PN stalwart finds Minister’s claim on Crafts Village ‘insulting’
PN councillor and former party official Peter Abela said he was saddened to learn that Finance Minister Tonio Fenech recently told parliament that there is no official list of tenants operating huts at the Ta’ Qali Crafts Village since rent had gone unpaid for years.
In the past, Abela operated a restaurant at the Crafts Village, but since over the years operators had become disillusioned with plans to revive the area, he decided to distance himself from the business.
“It is saddening to revisit the village now, to see the once thriving craftsmen community being transformed into such a dismal lump of rusting memories,” Abela told Business Today. “It is insulting to hear bureaucrats belittling the hard working craftsmen who made a lot out of nothing. It is clearly not the craftsmen’s fault that it has now gone back to nothing, but rather of those who exhausted them with empty promises and false hope for nearly 30 years.”
Defending the tenants’ refusal to pay rent, Abela said that one cannot expect a tenant to be “perfect, when a landlord has done nothing but induce instability and discriminatory hardship.”
Crafts Village operators are currently regulated by eight year agreements to operate the huts, against conditions to employ set number of employees and pay rent among others. But due to a dire need of an infrastructural re-haul, operators have for more than 20 years, been calling on government to agree on how such an investment should be funded, and in turn have their agreements amended accordingly.
“In the 1970s, what used to be a dumping site in Ta’ Qali turned into the Crafts Village. Even the Queen said she was impressed with the transformation,” Abela recounted. “Business was strong for a good ten years – until tourism went down in 1984.” When in 1987 the PN was elected, operators started discussions with government on how to best re-haul the area.
“But throughout the entire 20 years of discussions, we noticed that plans would fold in the last minute,” Abela said.
“In 1987, for example, when George Bonello Dupuis was Finance Minister – there were talks of an agreement to allow the government to invest in the infrastructure of the village, and allow operators to use the huts on a 99 year lease – instead of the eight year agreements which still stand until this day. We had also spoken of self-management. There was a lot of enthusiasm on this proposal, on either side. In the last minute however, discussions stopped and we never heard anything from government again”
Operators saw a shimmer of light when in the early 1990s, discussions were held with John Dalli – who at the time was Parliamentary Secretary for Industry.
“Dalli had taken action on getting us regulated under the Malta Development Corporation – since we had no idea under what institution we fell until then. That was a good move,” Abela said.
“He had then offered us the possibility to fall under a scheme called ‘Fiore di Malta’, which government was working on at the time. Under this scheme, we would have obtained the necessary funding to restructure the village – but alas, this never went through either.”
Year in, year out, funds were allocated to the village in national budgets – but they were never spent.
“Meanwhile, the GRTU had started trying to work on a solution, but it seems that even they gave up,” he said. “We started going on a a steep downhill after 1996 - unlike the Gozitan crafts village, which benefited from EU Funds and is now a wonderful success story.”
In 1996, the Labour government had laid plans to re-develop the village. This was looked upon very favorably by all parties concerned, but since government stepped down in 1998 the project never went through.
“When in 1998 the PN was re-elected, the then parliamentary secretary Edwin Vassallo enthusiastically talked of the Village as being the showcase of artisan trade, and retained more or less the same plans laid out by the Labour government. Around the year 2000, Vassallo had spoken to individual operators and came up with a proposal to fund the development on a Public-Private Partnership basis.
“Talks were being held with several experienced craftsmen and legal experts to create a board to hallmark the local crafts products. Trade schools were to train young craftsmen to the required standard, so that the local product could be branded, and artisan ware produced at the village would then be certified as Maltese crafts,” he said.
Based on this new concept, government had decided to issue a tender for development of the area, with which operators would be bound to work with a single building contractor.
“Operators were to fork out the bill to rebuild their units and could only deal with this one contractor. It turned out that the prices of this specific contractor were far too high, when comparing them with estimates obtained from others in the construction industry. In some cases, operators estimated that they would be paying over three times the amount featured in quotations acquired from other contractors. By then, the whole concept of crafts was dying and no one felt comfortable paying exorbitant rates asked by this contractor. Operators were disillusioned yet again,” Abela said.
It was shortly afterwards when Vassallo himself was promoting the new Bay Street Artisan centre as “the showcase of artisan trade” – a brand which was promised to the Ta’ Qali Crafts Village operators.
“Most of the operators had been struggling for about 25 years in the sector with the hope that they would one day establish a firm under secure tenancy. This was when they really started losing hope and inspiration, as the feeling of being taken for a ride sank in. Funds were available both in local budgets and from special EU funds to promote the artisan trade, but these were never used. In Italy on the other hand, funds were obtained and used, and look where they are now.
“With the deterioration of hope, along with the physical condition of the huts, tenants at the Crafts Village gave up and many opted to import ready made items and selling them off as artisan products,” he said.
In its glory days, the village employed nearly 600 people, and operators were more than happy to invest in equipment and staff.
“The Crafts Village is the living example of an unfortunate, short lived success,” Abela remarked. “Let us all own up and come out with the truth on what really stalled the fulfillment of glossy government plans, which had cost the country hundreds of thousands of liri.”