Not so smart a decision on Armier shacks

When I tried to do something about the sore, I was left to burn my fingers alone. Perhaps I was naïve, but the truth is that I was slowly learning that votes come before principles

Armier boathouses
Armier boathouses

The illegalities in the Armier so-called ‘boathouses’ development are basically two-fold – or so I used to think.

One is the abusive taking over of third party property by individuals, in this case the third party being the state itself; and, secondly, the actual development of the structures in defiance of the planning and development regimes that we have had over the years in order to control the physical construction of buildings.

It has now been confirmed that Enemalta intends to install a smart meter in all these shacks – as they should be called, rather than boathouses – irrespective of whether they already have a legitimate electricity meter or not.

Again, this decision is actually two-pronged. Replacing existing meters with smart meters is part of Enemalta’s long established programme to modernize its monitoring of electricity consumption, making the monitoring more efficient and less theft prone. Installing new meters in buildings where there are no meters is actually providing new services… in this case to a substantial number of units that are illegal on two counts.

Armier is an interesting case study of what happens when problems are not nipped in the bud. I am sure that the first structures – dubbed boathouses when they were nothing of the sort – were erected by a few individuals seeking a place where they could spend a few tranquil summer days. That they had no right to take over a piece of public land and act as if it was their own does not seem to have been an issue for them.

What followed was astonishing. Some people ‘took over’ large chunks of public land in the Armier area and divided them into ‘plots’ fronting ‘roads’ that were eventually even given (unofficial) names. The ‘plots’ were then built and ‘sold’ to individuals who over time pretended to be the rightful owners of these illegally built structures. The thing just grew and grew as if it had a life of its own until now nobody seems able to control this shenanigan.

When the Structure Plan was drawn up in 1990, it called for the demolition of these illegal structures. The Structure Plan was duly approved by Parliament but the demolition of these structures never took place. As Minister for the Environment after the 1992 election, I did make an attempt at it. I figured that another election was five years away and that was therefore the right time to do it.

The attempt was a classic political mess.

The truth is that when I tried to do something about the obvious sore, I was left to burn my fingers alone. The lack of support from my then Cabinet colleagues – let alone the then backbench and the Opposition – was overwhelming. Perhaps I was naïve but the truth is that I was slowly learning that votes come before principles.

At some juncture, representatives of the Armier ‘boathouse owners’ had even met me to put forward their case and push their demands. During this meeting someone argued that they had been recognised by the government as they had been provided with a water and electricity supply for which the then Water Works Department regularly sent them consumption bills. I said that this did not legalise what they did, but my mind clicked.

I hit on the idea that water and electricity supply should not be provided to any building not covered by the necessary permits. My cabinet colleagues agreed and I issued a circular to that effect. The policy has been applied across the board ever since.

The government decision to exempt a substantial number of persons from the statutory need for a MEPA compliance certificate before being provided with these new services in Armier, blatantly discriminates against other illegal developments elsewhere and – even more seriously – against anyone else who is denied a new service on the grounds that the building in question does not fully comply with all the conditions of the relevant building permit. This alone is reason enough why the decision is wrong.

The Prime Minister has attempted to justify this decision by pointing out that in the area there is another type of illegality going on: the flouting of electricity regulations such as in the case of the ‘extension’ of the service from one boathouse with a meter to another without it, and – even worse – the direct theft of electricity from Enemalta’s distribution grid, much as is done in Brazilian favelas.

So this decision, argues the Prime Minister, at least regulates the provision of electricity in the area and checks electricity theft as well. This implies that it is not only the Lands Department and MEPA that have failed miserably in their enforcement obligations but that Enemalta is also just as guilty. What Enemalta will be doing is tantamount to covering up for its dereliction of duty as a result of its blatant lack of enforcement in the area.

The worst aspect is that this decision will continue to reinforce the message that the so-called boathouses are there to stay, as was clearly implied in a letter written in ‘The Times of Malta’ last Monday by a spokesman of the Armier occupiers. The Prime Minister’s argument that this decision does not impinge on the title of ownership of the area in question is irrelevant – it is just a smokescreen that hides the ugly truth.

As is now slowly becoming more apparent, this is yet another government decision taken on the basis of a crude populist calculation that ignores ethical principles. This decision will decrease electricity theft and increase Enemalta’s revenue from electricity consumption in the area and will be yet another lure for people who base their electoral choice on their own narrow selfish interest at the expense of the common good.

For Joseph Muscat these two pluses outweigh all other considerations, including the disregard of the rule of law and the tenet that what is intrinsically wrong can never be condoned.

For the occupiers, defending their ‘boathouses’ has been elevated to the status of defending one’s castle… with divine providence being invoked in the process, considering that one illegal shack in Armier is used as a ‘chapel’ where Sunday mass is celebrated regularly in the summer months. Committees are elected and representatives facetiously discuss their so-called ‘rights’ with the authorities.

Yet, beyond the sheer illegalities, the boathouse culture seems destined to become a permanent feature of Maltese society; in spite of the fact that the majority of the population does not accept it and hollers at the abuse. This is, of course, a cultural divide that has nothing to do with the political divide. In fact, one finds both Nationalist and Labour supporters among those with the boathouse culture. No wonder that a MEPA official once ‘explained’ that the boathouse issue is bigger than MEPA!

While no administration has had the courage and the gumption to take effective affirmative action against these illegalities, Joseph Muscat has now even given them a wink and a furtive nod.

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