Poacher or gamekeeper? | Sandro Chetcuti

Developer Sandro Chetcuti has just been appointed on the Building Regulations Board. As a developer who enjoys the trust of the new government, will he be acting as poacher or gamekeeper?

There is a gentle disposition to Sandro Chetcuti as I meet him face-to-face for an interview. A man whose trouble with the law and flamboyance makes him one of the few construction developers who thrives on attracting the media spotlight, his charisma can verge on the unctuous - eager as he is to strike the right impression. He is, probably, too aware of critics of his business and political affiliation: a construction developer who befriended the elderly Dom Mintoff, in 2003 he starred in a reality show for Where's Everybody ('Iva, Le, Ma Nafx') in which protagonists were locked up in a house to discuss the prospect of EU membership. Not being the bashful sort, he then dabbled in some TV acting as a police officer on Eileen Montesin's soap Undercover.

Framing Chetcuti in a social context, it's impossible to miss the fact that he forms part of a breed of nouveau-riche who are partial to flaunting their conspicuous consumption, unlike the traditional elites. You may have spotted Chetcuti driving around in in his Ferrari, actively seeking celebrity status - a factor that played a role in being courted by Vince Farrugia, director of the Chamber of SMEs (GRTU), to join the executive of the organisation.

But three years ago it seemed that Chetcuti had definitely fallen from public grace. An altercation inside the offices of the GRTU saw him being accused of the attempted murder of Vince Farrugia after coming to blows with him in a very heated exchange. Chetcuti refused to bow out of the public scene, and within months reinvented himself as the vice-president of the Malta Developers Association, providing a vital link for disgruntled contractors mourning a dampened property market, to Muscat's new pro-business Labour Party.

Partially rehabilitated after the attempted murder charge was reduced to "grievous bodily harm" - after evidence showing that Vince Farrugia could have influenced the original charges against him - Chetcuti is now benefiting from his newly acquired political legitimacy, having been at Castille on the day the new Labour government was sworn in, and being trusted enough by government to serve on one of its boards, the Building Regulations Council, even while still awaiting a verdict in court.

Chetcuti now finds himself sitting on a board which hears appeals by contractors accused of breaching construction regulations. Being a developer himself, does Chetcuti see any conflict of interest in this new role?

"I am not the only person sitting on this board as there are other people hailing from different backgrounds and I won't be taking decisions alone." 

He also points out that the board regulates contractors, not developers.

Secondly, he believes that his experience as a developer puts him in a position to "give practical advice" which may come in handy "in the drafting of legal notices to ensure that it regulations are "practical and enforceable". 

"It is useless to draft legal notices that are then simply put on the shelf," says Chetcuti.

I point out to Chetcuti that he is still facing the accusation of causing grievous bodily harm to GRTU Director General Vince Farrugia. Although this is a far cry from the initial accusation of attempted murder, would it not have been fitting to await the court's final verdict before accepting a public post?

Chetcuti makes it clear that if he were still facing the charge of attempted murder, he would not have accepted any public post. "But today the accusation I am facing is very different. What we are arguing about in court now is similar to what happens in countless other cases, some of which do not even end up in court. It is on a par with the case of a prominent journalist being accused of throwing plates at her husband."

But can't he at least have waited for a verdict before accepting to serve on a public board?

"Well, unless you're Chris Said - who had his case resolved in a very short time - you have to spend years in court."

He insists that his case was blown out proportion, and depicts himself as the victim of the case. 

"I was the victim of character assassination, which was evident in the exaggerated way my family and I were attacked. I was a victim of a frame up. But God is great and the truth came out..."

He also describes the case as a "politically motivated one" in which "charges were trumped up" to cause him "maximum damage".

He claims that normally, cases like his tend to be addressed at a district level and in several other cases, "the police do not even take action, or the case is resolved by the parties forgiving each other".

As proof of his integrity he refers to his collaboration with former PN Minister Michael Falzon in the Malta Development Association.

"If I were guilty I would not have had the energy to set up the Malta Developers Association together with a respected person like (former PN Minister) Michael Falzon."

For Chetcuti, it is not fair to exclude people from public posts simply because they are accused of something.

