to build great teams. You are the cornerstones that make up those successful teams, who strive to train and encourage all our new colleagues who join the Group.” He further commented that the AX Awards Night is a testimony to each member’s unique and priceless contribution.
The ceremony celebrated the long service of employees who were presented with awards. The respective long service awards were presented by Chairman Mr Angelo Xuereb, Chief Executive Officer Mr Michael Warrington, Hospitality and Care Director Ms Claire Zammit Xuereb and Construction, Development and Real Estate Director Ms Denise Micallef Xuereb.
Additionally, ten members of staff were nominated for the Chairman’s Awards, holding management and operative positions. Four winners were announced with pride, to whom Mr Xuereb presented the prestigious awards in recognition for their loyalty, commitment, never ceasing to go above and beyond, as well as portraying AX values in their roles. Furthermore, the night also featured recognition for three retirees who previously formed part of the AX Group family.
The Lifetime Achievement Award for 2021 was awarded to Mr Anthony Schembri who has worked with the company well over retirement age. The award was presented to him in recognition of his hard work and dedication to the company.
The ceremony concluded with a donation presentation of €7,950 from all AX Group employees to Ms Claire Zammit Xuereb, Chairperson of AX Foundation.
Congratulations to all awardees!
On Tuesday 15 February, AX Real Estate plc listed 97,193,600 Eur0.125 Ordinary A shares and trading commenced on Wednesday 16 February. AX Real Estate plc also issued 3.5% Unsecured Bonds with a nominal value of Eur40,000,0000 on Tuesday 15 February, and trading commenced on Wednesday 16 February.
MSE Chairman Mr Joseph Portelli welcomed AX Group founder and Chairman Mr Angelo Xuereb and congratulated the company of their successful listings and noted that the MSE is pleased to see entrepreneurs raise funds for projects through the capital market. Mr Xuereb said that AX Group currently has five listings and since the first listing 25 years ago, he has realised the value of the capital markets not just for raising capital but also with respect to succession planning, which ensures continuity and growth.
Denise Micallef Xuereb, CEO of AX Real Estate said, ‘‘The purpose of the listing was to finance the significant investment in the Verdala Hotel and Virtu Heights project in Rabat, together with the Suncrest hotel extension in Qawra. The finance that is being raised through the listing is part of the estimated EUR 110 M required to complete these mentioned projects, both of which are currently progressing well and on schedule. We remain committed to building on AX Group’s track record and elevating this success further to ensure good long-term property investment opportunities.’’
Mr Michael Warrington said that ‘‘Decades ago, AX Group set out a path for its real estate operations with two firm goals: firstly, to consistently advance quality standards in the properties it develops and manages; and secondly, to give its investors and clients long-term peace of mind through sound property investment opportunities and long-term growth. Today, having consolidated the Group’s well-diversified portfolio of managed local properties under AX Real Estate p.l.c. we are an industry leader’’.
Mr Xuereb expressed gratitude to the members of the Board for their continued support, to the Malta Stock Exchange team and the sponsors namely, Rizzo Farrugia, MZ Investments and Curmi & Partners, to Bank of Valletta as Manager and Registrar, and Camilleri Preziosi who acted as Legal Counsel, all of whom helped make the listings a success.
Angelo Xuereb, Chairman of the AX Group was recently awarded the ‘Lifetime Achievement Award 2021’ by Mr Joseph Portelli, Chairman Malta Stock Exchange during the Annual Malta Stock Exchange Awards Dinner organised under the patronage of the Hon. Minister for Finance Employment, Mr Clyde Caruana.
In his speech, Mr Xuereb thanked the Malta Stock Exchange for recognising his lifetime journey and various entrepreneurial successes together with his vital contribution to the local economy. Xuereb said ‘Although I do not intend to retire soon, the succession period is looking bright and promising with my daughters Claire and Denise who are both doing a sterling job and excelling in their own areas of expertise. With Claire leading the way in the Hospitality Sector, Denise heading the Construction and Development Sectors and the unwavering loyal support of our CEO Michael Warrington and our Top Executives, I am greatly optimistic about AX Group’s future, and I am confident that the company has a strong foundation to build from.’
He continued ‘We will continue to build on our expertise and continue to focus on the sectors where our strengths lie. We have a number of massive projects in the pipeline, amongst which are – The Verdala development which will see the outstanding site in Rabat redeveloped into one of Malta’s most iconic developments consisting of a hotel and a luxurious residential complex. We’re also making extensive headway on the Suncrest development which will see this 1987 Qawra landmark entirely transformed. Once again, the Suncrest will be pivotal to regenerate Qawra and make it a better holiday destination.’
