Government protecting developers at public expense? Gee, what a surprise…

In the case of Gwardamangia, three Cabinet ministers – Home Affairs Minister Michael Farrugia, Infrastructure Minister Ian Borg and Social Solidarity Minister Michael Falzon… one for each family that was left homeless, I suppose – instantly teamed up to defend Malta’s (supposedly autonomous) regulatory bodies from criticism

If there is ever such a thing as an ‘eye-opening moment’ in one’s life or career, my earliest one would have happened around April 2000.

I doubt many will remember the incident in any detail, so bear with me while I map it out. It happened in Cathedral Street, Sliema – a few doors down from the ironmongery formerly known as ‘Balbi’, and a few doors up from what was once ‘Cathedral Library’ – in April 2000: almost exactly 19 years ago to the day.

I mention those geographical details because that part of Sliema has a special significance to me, and to the few odd thousand who were raised within a half-mile radius of Stella Maris Church (incidentally, that also includes Daphne Caruana Galizia, who had written extensively about the case I am about to describe).

But aside from any emotional attachment to my old local neighbourhood… there’s also a practical reason to specify the exact whereabouts. Anything that happens between Balbi and Cathedral Library, can conceivably also happen between Stella Maris and Fond Ghadir. In other words, it could have been MY house that collapsed because of a poorly-executed demolition job next door. It could have MY mother (or grandmother, or any of around a dozen aunts, uncles, cousins and their pets) buried under the rubble of her own home…

For that, in a nutshell, was what happened. An 84-year-old woman was crushed by collapsing masonry in her own home… while having breakfast in her own kitchen, as it later emerged…  because a subcontractor proceeded with the demolition job next door, despite complaints that ‘cracks had appeared’ on the walls and ceilings of the adjacent house.

Guardamangia apartment that collapsed next to a construction site
Guardamangia apartment that collapsed next to a construction site

Even before any question of ‘culpability’ had arisen, I remember being profoundly shocked that such a thing could even happen, in my own hometown, in the year 2000. What emerged from the case was a total disregard for health and safety; a clear lack of proper construction site management and regulation; poor (or non-existent) enforcement of existing legislation; no proper channels for the public to elicit prompt replies to complaints… and all this, at a time when ‘the Planning Authority’ had already existed for almost 10 years.

Indeed, for all the difference it made between 1992 and 2000, we may as well not have bothered pretending to have an industry regulator at all. Nonetheless, the Planning Authority did serve an immediately useful purpose. It instantly robbed developers (and especially governments) of any excuse they may have previously had to ignore such issues for decades. By 2000, all the legal instruments were in place to ensure that the construction operates within at least the most basic conditions of ‘regulation’. In practice, however, everything proceeded after 1992 just as it had for eons: impunity for the powerful, zero regard for pretty much anyone else.

But that was what occurred to me in the immediate aftermath of the 2000 Cathedral street tragedy… and in no way did it prepare me for what was coming next.

I still haven’t come to the ‘culpability’ part, remember? And there was a lot to assign culpability over, too. It wasn’t just that an elderly lady was killed by what can only be described as gross criminal negligence; but other members of that household (one of whom was injured in the collapse) also lost their home and all their possessions. One of the victims’ sons later recalled: “We clearly remember [Environment Minister George] Pullicino coming to Sliema on the day of the incident, offering his sympathy and help and also offering to intervene on behalf of my brother and apply for state funds to help my brother who lost all his possessions except for his car, in that incident.”

Please note the following, ultra-important detail: a Cabinet minister offered the family ’State funds’ to ‘help’… before any form of inquiry or criminal court case had even begun; still less determined whose responsibility it actually was to compensate those victims. So, the first reaction from the government of the day was to simply dig its paws into taxpayers’ money, to make good for a criminal action for which everyone could see, at a glance, who was really responsible.

Then as now, it was a case of government abusing of public funds to protect its ‘allies’ (read: ‘donors’) in the construction sector. But I’ll return to this point later.

Coming back to the question of culpability: two years after the event, criminal action was taken against the two contractors – one hired by the developer, the other sub-contracted by the first – on charges of “involuntary homicide […] through imprudence, carelessness or unskilfulness in their profession”.

Ten years later, the Magistrates’ court found them guilty of those charges… and ordered them to pay 4,000 euros each in compensation to the victim’s family.

Well, what can I say? Even at 2012 property prices, that paltry sum could have easily been recouped tenfold with the sale of a single apartment… and the developers had managed to squeeze around eight apartments into the same plot. Today, 8,000 euros represents the monthly rental income of maybe two of the same flats. Small price to pay for a ’Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free’ card, don’t you think?