"Should we lose the services of people willing to contribute simply because someone wished to harm them? It does not make sense to lose people in this way. This is unjust. It would be different if one were found guilty... in that case one should resign."

But will he resign from government boards if found guilty of inflicting grievous bodily harm on Farrugia?

Chetcuti is non-committal on this point, but once again downplays the charges brought against him.

"The most important thing is that my name has already been cleared from the serious accusation of attempted murder... I cannot speak about the case but what is important is that the original accusation has been dropped."

Chetcuti was at Castille the day after the election, congratulating the new Labour Prime Minister. Didn't this act cement the perception that the government is the pockets of the construction lobby?

"I cannot understand the fuss. I don't see any reason why I shouldn't have congratulated our new Prime Minister. There were many people who did the same thing."

When it comes to perceptions of proximity to big business, he turns the tables back on the Nationalist Party.

"If there was ever a perception that contractors were particularly close to a party, it was that with regards to certain big contractors who were close to the PN government. The fact that the new government meets contractors and developers simply shows that it is doing its duty to meet all stakeholders."

Chetcuti does not deny contributing financially to the Labour Party before the election.

"As a businessman and someone who is very interested in politics, I have helped both parties, not only one side. It is not just political parties which ask for help but also band clubs and football clubs."

When I press Chetcuti on Labour's relationship with the developers' lobby, he makes a remarkable historical observation, which is very revealing about the ideological convergence.

"This Labour government is very similar to the Nationalist government elected in 1987. It is doing a great effort to generate wealth. It is pro-business. If a government is not pro-business it will never be able to turn the wheel round."

As an example of the new government's pro-development bias, I cite the way the local plan process is being handled. For the first time, names of persons making proposals for changes in local plans will not be published. Does this not strengthen the perception that government is covering the tracks of those who could benefit through the inclusion of their land in development zones or areas where they can build more?

"I find no difficulty if you have access to what individuals are demanding. But we cannot afford to create unnecessary controversy in the country. If you have a parcel of land in the countryside that lacks permits and you demand its inclusion in plans, it should not be accepted. Should we waste time on discussions, based on mere suggestions? God forbid the government were to accept such a proposal."

He also praises the consultation process on the new local plans.  

"This is the first time in history that people are being given the chance to make proposals before a draft is even written. In the past the government only used to accept submissions following the presentation of a draft."

He welcomes the efforts being done to restore the confidence in the property market even if this has "not picked up" yet. He refers to the "serious discussions" taking place in the Building Industry Consultative Council on the way forward for the real estate and construction sectors.

Curiously, as someone hailing from a 'green' background, I find myself in agreement with Chetcuti, in his analysis of what went wrong with the property market in recent years. 

"A lot of harm has been done through bad planning, especially in the years between 2003 and 2008." 

A case in point, according to Chetcuti, were the local plans approved in 2006 which were left idle for years only to be finalised in rush, in a way that the final version contained a number of mistakes.

He points out that although MEPA studies showed that we had enough land within schemes which was developable to satisfy demand till 2020, the government still proceeded with extending development boundaries and introduce a height relaxation which changed many two storey areas into three storey plus penthouse areas, thus creating an oversupply of property and ruining the streetscapes.

"It will take time to redress the harm done during these days."

But was it not developers who ultimately benefited from policies like the extension of schemes and relaxed height limitations?

Chetcuti contends that only a few benefited by getting land, which was previously out of scheme in the new schemes.

"I'm certainly not one of these... but even in these few cases, the benefits were of a short term nature, and the impact on the rest of developers was negative."

I take Chetcuti's argument on bad planning during the 2003 to 2008 period to its logical conclusion. Shouldn't the government simply turn the clock back and reverse the height limitation policies which contributed to the over supply of properties?

But Chetcuti changes tack, insisting that it would be unfair to turn the clock back, denying those who presently have a right to build four storeys from reaping the benefit of the investment they made. 

What Chetcuti proposes is a new zoning for prestigious areas and streets where the present height limitation can be kept. 

"This will also benefit owners, as it would add value to their properties. It would also encourage potential buyers who will feel reassured that these areas will not be degraded. As things stand in some areas, people who want to buy a terraced house cannot have the peace of mind that their neighbour would not start demolishing to make way for another four-storey block. In some areas imposing a lower height limitation makes economic sense for all those involved but this should not be done everywhere."