Xuereb began his professional career as a helper in his father’s construction and property business and quickly found his calling in the construction industry. He set out to forge his own path, by investing a modest sum into his own construction enterprise. Launched in 1977, AX Construction fast became one of Malta’s leading building and civil engineering contractors with operations expanding into a hard rock quarry and the first state of the art pre-cast and pre-stressed concrete factory on the island.
In the ensuing decades, Xuereb took steps to diversify his company, starting with a successful expansion into the hospitality sector. In 1983, he opened the four-star Sunny Coast holiday complex in Qawra, followed in 1988 by the four-star Suncrest Hotel, which was the largest hotel in Malta for over 20 years. AX Group was the first company in the leisure industry to be listed on the Malta Stock Exchange in 1997.
Under the AX Hotels brand, Xuereb has continued to launch many other award-winning hotel properties, including the five-star AX The Palace, the four-star AX The Victoria, as well as Palazzo Capua-a 200-year-old palazzo which Angelo Xuereb meticulously restored to its former glory, inside and out. In 2017, AX Hotels opened the Saint John Boutique Hotel in Valletta followed by the launch of the five-star Rosselli AX Privilege on Merchants Street. Housed in a beautifully restored 17th-century palazzo, this luxury boutique hotel is also home to the Michelin-starred Under Grain, one of the first fine dining restaurants in Malta to achieve this coveted, internationally recognised rating.
Angelo Xuereb has long harboured a vision to restore value to Malta’s capital city of Valletta via ground breaking projects, including the new Parliament House in City Gate, the Old University campus, and the relaunched Is-Suq Tal-Belt (City Market). He has continued to pursue many other business ventures, ranging from launching restaurants, private health care, and Malta’s first retirement village, to creating the success of the Valletta Cruise Port and the Valletta Waterfront, which received numerous plaudits for its high-quality regeneration.
Together with his wife, he launched the AX Foundation in 2006, which continues to leave a positive impact on Maltese communities through raising funds and awareness in support of various charities, initiatives, and organisations.
I am very pleased that President George Vella strongly supports the idea to introduce a monorail system to eliminate traffic congestion and ever-increasing emissions in Malta.
I have been promoting the concept of introducing a monorail system since 1991. At the time, I already considered the traffic problem acute. Now, 30 years later, the problem is becoming more and more severe. Admittedly, significant strides are continuously being made to improve our road network. However, if vehicles continue to increase, we will have no other option but to create more flyovers, traffic junctions and wider roads, all to the detriment of our environment and our health.
While I welcome the government’s call for a study into the introduction of a monorail/ metro system, this has been dragging on for far too long.
The government would greatly benefit by opening up the discussion to public consultation. I am not against a plan being drawn up by foreign experts but, from my experience, local experts and stakeholders are more aware of the particularities of the problems we face.
Recently, my friend, engineer Konrad Xuereb has also been promoting the idea of introducing a metro system. The least that the government or its consultants can do is approach us, listen to our views and concerns and then continue with their in-depth studies. These studies will reveal if it is better to opt for a monorail or metro system. The key thing is that we implement a modern, mass transportation system to improve mobility across the country.
Since my first proposal of 1991, I have continued to extend and improve the system over the years. I have published these updated proposals in 1996, 2001, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017. Naturally, the more in-depth the studies conducted, the more refined a concept we can come up with to determine the system, routes and location of the stations that would be the least damaging and most cost-effective. This study would also include the best way to split the project into phases.
For clearer context, many consider a monorail as a tram travelling on an elevated structure. The meaning of ‘mono’ is ‘single’. Therefore, a single rail system can either be on an elevated structure or a single rail (single continuous concrete beams) that passes through a tunnel.
My proposal is to have a system that makes use of both elevated and tunnel rails. The gradient of the rail should not exceed 10 degrees, which will allow the underground tunnel to pass beneath urban areas and hills, while elevated rails will be erected in rural areas.
For many reasons, the stations and interchange points should not be located in the urban core but in the periphery of the urban areas to provide an integrated public transportation system. It is impossible to have a station in the centre of each of our towns and villages, considering the heritage, space and incompatible structures. For better efficiency, these stations will still need to integrate electric buses, which can be referred to as ‘circular buses’, that follow a route around urban areas and transport commuters directly to the nearest station.
