'Steal a little and they throw you in jail...'

How many cases have we seen, over the years, in which small, petty offenders bear the full brunt of their action’s legal consequences… while others, guilty of far more grievous crimes, are not only let off the hook entirely: but often even given ‘red-carpet treatment’ by the authorities?

I imagine there are plenty of Bob Dylan fans out there who’d be able to complete that song lyric... but even if you are unfamiliar with Dylan’s track ‘Sweetheart Like You’ – from the 1983 album ‘Infidels’ – you’ll probably still be able to work out the rest anyway.

‘… steal a lot, and they make you king’.

Yes, indeed: small wonder Bob Dylan would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.  For there, in just two short sentences, he managed to encapsulate a truism that is not just fundamentally undeniable, in itself… but now visible almost everywhere you care to look in this country.

How many cases have we seen, over the years, in which small, petty offenders bear the full brunt of their action’s legal consequences… while others, guilty of far more grievous crimes, are not only let off the hook entirely: but often even given ‘red-carpet treatment’ by the authorities?

In all honesty, I could probably fill up a year’s worth of newspapers just with examples from Malta’s construction and development industry alone: going back 20 years ago, or more. I still remember writing about the Solemar (now Riviera) Hotel in Marfa in the late 1990s, for instance. On that occasion, developer Charles Polidano was refused a permit to extend his hotel by another storey… only to build the illegal extension anyway, and eventually get it retroactively sanctioned by MEPA (today’s Planning Authority).

And if that case still stands out so much in my memory, all these years later… well, it’s because you can’t really ask for a more blatantly transparent example of how Dylan’s ‘king-making’ process actually works in practice (at least, for those who ‘steal a lot’).

For starters: it wasn’t as though MEPA didn’t try to enforce its regulations, in that particular instance. As I recall, it had cut off the hotel’s electricity supply at the time, and even slapped Polidano himself with a garnishee order.

But Polidano’s reaction was to simply threaten to fire his 1,000+ workforce… and, hey presto! In an instant, electricity was miraculously restored; frozen accounts were miraculously defrosted… and not only was the illegality itself sanctioned against a Lm200,000 fine – which, let’s face it, Polidano could easily have recouped with a single Gala Evening at his (equally illegal, equally sanctioned) Montekristo Estates – but the Riviera Hotel itself went on to benefit from at least half a dozen other extensions ever since.

From a 61-bedroom hotel built in the 1960s, it has now grown to 346 rooms (extending both outwards, and upwards, in the process). All with the retroactive blessing of the Planning Authority…

And yet – blatant though the travesty of enforcement may have been, at the time – the Solemar Hotel is today but a footnote in the long and depressingly repetitive history of Malta’s planning failures over the past 20 years.

Not content with having built four-fifths of a hotel illegally, the same Charles Polidano also got away – after similarly farcical enforcement attempts – with an entire illegal zoo at his Montekristo Estates (just as he now trying to get away with unlicensed food-vans in various parts of the island).

And having been so successful in publicly arm-wresting the PA into submission, every single time… others have predictably followed his lead. At least two other illegal zoos – one in Siggiewi, another in Rabat – have since been likewise sanctioned by the PA.  Meanwhile, one particular developer in Gozo (and his extended family, it seems) has clearly made his life mission to beat Polidano’s record, once and for all. Illegal rubble walls all over Nadur; illegal structures in San Blas… some of which were not merely ‘built without a permit’; but also on land which wasn’t even owned by the developer, at the time…

And yet: faced with all this, the PA has not merely been ‘accommodating’… but it has even altered its own policies to incentivise precisely the same sort of ‘build now, sanction later’ approach, across the entire board.

In 2016, for instance, it even launched an official scheme to encourage owners of illegally-built properties to apply for ‘retro-active sanctioning’ themselves.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, this scheme was hugely successful for the two years that it was supposed to last (so much so, that it was extended by another year).

