The Government totally rejects the simplistic, inaccurate and misleading statements made by the Opposition in relation to the surrender of the leases of the commercial properties on the ground floor of the Parliament building. It is therefore important to set the record straight.
In the first place, the Government has taken back three properties and not two. The market value of the three commercial areas is considerably greater than the amount paid for them. It is worth nothing that kiosks in Gibraltar have changed hands recently at around £ 250,000!
Secondly, the amount paid for the surrender of the leases followed a professional valuation, was considerably lower than the asking price, and a matter of negotiation between the Government and the commercial entities.
Thirdly, in this instance, the Government was approached by the leaseholder and not the other way around.
In fact, it is not simply a question of waiting for the lease to expire and taking over the property as the Opposition simplistically suggested. The tenant in this instance – as in every other instance where a leasehold interest is involved – would continue to be protected. The Opposition knows full well that such tenants benefit from statutory protection under the law and therefore their property interest would continue unless formally terminated. Even then, the Government would be obliged to offer a renewal on the same terms and conditions unless there are specific grounds for refusal as prescribed in the law, for example breach of covenant. In the case of the properties in question, there are no grounds to object to a renewal and therefore the advice to the Government was that the best option was to negotiate an amicable surrender of the leasehold interest subject to the payment of a premium.
The reality is that the Leader of the Opposition knows all this, but he has preferred instead to proceed on the basis of half-truths and innuendo. It is also worth noting that when he was a Minister, Mr Azopardi himself negotiated the surrender of another part of that same area to allow the refurbishment of the piazza. This was also done at a cost to the Government! That included the provision of alternate premises, undertaking and paying for refurbishment works up to £200,000, providing a new lease, facilitating vehicular access, removing public telephones, benches, a flower-seller, trees and litter bins. He also agreed not to make any claims relating to rent or rates arrears. The Government paid all the legal fees and agreed to compensate the leaseholder with £7300 per month during the first two months of works and £ 10,150 per month after that, as well as a rent and rates waiver for six months from the commencement of works. Mr Azopardi seems to have wanted to forget his role in creating the leaseholds that the Government has now bought out.
The double –standards and political hypocrisy of the Leader of the Opposition will not be lost on anyone. Clearly, when he wanted the return of leased property to facilitate a Government project it was all right to incur a whole range of different expenses. Now he makes a different argument to try to taint the Government’s unimpeachable treatment of this purchase of land to develop the heart of our democracy.
Moreover, it will be recalled that when the Commission on Democratic and Political Reform reported in 2013 and among its recommendations was that office and secretarial facilities should be made available to the Speaker, the Opposition and to members of staff. This was agreed to by the Government at the time. There were suggestions to make use of the Main Guard, now the headquarters of the Gibraltar Heritage Trust, for this purpose. The view of the Government was that it makes much more sense to make use of space in the same Parliament building in order to improve the home of our democracy and – ironically – to provide offices for the Opposition also.
Indeed, additionally, from a heritage perspective, this will preserve the exterior of the building and allow the installation of an internal lift which will provide access into the Parliament chamber for persons of reduced mobility.
The Chief Minister, the Hon Fabian Picardo QC MP, said: “This transaction is an investment in the future of our democracy. We took the opportunity to effect this purchase when it came up. If we had not done so, we might find it impossible to further develop the infrastructure of our Parliament building. We negotiated a reduction from the sum that the vendors had insisted on and we ensured that we got the best value for the tax payer. The transaction does not just stand up to scrutiny, it stands out as the right decision executed at the right price and on the basis of the independent advice of our very well qualified property advisors. I now look forward to consulting with the Official Opposition and Ms Hassan Nahon on how best to carry out the refurbishment.”