“My proposal is to have a system that makes use of both elevated and tunnel rails– Angelo Xuereb.”
It is imperative that there be frequent bus stops to encourage commuters to walk to their nearest bus stop, for not more than 10 minutes, rather than use their personal car.
The monorail system proposed plan shown in the picture is feasible and has more advantages than a complete underground metro system.
It will also offer a pleasant route to view our rural areas when passing over elevated routes. Furthermore, elevated routes are much cheaper to construct than underground and make it more possible to avoid disturbing underground freshwater springs and galleries in rural areas.
It may take more than 10 years to complete the entire system from the final approval of the master plan. Therefore, it is a must that the project be developed in phases. The first phase should target the most congested urban areas around the inner and outer harbour areas. When localities like Valletta, Cottonera, Marsa, Ħamrun, Msida, Sliema and Gżira areas were developed these were never designed for car parking and, in fact, have minimal or no private garages. To make matters worse, these areas are densely populated and full of narrow streets.
Once this initial stage is implemented, it will be easier to carry out extensions to the grid over the subsequent phases. The second priority is to extend to the airport, Paceville, St Paul’s Bay and Marsascala areas. Over time, the government will decide on the priorities that extend to Ċirkewwa.
It is of utmost importance that when a master plan is proposed it has to be approved by all political parties in parliament. This is a long-term project that cannot be halted after a new party is elected to government.
The government should seriously take up the introduction of this modern and environmentally friendly integrated public transportation system with urgency. Time is crucial considering our ever-increasing traffic and environmental issues.
Angelo Xuereb is chairman AX Group.
AX Group – Malta’s leading diversified corporation operating in construction, development, healthcare, hospitality, and renewable energy – unveiled its new flag-ship Business Centre
AX Group – Malta’s leading diversified corporation operating in construction, development, healthcare, hospitality, and renewable energy – unveiled its new flag-ship Business Centre in Triq id-Difiża Ċivili, Mosta during an inauguration event attended by Prime Minister Robert Abela, Minister for the Economy, Investment and Small Businesses Silvio Schembri, and Minister for Energy, Enterprise and Sustainable Development Miriam Dalli.
By harnessing its core values of creativity, determination and integrity, the past few years have seen AX Group and its accomplished workforce achieve significant growth across its award-winning business portfolio with a range of successful projects. Due to this rapid expansion, plans were set in motion to develop a new business centre that would centralise and foster greater synergy among the entire Group.
“This inauguration event fills me with a sense of nostalgia for the first few months of my career that began 45 years ago. Since then, AX Group has grown from a humble home office to comprise 35 companies with net assets worth €227 million. This new Business Centre is the fruit of a lifetime of hard work, grounded in leadership, vision, efficiency, and determination. I am proud that my children, Claire and Denise, are taking the reins of the business so that, together with the CEO and key team of the Group, the AX story will continue successfully into the next generation,” says Angelo Xuereb, Founder and Chairman of AX Group.
“Inside and out, the AX Business Centre was designed to set a benchmark for the next-wave of modern business headquarters in Malta, with the building being a true reflection of the high level of quality AX Group is renowned for. The interior design draws inspiration from each of the Group’s business operations, blending corporate functionality with industrial and hospitality touches, to create a vibrant building that is both distinguished and contemporary. The building also embraces our commitment to sustainable development through a range of eco-conscious design features, such as thermal and acoustic insulation as well solar PV panels to be installed soon so as to improve the building’s energy efficiency further,” says Denise Micallef Xuereb, Director of Construction and Development at AX Group.
Various other sustainable measures were implemented throughout the building to reduce its carbon footprint, including the use of natural ventilation systems and extensive floor-to-ceiling, double-glazed windows to make optimal use of natural light.
The AX Business Centre is thoughtfully planned out to contribute to a healthier work-life ethos for the Group’s employees and provides ample space and amenities to deliver an inspiring environment for work, creativity, and productivity. The building features hot desking facilities, informal breakout rooms, and space for the AX Academy for training and induction purposes. A four-level basement carpark ensures the building is commute-friendly, while a playroom in the shared canteen provides working mothers and fathers with a safe, fun environment to bring their children to the office.
“The new AX Business Centre embodies our dynamic brand and forward-looking company culture. We believe this inspiring, contemporary building is the HQ our talented team deserves, and will attract the highest-calibre people to our company. We’ll continue to create exciting work opportunities that offer professional development and the opportunity to rise within the company ranks,” says Mr Michael Warrington, CEO of AX Group.