The PA’s 2019 report, for instance, revealed that 591 applications had been received for that year alone. That’s almost 600 developments, in a single year, which were either totally, or partially built without a valid planning permit…  but which the PA were only too happy to regularise: naturally, in exchange for a small fee (And I really mean ‘small’, by the way: it worked out at “€1,500 for a 150-square metre apartment and €4,300 for a penthouse of 100 square metres.” In other words, barely even the cost of a single month’s rent for one, solitary apartment…)

And this, too, is why the continued uglification of these islands has become more or less inevitable. The ‘fines’ imposed by the Planning Authority are so utterly paltry, compared to the potential profits yielded by any specific illegal development… that many developers simply factor them into their running expenses, as if there were so such thing as ‘building regulations’ at all.

And besides: when the PA is not too busy ‘rewarding’ property speculators for breaking the law… it is usually hard at work trying to tweak the building regulations themselves: as a rule, to permit as much construction as humanly possible, with the least possible concern for environmental or aesthetic considerations.

In an interview with this newspaper, Qala mayor Paul Buttigieg told me that the PA even changed the local plans of his locality – without informing the council – to permit the development of a controversial (and certainly illegal, without that change) hotel/yacht marina in Ħondoq ir-Rummien.

And just to leave us in no doubt whatsoever as to their true intentions: the change was specifically to re-designate that area as one for ‘Tourism and Marine Related Purposes’: instead of for ‘Afforestation’, as it was until 2016. (I mean… make it just a bit more obvious, why don’t you?)

Even this week’s approval of a five-storey hotel on Rabat’s Saqqajja Hill – which threatens the majestic Mdina skyline; and (according to the PA’s own EIA report) possibly even the geological foundations upon which that city was built – seems to conform to the same general pattern.

For while it may not count as a direct example of ‘retro-active sanctioning’… it is still a case where the Planning Authority overturned all its past refusals, over years of repeated applications for development on the same site, against all the previous negative recommendations of both the ERA and the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage.

So from “build today, apply for permit tomorrow”… it simply becomes: “Apply today; and if you don’t succeed, just keep applying… and applying… and applying… because sooner or later, it’s a safe bet that the red carpet will be rolled out for you as well (just as it was for all the others)…”.

But all these cases (and like I said: there are a LOT more) deal only with one side of Bob Dylan’s equation: ‘steal a lot, and they make you king’.

What about the ones who ‘steal a little’? What opportunities are they given, to have their minor (and mostly unobtrusive) illegal structures retroactively sanctioned… you know: like they always do with all those mega-projects, owned by all those immensely powerful and wealthy businessmen?

Well, I imagine you’ve all already worked out where all this is heading. Just this week, we all got a sterling example of how the PA actually deals with the smaller, pettier offenders…   that is to say, people who also built their developments without a valid permit; but who don’t actually have access to a few million euros they can easily afford to throw away.

By now, enough has been said (and written) about the outrageous double standards the PA applied, when coming down like a tonne of concrete on Ronnie Gauci: a pensioner, whose only ‘crime’ was to actually make a small corner of Għargħur just a little bit prettier to look at.

And yes, he did so illegally: erecting random pillars of brick-and-concrete here and there, planting flower-beds, and even building a small fish-pond… all in an area of ‘high scenic value’; and all without applying for a planning permit.

But this time round: there was no offer of a retroactive sanction, at ridiculously affordable prices.  No surreptitious altering of the Għargħur local plans, to facilitate the illegal development. No overturning of a previous refusal, on the flimsiest of minor technicalities…

No indeed. Ronnie Gauci made one crucial error in his calculations. He contented himself with ‘stealing little’… instead of doing what all those greedy developers have so successfully done, for so long: and simply bought their permit over the counter (and with it, the entire Planning Authority itself, lock stock and two smokin’ barrels…).

So he had to be punished.  And severely, too: he was threatened with a €50,000 fine – that’s at least five times as much as was paid to regularise much larger, more horrendous illegalities – and forced to manually remove all those additions himself… which, to a man so clearly dedicated to what was ultimately a ‘Labour of Love’, is probably a worse fate than prison anyway.

But the best part of it all is the PA’s stunning defence of its actions. This, for instance, is an excerpt from a statement it issued on Friday:

“The PA acted within its remit when deciding on structures erected on public land without permission. It is the duty of the PA to ensure control on unnecessary sprawl in pristine undeveloped areas. If development requires permission, the Authority is required to take action against development carried out without permission…”

And… you know what? I’ll think I’ll just end there, on that note. (Honestly, though: what on earth could you possibly add to that?)