Trust is a lot easier to demolish, than to build…

And while appointing a brand new (and apparently ‘conflict of interest-free’, this time) BCA chairman is certainly a very good first step, on the part of the Prime Minister… something tells me it is going to take a LOT more than just that

BCA chairperson Maria Schembri Grima resigned after a stop notice was issued for a project she is architect of
BCA chairperson Maria Schembri Grima resigned after a stop notice was issued for a project she is architect of

You can tell something is seriously rotten in the state of Malta’s planning sector, when the Prime Minister appoints a new chairman of the Building and Construction Authority – to replace the outgoing one: who resigned in disgrace last Tuesday – and the entire country heaves a huge sigh of relief… because the new appointee turns out to NOT actually have any glaring ‘conflicts of interest’, for a change.

Or at least, none that show up on his curriculum vitae, so far. And to be fair to Saviour Camilleri: it is rather unlikely that any ever will, either. He is, after all, a ‘retired draughtsman’; and as such – unlike his immediate predecessor, Maria Schembri Grima – there isn’t much chance that he’ll also be directly ‘on the payroll’, of the same development industry that he is now supposed to ‘regulate’.

So, what can I say? That’s one small step for Mr Camilleri himself… and who knows? Possibly, one giant step forward for the credibility of Malta’s Planning Sector as a whole, too…

… if, at least, the new BCA chairman actually lives up to the rest of the (no pressure, or anything) ENORMOUS responsibility, that has now been thrust upon his shoulders: a responsibility that – for the record – also includes ‘restoring public trust, in a planning system that has very clearly FAILED.’

Now THAT, I fear, is something that may lie far beyond the physical capabilities of any ‘new chairman of the BCA’: no matter how ‘honest’, ‘well-intentioned’, or ‘unsaddled-by-conflicts-of-interest’, they may happen to be…

But hey, let’s not run too far ahead of ourselves. It remains, like I said, a ‘small step in the right direction’; so let’s take things one step at a time.

And the first step that I have (very arbitrarily) chosen to start with, for the purposes of this article, concerns the actual circumstances under which Maria Schembri Grima even had to be replaced, at all. (Because it seems to me that, judging by Robert Abela’s own comments to the press: he himself is not altogether sure of those circumstances, either…)

Among other things, we are told that [my emphasis, as usual]: “Speaking on Friday, the prime minister admitted that Schembri Grima’s role HAD BECOME untenable, AFTER what happened’ …”

And, well, already you can see that Robert Abela is ‘confused’ enough, to get his grammatical tenses all muddled up.

For instance: ‘had become’ is a text-book example of the ‘Past Perfect Tense’ – which, as any English Language Proficiency teacher would happily spend hours informing you (believe it or not, I was one myself for years) – presupposes the existence of an ‘anterior past’, preceding the events currently being described in the same sentence.

In other words: to argue that Schembri’s role suddenly became ‘untenable’, only AFTER ‘what happened’ – and I’ll come back to ‘what that was’, in just a second – is also to imply the existence an ‘anterior past’ (i.e., BEFORE ‘what happened, happened’), in which her role as BCA chairman must have actually been… well, perfectly ‘tenable’, I suppose.

And coming, as it does, from the same Prime Minister who appointed both Saviour Camilleri AND Maria Schembri Grech, to this ultra-sensitive role: this grammatical slip-up also suggests that Robert Abela himself still doesn’t really understand… well, two things, really:

One, ‘what a conflict of interest even is, to begin with’…

For let’s face it, folks: what Abela is really telling us there, is that he himself saw nothing whatsoever wrong, in 2021, with “appointing a private architect – routinely engaged by major developers such as Joseph Portelli, Michael Stivala, et al – to regulate the entire construction sector: without even having to relinquish her private career.”

Which, in turn, also suggests that – in a parallel universe, anyway: where ‘what happened’, never actually happened at all – Robert Abela would still be seeing ‘absolutely nothing wrong’ with the same situation, right down to this very moment. In fact – going on his own record – he would probably still be defending Maria Schembri Grech, tooth and nail, to this very day: just as he earlier did with a few other of his ‘controversial’ public appointees (including the last two prison directors, on the trot).