At the heart of the Business Centre is an expansive expo room, which chronicles Mr Xuereb’s inspiring 45-year career through scale-models of the Group’s many successful developments, historic photos, and memorabilia. The room was designed to serve as inspiration for the next generation of business entrepreneurs, to illustrate how with determination and vision one can overcome many challenges, not merely for personal success, but to shape Malta’s economy and infrastructure for the better.
Circumstances in the building industry are different and challenges more acute
The following are my comments on how we can improve the new construction laws for the benefit of all those concerned. They are based on my 45 years of practical experience in the construction industry.
Excavation adjacent to party walls
During my tenure as president of the Federation of Building Contractors (FOBC), we had presented our concerns and published an article in the Times of Malta on January 7, 2007, with our recommendations. Most of its content is still applicable today, although the challenges now are more acute due to developments requiring deeper excavations.
For more than 12 years, we have been highlighting the need to change the law – specifically Section 439 of the Civil Code – stipulating a 76cm distance of excavation from third-party walls. This law came into force over 150 years ago (1868) with the purpose of protecting the stability of wells, not adjacent buildings, and has remained unchanged since.
The law states: “It shall not be lawful for any person to dig in his own tenant, any well, cistern or sink, or to make any other excavation for any purpose whatsoever, at a distance of less than 76 centimetres from the party wall.” In that era, developers would have had no real reason to cut rock to construct basements since in those days there was ample space for development.
Today, the circumstances have changed, and it is imperative that structures are designed within the boundaries of each individual site while making the necessary allowances for the stability of nearby structures.
Ultimately, having a blanket requirement to leave a gap of 76cm from the third-party wall up to the neighbour’s foundation does not serve to protect neighbouring structures. This leads to the practice of either having the overlying structure supported by the dividing wall or creating a huge cantilever structure at ground level.
The problems usually present themselves when the adjacent property decides to repeat the same methodology, resulting in the foundation of the dividing party wall being left in a very weak and dangerous state. The fragile, narrow rock left in between the properties is prone to give way under heavy loads.
Similarly, the law – Section 407 of the Civil Code – regarding the thickness of the party walls, must also change. It does not make sense any more to have 230cm- or 380cm-wide walls. These walls are being abused by irresponsible chasing horizontally on both sides.
In short, these two laws, namely Section 407 and 439 of our Civil Code related to the party wall, must be amended to reflect today’s realities.
The Site Technical Officer
While I agree that all sites must be supervised by a Site Technical Officer, I do not agree that there is need to appoint an independent STO. I will explain the reasons for this further on.
Any development needs three entities – the developer, the architect and the contractor.
The developer is not expected to be technical, which is why an architect is appointed to provide direction on all technical matters.
The architect is responsible for the design of all the drawings and structures, including excavation, foundations and other technical matters. The architect may appoint other specialists such as geologists, structural engineers and interior designers, where necessary.
It is a known fact that architects are normally involved in several projects being developed simultaneously, which means it is impossible for them to physically attend each site every day. But the architect should have the obligation to visit the sites periodically and when needed.
It is hard to believe that a hawker dealing with a few hundred euro needs a licence to operate while a building contractor dealing in millions does not need one
The architect may appoint his or her representative to oversee a project and coordinate with the contractor to assure himself/herself that their design is being adhered to properly, with the ultimate responsibility still lying with the architect.
The contractor is responsible for the method statement, construction management plan (CMP) and the construction and supervision of all works related to their contract. This means they need to appoint an STO or a project manager to follow the design and other instructions from the architect.
The contractor’s role is to give a service to the developer based on the design and instructions of the architect.
No need for independent STOs
If the three aforementioned entities adhere to their responsibilities, there should be no need to appoint an independent STO. This additional role would create disagreement and confusion between the three entities that can easily end up with litigations, with the possibility of delaying the project time frames to the detriment of all those involved, including the neighbours.
Registration and licensing of contractors
It is hard to believe that a hawker dealing with a few hundred euro needs a licence to operate while a building contractor or an excavation contractor dealing in contracts worth millions does not need one! With immediate effect, the Building Regulation Office (BRO) should start with their registration, followed by their classification.
This would help inexperienced developers choose the right contractors that fit the size and expected quality of their development. It would be like the classification of hotels based on certain standards. If one chooses to stay in a 3-star hotel, they would not be expecting a 5-star service, and vice versa.
To develop large projects, the requirements are more intense, with more responsibility and a higher price to pay. In this way, the developer has the liberty to choose the classified contractor and receive the service for which he is paying.
