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Tense exchange in parliament over affordable housing delays

Archive Photo by Johnny Bugeja.

Delays in the construction of two affordable housing projects triggered a heated exchange in Parliament on Thursday as the Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, stressed progress on the developments had fallen foul of Covid and Brexit.

Mr Picardo drew flak from the Opposition over Bob Peliza Mews and Chatham Views as he informed Parliament that he had written to all purchasers to update them on the current situation with the projects.

In his letter, Mr Picardo acknowledged that the past few years had been difficult and had affected the Government's ability to make progress in its affordable housing programme.

Mr Picardo said construction costs had increased significantly since the prices for Bob Peliza Mews and Chatham Views were set but that the Government would honour the original prices for existing purchasers and absorb the increase in the construction costs.

“No stone has been left unturned in trying to deliver these homes earlier - but the realities we have faced in this tumultuous period have made it impossible to bring the start of the construction forward in any way,” Mr Picardo said.

“I look forward to purchasers receiving the keys to their new homes, which is the most significant milestone.”

Mr Picardo told purchasers of Bob Peliza Mews there had also been delays in the decommissioning of the old Waterport power station.

He added the site is now being cleared and two demolition contracts for the old Waterport power station have been awarded.

The first contract involving the removal of mechanical and electrical equipment has been completed, and the second involving structural demolitions has also started.

The structural demolition is expected to be completed by the end of May and the western half of the site will be cleared and ready for the contractor to take over and start building the first two phases of Bob Peliza Mews.

Once the contract is awarded before the end of this month, Mr Picardo said, construction will begin in the end of May.

Mr Picardo said the construction of Bob Peliza Mews will take between two years for phase one and three years for phase two from award of the contract.

To the purchasers of Chatham Views, Mr Picardo said, there have been issues with decanting Westside Mews apartments.

“After lengthy, unsuccessful discussions with the remaining occupier, a decision was taken not to agree the terms proposed for moving them out,” Mr Picardo said.

“Instead we have slightly adjusted the position of the block nearest Queensway and will retain the Mews building.”

The site of the estate has now been cleared and is ready for construction to begin as soon as the contract is awarded later this month.

Chatham Views will take two and a half years to complete from award of the contract.

PARLIAMENT

Leader of the Opposition, Keith Azopardi, and GSD shadow minister for housing, Damon Bossino, pressed Mr Picardo over the delays.

Mr Azopardi questioned how tenders have not been awarded yet and the figure on the additional costs.

Mr Picardo said he did not have the final price of the buildings yet, and said the pandemic had derailed the government’s timings.

He reminded Parliament that three years ago, he was confining everyone over the age of 70 to their homes due to the Covid-19 pandemic and his focus and that of the government was on the response to the pandemic.

Had it not been for this, the homes would have been built and he would be handing over the keys now, “months before a general election”.

“What does he think I would have preferred to be doing?” Mr Picardo said.

“Defending, not building, months before a general election, or handing out keys months before a general election?”

“But I had to do the responsible thing.”

“I went to a general election in 2019 with a [Brexit] withdrawal agreement done, ready to have a transitional period and ready to start the work on building these homes, ready to start negotiating the new relationship with the European Union, and what did I end up doing?”

“The last thing I ever expected I would be doing is telling Gibraltarians that they had to stay at home to save their lives.”

“That's why before the 2019 election and in the 2019 election, I didn't tell people that their homes would be so delayed, because I didn't know.”

“I didn't know there would be this delay. I believed we would have started building in 2020.”

Challenged byt the Opposition that work on luxury apartments had continued dueing the pandemic, Mr Picardo said the reason was “because they had signed contracts”.

The contractors were also putting pressure for the Government to permit building to continue, Mr Picardo said.

But in response, Mr Azopardi said the initial promise to build these houses was made in 2015, then again in 2017 for the 2019 election.

“He's talked about Brexit and so on, but the point is that Brexit had already happened when they made the announcement in 2017,” Mr Azopardi said.

Mr Picardo said the houses were announced in their 2015 manifesto, but Brexit soon followed in June 2016.

“That put the cat amongst the pigeons in respect of any timetable we had committed to in 2015,” Mr Picardo said.

He added he wished the homes were ready, but that it was not for want of trying.

“I want young Gibraltarians, in Gibraltar, living in affordable homes provided by the government. That's what I want,” Mr Picardo said.

“That's what I work for every day. I haven't been able to keep the timetable that I intended to for reasons which are, I think, objectively fair.”

“But the statements from the Honorable Leader of the Opposition are not objectively fair.”

“Neither should they be. They are partisan and designed to deliver him a partisan advantage because this is a partisan chamber of political debate.”

Mr Bossino called this a “flipflop” of excuses and a “hattrick” of the number of times delays have been caused by either Brexit or Covid-19, adding that people “are angry because of broken promises”.

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