As for the second thing Robert Abela is clearly confused about: evidently, he still doesn’t see – no matter how painfully visible it might be, to everybody else – the existence of a direct, causal link, between ‘what happened’… and the same ‘conflict of interest’ that ALLOWED it to happen, in the first place (and for which Maria Schembri Grech should obviously never have been appointed to that role, at all).

And so – with the noble aim of helping the Prime Minister ‘brush up his grammar a little’, please note – I feel compelled to iron out the precise chronology of these events, for his benefit and instruction.

Let’s begin with the obvious question: what actually ‘happened’, anyway, to even warrant Schembri Grech’s resignation at all? Well, it started with a demolition project (by Joseph Portelli; who subcontracted Charles Polidano for the actual demolition works) to redevelop the old Go Exchange building in Birkirkara… and it ended with a ‘stop-notice’ order, hurriedly issued by the BCA last week: after great chunks of debris subsided from the site, and crashed down onto the adjacent roads (causing, I need hardly add, serious potential danger to residents, pedestrians, motorists, etc.)

Now: in case you were still wondering where Schembri Grech actually fits, into all that… well, she was both the chairman of the Building Construction Authority, AND also the architect of the self-same Birkirkara project, at one at the same time.

Already, then, we are beset with something of a ‘chicken-and-egg’ situation. Did Maria Schembri Grech really resign, because a development project she herself had (even partly) designed, happened to ‘collapse’ the way it did? Or was it the other way round: i.e., that the accident itself occurred, precisely BECAUSE the project’s architect also happened to occupy the role of ‘construction industry regulator’ (resulting in, shall we say, the occasional ‘blind eye’ being turned, here and there, towards certain infringements in the ‘health and safety’ department)?

Hmm. I guess we’ll just never know now, will we? But then, I wouldn’t want to speculate too much, either: even because, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter all that much, whether it was the ‘chicken’ or ‘egg’ that actually ‘came first’.

The simple fact remains that this conflict of interest has been glaringly obvious, all the way back from when it first came into existence, back in January 2021 (Almost as long, in fact, as newspapers like this one have been flagging it to the attention of the Prime Minister: which sort of makes you wonder why Robert Abela still finds it so difficult to ‘see’, what everybody else has been pointing him towards for two whole years now...)

All the same, however: I do concede that Robert Abela may have a small point, when he argues that ‘what happened’ did indeed constitute a crucial factor, in both Schembri Grech’s resignation, and (separately) in his own choice of successor for that role.

For even if Schembri Grech’s own ‘tenability’, as BA chairman, had very little to do with the physical collapse of parts of the former Go Exchange site, onto Psaila Street – in the sense that she was every bit as ‘unsuitable’ for the role BEFORE that occurrence, as after it – the fact that it even happened at all (and so dramatically, too!), almost certainly DID hasten her exit, just a little bit, in the end.

There is, after all, a limit to popular patience: and if people even needed any further ‘proof’, that developers such as Joseph Portelli really DO get to ‘pull all the strings’, at all levels within the Planning Sector: well, what better way to illustrate that fact… than by having Portelli himself actually hire the BCA chairman, no less, as his own private architect; and then, on top of that, for one of his own projects itself to literally – as in, ‘physically’ (look: this shit really happened, OK?) – COLLAPSE, for crying out loud?! (Presumably, under the sheer weight of its own, unregulated… PRIVILEGE?)

No, indeed. If ‘what happened’ proved to be such a tipping point (ahem) for Schembri Grech, as BCA chairman… it was not because of the actual physical ‘collapse of a building’, as such; it was more because the event itself was such a perfect illustration of ‘everything else that is wrong, within the planning sector today’.

As such, it only served to magnify the sheer untenability, of an already blatantly untenable situation that had simply been allowed to carry on festering for years… regardless how many accidents might actually ensue, as a direct consequence.

But what got demolished, in the process, was more than just the ‘old Go Exchange Building, in Birkirkara’ – or even Schembri Grech’s own public career, for that matter. No, it was also what little may have remained of the Planning Sector’s own credibility, in the eyes of the public at large; after literally decades of other, similar… Oh, let’s be kind, and just call them ‘catastrophes’.

And while appointing a brand new (and apparently ‘conflict of interest-free’, this time) BCA chairman is certainly a very good first step, on the part of the Prime Minister… something tells me it is going to take a LOT more than just that, to rebuild all the public trust that now lies shattered among the wreckage of Psaila Street…