In conclusion, developments involve many other trades, but I have kept my short comments only in relation to third party walls, construction/excavation and site responsibility during the construction phase, as well as licensing.
If these are adhered to, I am sure we can have more quality projects, more reliable methods of construction, excavation and, above all, more protection to the neighbours and the surrounding residents.
I have been publishing my views on construction and demolition waste since early 2000, when the matter was not in the public consciousness as much as it is now. Already then I identified the issue as a national problem requiring immediate action, let alone now, when excavations are going deeper than ever before.
Today, following recent discussions regarding land reclamation, certain crucial facts and considerations of fundamental importance are still not being addressed. Certain important decisions which might not immediately gain political points have to be taken, as the long-term effects of not doing so will have a severe impact on the environment, quality of life, tourism, and more importantly, the legacy we bequest to our future generations.
It is therefore imperative that this subject is debated between technical professionals and experienced people in this field. I would also like to share my views, as I have deepened my knowledge on the subject through 40 years of experience in the industry and following personal research.
Our shores and seascape cannot be compared to those in Dubai, Hong Kong, or others where the sea is relatively shallow and reclamation was carried out within existing sheltered harbours. Our surrounding sea is deep. Before simply dumping debris along our coastline, a breakwater, not simply a sea wall, must be constructed.
If we adopt an uninformed approach the effect would be that all dumped material would be washed away and spread all over the coastline as soon as there is a wind force of 7 or 8, which happens on an annual basis. This would spell disaster for all our sea flora and fauna at least for the surrounding five kilometres!
Our own history also teaches us valuable lessons. When construction waste was dumped in Balluta Bay, a relatively sheltered area, just after World War II, it was all washed away in a short time…
Another attempt at reclamation was made in Msida, which was retained. However, Msida is a very sheltered area and the water in that area of the harbour is very shallow. At the Freeport, which is open to the elements and where the sea is deep, the huge concrete quays were constructed only after the breakwater completed.
The country’s accumulated experience on the subject confirms without doubt the absolute requirement of having a breakwater to retain the material.
In the past we used to refer to this sort of waste as construction and demolition (C&D) waste. Today it’s referred to as Excavation and Demolition waste. Regardless of the nomenclature, the fact remains that 85 per cent of all this material is generated through excavation, the result of which is clean, inert material that can be utilised.
The demolition material, on the other hand, is contaminated with lime, paint, pieces of wood, steel and other contaminants. A degree of waste separation is possible, however, it is impossible to have it clean enough for sea use.
This means it is imperative that a decision is taken without any further delay to reserve the handful of disused quarries for the demolition waste, while finding a way to exploit the use of clean excavation waste for the benefit of the country.
The exact quantity is not known since a number of excavation contractors dump into their own quarries without it being recorded. However, it is estimated that, all in all, clean excavation waste amounts to three million tons per year.
The two disused quarries currently available will last around five years before filling up. Where will the three million tons per year of clean, inert excavation material be disposed of after that? I am sure no one would appreciate another Mount Magħtab next to their village!
There are solutions but these must be seriously discussed between all major stakeholders who must then take responsible and practical decisions. Any master plan must be considered for a period of at least 50 years.
Our shores and seascape cannot be compared to those in Dubai, Hong Kong or others where the sea is relatively shallow… Our surrounding sea is deep
So let’s look at the bigger picture and consider the relevant facts, as that is the only way of taking the right decisions while reusing Malta’s only raw material.
A breakwater of 15 to 20 metres in depth with five metres above sea level would cost around €70 million per kilometre. To hold excavation material generated over a period of, say, 20 years (equivalent to say 60 million tons), one would require a breakwater of a length of approximately five kilometres, at a total cost of €350 million!
The construction of the breakwater would take a minimum of five years before it is primed for the dumping of any material.
Let’s assume we could afford to finance this land reclamation… even if we did, such a high cost would render any development financially unfeasible.
Malta’s available lower coralline limestone (hardstone) used to produce the gravel for concrete is quickly diminishing, which means we have to import all the gravel, at a higher cost. Therefore, we should try to make use of this clean excavation material instead of hard stone gravel for non-structural uses.
On the other hand, the idea of reconstituted stone is definitely not financially feasible for building purposes. It would cost over 10 times more than a new stone block, and the volume needed is insignificant.