But court sentences serve other purposes than meting out justice (which it didn’t even do, in this case); they are also supposed to act as a deterrent to would-be offenders. What message did that sentence impart to the rest of Malta’s construction sector? To my ears, it sounded a lot like: “It’s OK, folks: in the greater scheme of things, you making shitloads of money out of land speculation is more important than such trivialities as human life and limb. So by all means, just carry on (literally) steamrolling over everyone and everything in your path… only, to be on the safe side, put aside around 10,000 a year: you know, just to cover the cost of the occasional building you might accidentally demolish here and there… and maybe to compensate the relatives of anyone you might unintentionally murder…”

That sentence was both shocking and outrageous to me at the time; and while the sensation of ‘shock’ has long since worn off… part of the outrage still lingers. It still angers me, that greed somehow managed to trump even the most basic demands of natural justice in that particular case. And it angers all the more today, because… well, if there was no excuse back in 2000… what excuse could there possibly be 20 years later, for the fact that things have not only failed to improve since then… but have actually deteriorated?

Yes, as you will obviously have worked out by now, all this builds up (pun intended) to the three, or four – I’m beginning to lose count, all of a sudden – buildings to have either partially or totally collapsed in the past few weeks alone. It’s almost like an epidemic: first a balcony subsides in Zejtun; then a ceiling caves in, in Naxxar; and next thing you know, an entire apartment block comes tumbling down in Gwardamanga. I hate to ask, but… how serious do the symptoms have to get, before we realise we are dealing with a full-blown health and safety emergency here?

But again, it is the reactions that get to me the most. In the case of Gwardamangia, three (3) Cabinet ministers – Home Affairs Minister Michael Farrugia, Infrastructure Minister Ian Borg and Social Solidarity Minister Michael Falzon… one for each family that was left homeless, I suppose – instantly teamed up to defend Malta’s (supposedly autonomous) regulatory bodies from criticism.

“It seems that the building contractor of the construction site adjacent to the collapsed apartments had submitted all the necessary documents in accordance with the law,” a statement read. The ministers added that the Building Regulations Office (BRO) told them that it had received no reports regarding the construction site despite what residents told members of the media on Thursday.

In all honesty, I don’t even know where to begin. Let’s try the ‘necessary documents’ part. Who the heck cares if – on paper – the construction site adhered to the parameters of its permit? It’s what happens on site that counts. Can any of those ministers guarantee that the accident was not the result of failure to abide by those conditions: regardless what was written on any documents submitted at application stage?

And whose responsibility is it to enforce those parameters, anyway? Incredibly, all three Cabinet ministers seem to think that this responsibility lies… not with any of the regulators or agencies they themselves set up specifically for that purpose; but rather, with… the general public. You, me and both our dogs.

Yep, folks: apparently it’s all our fault, when the building next door just suddenly and inexplicably collapses, taking half our own homes down with it. We are to blame, it seems, for not having minutely studied the plans of that building when the permit was applied for; for not immediately identifying, at a glance, any structural defects that might arise at construction phase, or even after the completion of the project. And even then… for not notifying the ‘correct’ department with our complaint. (I mean, ffs…)

Never mind that any architect will have spent seven years studying such matters before being granted a warrant… and may still, on occasion, get that sort of thing wrong. No: it is people like you and me – who never studied architecture at all; and, in any case, lack the ‘X-Ray Vision’ required to see cracks in a ceiling or wall of someone else’s apartment – who, for some bizarre, unearthly, unfathomable reason, suddenly find ourselves saddled with the responsibility of inspecting building sites to ward against future collapses. Or in other words, to do all the regulatory authorities’ work for them ourselves.

Erm… you know what? This is one responsibility I refuse to accept as my own, thank you very much. Not when there are (or are supposed to be) qualified (and highly paid) experts, whose Constitutional role is precisely to drag the local construction sector kicking and screaming into the 21st century. And not when it is very clearly the government’s responsibility to come up with policies that really do safeguard the all-important principles of health and safety (not to mention sustainability, environmental protection, quality of life, and all the rest).

So, for what it’s worth, my response to those ministers (and the rest of their Cabinet) is… well, why are you all still here, wasting time on silly newspaper articles? Don’t you have a ‘National Building and Construction Policy’ to review? Or do you expect us all to do even that bit of work for you ourselves…?

More in Blogs