Here are some of my suggestions on how to use the material which could be considered:
Create underwater artificial reefs (see figure 1) in selected areas, covered with sand and kilometres away from the coastline. Waves will not disturb material at 12 metres below sea level, and in order to protect this material from the lower currents these reefs can be secured with geo textile and large boulders or ‘tetrapots’ on their periphery. Once these reefs are closed off, this will create a habitat for various flora and fauna.
Create underwater breakwaters below 12 metres of sea level, located in certain open bays, but invisible from the landside. These will protect the erosion of our sandy beaches and possibly extend them. Construction methods would be the same utilised for the above mentioned artificial reefs. This will also create more shelter for boating and create the right conditions for flora and fauna.
Create tetrapots or quatropots (concrete blocks to support sea walls like those at Ċirkewwa). For the blocks below sea level these can consist of washed gravel from excavation waste, sand from lower coralline limestone, and cement. In order to achieve the required weight, these concrete blocks can be larger than those cast with lower coralline limestone (hardstone). These could also be used on a periphery of the underwater breakwater or artificial reefs mentioned above.
Create a large upmarket marina similar to Port Grimaud, in the south of France, where a marina for yachts is linked with luxury accommodation. Any reclamation must be contained in shallow areas within a bay, with concrete piles and a breakwater constructed before any material is disposed of between the contained areas.
Use it for new road sub-base (see figure 2). Instead of a bitumen mix sub base we can use a thicker concrete base using washed excavation stone gravel with a slightly thicker final wearing bitumen course to guarantee tyre grip for a period of 10 years. The present lower bitumen base mix is not adequate since it is too soft. This makes the present imported good quality gravel and top wearing course recede to the lower level of the bitumen layer due to hot weather and heavy loads, with slippery road surfaces after just a few years.
Having studied this subject in depth I can definitely conclude the following:
• NO to land reclamation by the coast;
• NO to dumping of clean excavation material into disused quarries;
• YES to dumping of demolition waste into the few available disused quarries;
• YES to reusing Malta’s only raw material on large scale in the best possible manner;
• YES to the creation of artificial underwater reefs;
• YES to the creation of underwater breakwaters;
• YES to the reuse of excavation waste in road construction;
• YES for its reuse instead of lower coralline gravel hardstone for non-structural use;
• YES to the creation of up to three depots (one north, one south, one in Gozo) from where one can buy selected grades of stone for its reuse for different purposes.
The disposal of waste generated by construction activity is an acute national problem which we must resolve now. Not another second should be wasted, and a 50-year holistic plan has to be devised, as continuing to fire-fight the issue is no longer an option. I therefore strongly recommend the government appoints a professional and technical team to put forward a practical and feasible plan.
We certainly shouldn’t burden the next generation with acute problems that we should be able to solve ourselves today.
ANGELO XUEREB, winner of EY’s ‘Malta Entrepreneur of the Year’ award, has literally carved out a construction empire out of Malta’s living rock. But after 35 years in the development sector, he is close to giving up on his most ambitious project yet: a ‘masterplan for the Maltese islands’
You have been involved in Malta’s development sector since the mid-1970s. Malta was a very different country back then… and the industry you are part of has likewise changed enormously in the last 40 years. What would you say were the biggest differences between Malta when you started out, and Malta today?
A lot has changed, but in one respect things have always been roughly the same. Unfortunately, the business runs according to the politicians. You can’t do anything without a policy put into place by the government of the day. You mentioned when I started out, in the 1970s and early 1980s. That was a really tough time. Government was nationalising private banks – Scicluna’s bank, Barclays, BICAL, Tagliaferro… all of them were nationalised. The supply of fuel was also being nationalised; and big family businesses were being systematically attacked.
As for myself, I was not even 30 years of age, already building the largest hotel on the island [Suncrest] – the largest private investment in Malta, at the time – and… all hell broke loose. When they realised, they said: ‘What the hell? Who is this guy?’ There they were, trying to control the private sector… and here was ‘this guy’ – me – making the largest investment ever in a private project. They tried to kill me, in many ways. But that was one era.
Then, when there was a change of government and when the Nationalists took over [in 1987], there was a change in policy. Eddie Fenech Adami was totally in favour of the private sector. I was already all geared up; and that gave me a boost. I should mention that, in the Mintoff years, many private businesses folded up altogether: took their money, and deposited it overseas, in tax havens, etc. And even after the change of government, many didn’t want to get back into business. But in my case, I was geared up, and that was a big advantage for me. In fact, at one time I was generating 1% of the GDP, on my own. But then again, the economy was small…
Another possible difference is that there was a lot less awareness about the environment 35 years ago. The Planning Authority had yet to be set up, the construction boom of the early 1990s had yet to happen, and people in general were less demanding when it came to environmental protection and conservation of heritage. How have these affected the way you work?
The Planning Authority… you know how it is. Some people hate it, some people love it. But yes, we are definitely more conscious about the environment today; and that is the way it should be. I fully support it. But sometimes environmental NGOs do go overboard… they sometimes object to small things, not always on the basis of facts. That is what hurts the developer. Don’t get me wrong, I am supportive of many NGOs. They are doing a good job. One thing I have learnt, however, is that governments concentrate primarily on votes. So if there is a particular project, and the NGOs put a lot of pressure… government will often give in…
Malta is small. In such a small place, you will have objectors, no matter what you do. Ultimately what we need is a plan for sustainable development
But doesn’t that work both ways? For example: last week, NGOs disrupted a PA board meeting to protest against a permit being granted. The Malta Developer’s Association described that as ‘unfair pressure’ on the PA. Yet developers also apply pressure on the PA (as well as, separately, on government) in the opposite direction. MDA chair Sandro Chetcuti even likened the two political parties to a ‘supermarket for developers…’ Wouldn’t you say that developers ‘pressure’ the authorities, too?
If you look at it that way… there is some truth to it, yes. The MDA pushes for more development; environmentalists push for the environment. But Malta is small. In such a small place, you will have objectors, no matter what you do. Ultimately what we need is a plan for sustainable development. I very strongly believe there is a way to achieve sustainable development in this country; but it has to be through dialogue. We need to talk. Take the example of petrol stations – I’m not involved at all, as you may already know. The NGOs protest against petrol stations in ODZ? OK, they may very well have a point. So, let’s sit down, and try and find a solution. I think nobody agrees with having a potential bomb – a petrol station – in the middle of a village. They need to move out. Somehow, we have to find a way to do this…
There is, however, more to the argument than just that. Permits are being given for ODZ petrol stations just 50 metres away from existing stations on the same road… at a time when the fuel stations policy is still being discussed…
Fair enough: that is also a valid point. And there are others: where I disagree personally is that, if we’re going to build a new petrol station, then we should also close the one in the middle of a town or village. Not have both at the same time…
But that only brings us back to your earlier point about sustainable development. You said that this is possible; yet everyday experience shows that decisions are being taken with disregard for existing policies. We talk about the need for a ‘masterplan’, for instance – yet we still give out permits for mega-projects without any masterplan in place. How can that be ‘sustainable’?
[Sighs] I’ve been talking about the need for a masterplan for so long now that… look behind you: do you see all those box-files? I believe in a masterplan so strongly, that I’ve started making one myself. A masterplan for the Maltese islands. I’ve written so many articles about it… in fact I’ve stopped writing articles now. Because we talk and talk, but nothing ever happens. Even Frank Salt came to the same conclusion. In an article last Sunday, he said he’s fed up, and not writing anymore. Same with me. Why on earth waste so much energy writing and writing, when no one pays any attention? It’s ridiculous. So, no more articles. From now on, I’ll work on a masterplan instead…
Out of curiosity: what aspect of Malta’s infrastructure would your masterplan deal with first?
For example: one major issue is going to concern waste. Where are we going to dump all the construction waste? Never mind municipal waste for now. There are solutions for that. I won’t say ‘incinerator’, because that only gets misunderstood. One way to go about it would be ‘gasification’: converting municipality into energy. I think that’s the only solution. We don’t have the space for a new landfill. Even the one we have is close to its maximum limit. In five years’ time, we won’t have anywhere to dump either municipal or construction waste. But even when it comes to just construction waste: we call it C&D waste – ‘construction and demolition’. Why are we mixing those two types of waste together? They are two separate things. One is the result of excavation – basically, rock… clean, inert material.
That’s a resource. And then, you have demolition waste, which is not ‘clean’ in that sense – there will be wires, and other materials. That accounts for 10% of all C&D waste. The remaining 90% is excavation waste. So, let us leave at least one or two quarries where we can dump demolition waste… but let us find solutions so that we can re-use the clean, inert material. One use is very simple. Our roads are all slippery… because they’re using the wrong mix. Abroad, when you drive on the motorway, it could be raining cats and dogs… but you still have a good grip on the road.
In Malta, your car starts swerving about like Cinderella. Why? Because we’re using the wrong mix. The base is soft tarmac, made locally; and on top we put a layer of good-quality gravel imported from overseas. But with the weight of trucks, and the heat, what happens is that after five years, the good-quality gravel filters downwards into the soft tarmac beneath… and the bitumen rises to the surface. That’s why all our roads become slippery after five years. So why not use crushed excavation waste to make a solid base of concrete? I’ve tested it. Using crushed stone waste instead of gravel, you can achieve 50% more strength than normal concrete… I did it myself, so I know it can be done.
You have often made similar suggestions in press articles, yet (by your own earlier admission) nothing seems to have come of it. Do you have any reason to believe the reaction to your masterplan will be any different? And if not… why even bother in the first place?
Because I love construction, I love development, and I love sustainable development above all. All the articles I’ve written over the past 35 years or so… some of the ideas were implemented, some were not. For me, however, they were just common sense…
Something like a mass transit system would take 20 years. But that’s because they’re not consulting, for example… me. I can do it in five years…
One example that is worth mentioning today – because so much has happened in the sector in the meantime – is public transport. In 2014, you presented a ‘Masterplan for Traffic and an Integrated Public Transport system’. There have been public transport reforms since then… but traffic in general appears to have deteriorated alarmingly. Do you still think your own plan would have done a better job? And why do you think your suggestions (among others, for a ‘mass elevated and underground transport system’) were ignored?
[Shrugs] Do we always ignore practical suggestions, and go for impractical ones instead? Now, for instance, we are once again talking about a tunnel between Malta and Gozo. To me, that’s crazy. We’re going to kill Gozo. Would you go to Gozo, just to end up in traffic jams there as well? That’s not why people go to Gozo. If it happens, they’ll just go to Sicily instead. [Pause] Why? Why are we doing this? When I speak to Gozitans… they know I am against this project. But some of them are friends of mine; we talk frankly. I tell them: ‘Do you want more cars in Gozo?’ They say: ‘No.’ ‘So why do you want a tunnel?’ ‘Because we wait too long [for the ferry].’
Well…to be fair they have a point, don’t they? Thousands of Gozitans need to travel to Malta every day for work, study, etc…
Yes, yes. I’m not denying it is a problem. But the solution should surely be… get faster ferries. Why does it have to take half an hour to cross the Gozo channel? A fast ferry, nowadays, can do it in five minutes. And it’s not just ferries, either. If there is one place where bendy-buses make sense, it would be to take passengers from Mgarr to Rabat [Gozo], where they can get taxis to anywhere in Gozo for E10… or a circular bus service. Same on the other side: a fast bus to Mosta, where there would be an interchange station. That would solve the problem of waiting…
Yet while the Gozo tunnel idea seems to be gaining ground… other innovative ideas (such as an underground train service) are constantly shot down before even being discussed. We still rely almost exclusively on buses for all our public transport needs. Why are we so adventurous with some infrastructural ideas, and so conservative in others?
Politicians are there for five years. Which, in practice, means that they can only ever plan for four years. The last year is election year: it’s all ‘votes, votes, votes’. Now: something like a mass transit system would take 20 years. But that’s because they’re not consulting, for example… me. I can do it in five years. At least, the first phase; then we expand as we go along. But you have to start with the first phase anyway. As to why we never consider more innovative ways… sooner or later we will have to.
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt, it’s that you can’t stop progress. That is an impossibility. Let me give you an example. In 1952, when they introduced machines to cut stone – as you can imagine, it’s much faster to cut stone with stone-cutting machines, than with chisels – the contractors who worked with chisels all went on strike. They wouldn’t accept it… because they couldn’t see the long-term benefits. And going even further back: when electricity was introduced to Malta, the paraffin vendors all objected. They went on strike, too. Did it stop electricity? […] It happened to me as well. When I built ‘Precast’ [in 1991] – the largest concrete factory in Malta – the soft-stone quarry owners all went on strike for three weeks. All quarries refused to supply anyone with stone… and if one quarry didn’t go along with the strike, it would be ransacked. They drove their big trucks all around Malta, hooting their loud horns… stopping outside Castille, where they knew there was a Cabinet meeting going on. [Imitates the sound of truck horns] Why? Because they thought that I was suddenly going to build houses ready-made. That houses would spring up, all ready to move into, and they would not be able to sell their stone anymore. I told them, ‘You’re crazy. All I’m going to build are columns, beams and slab. You can enclose it in stone, brick, whatever….’ That was in 1991, or thereabouts. Today, we’re still facing the same mentality. We’re not thinking outside the box… we’re not consulting the private sector. That irritates me…