Would it not therefore make more sense to stop issuing permits since there is an over supply of property? Chetcuti reiterates that the problem is not over supply in general but the over supply of apartment blocks.

"We have built too many residential blocks of apartments and filled the country with them without creating different zoning and catering for other needs like offices and low density areas."

As an example of good planning, he refers to the villa areas created in the 1980s, in which a 25% site coverage was imposed forgetting that this kind of development also came at an environmental cost. Chetcuti regrets that even these zones have been tampered with after the site coverage in some areas was increased. 

"Now we are discovering that we need these sorts of properties because this is what foreigners wishing to buy property in Malta look for."

But is there a risk that the new global residency scheme which was formulated on the advice of business bodies including Chetcuti's MDA, will raise property prices and encourage more construction?

Chetcuti does not foresee any increase in the price of property at least for a time. But he also warns that a decrease in the price of properties is not healthy for anyone. 

"Buyers take a loan to buy a property and have to pay interests. A decrease in property prices means that people are losing out on value while still paying interests. It is a known fact that when property prices decrease, people tend to be more wary of buying properties and buy less. People tend to buy properties when they see its value appreciating not depreciating."

But will the encouragement of more foreigners to buy property in Malta through tax incentives and a substantial decrease in thresholds result in a glut of properties, which could make prices go up again?

"This will simply encourage foreigners to invest more in our country. The way the scheme was suspended by the previous government did a lot of harm to the industry... but just because we have a good scheme doesn't mean that foreigners will rush to buy properties. It will be hard to redress the harm done in the past, which gave us a bad name in a highly competitive market."

What is Chetcuti's solution to the vacant-property problem now that the census shows that one in every three properties in Malta is vacant? 

"We first have to have a clear picture of what these properties are... It is easy to say that 70,000 properties are empty, but most of these properties are abandoned and in a bad state. Some are subject to litigation, while others form part of neglected village cores. There are areas like some parts of Bugibba and Qawra that are becoming slum areas and need regeneration."

The Labour government has announced a call for expression of interest in land reclamation. Would this not increase the oversupply of property?

Chetcuti is not averse to land reclamation as long as it is not reduced to a real estate project.

"It all depends on what the reclaimed land is used for. I have seen successful land reclamation projects in other countries. We have already used this method in Malta in the past. My advice to government is that land reclamation should not result in competition with people who already own land on the mainland. Land reclamation should accommodate projects which cannot be executed on land. It should add value and tourist attractions."

Nowadays Chetcuti conveys the perception that developers like him are genuinely concerned about the environment. Does this not contrast with his own role in the destruction of the Kalkara valley, which took place under the previous government?

Chetcuti insists that he never bought any land that was not scheduled for development.

"I had bought land which was covered with development permits. In that case, a number of people had bought land covered by a permit and those protesting against the projects wanted to take away the permits we already had. This was definitely not a case of lobbying politicians for the inclusion of land that was outside the development zone."

He notes that the land in question was earmarked for development since 1967.

"It would be wrong if a developer buys a piece of land where no development can take place, and then seek to change the rules to get a permit. But if one buys land were development can in fact take place, one cannot blame the developer. In such a case one can blame those who devised the local plans."

Chetcuti excludes entering the political fray, at least for the time being.

"I like to be objective. Although I like politics, at this stage I would prefer not to lose my objectivity by joining the fray between political parties." 

He also point out that he has not held back from criticising the new Labour government.

"For example I have criticised the way the way the legal notice on the automatic renewal of permits was implemented. What we had in mind was that people who already have a permit would have more time to commence a project. We disagreed with the government's decision to resurrect permits that had already expired without addressing the real issue."

Zball kardinali tal-Gvern prezenti!!!!!!
This appointment makes a mockery of the Taghna Lkoll slogan. Out with the old Barons and in with a new more agressive and ruthless oligarchy. God have mercy on what is left of the Maltese countryside. Develop more in a country where 1/3 of the residnetial property is empty? It is sheer madness for the sake of making the rich richer. How does this compare with the fine pre-election speeches?
What greater conflict of interest can this man have? This is where Malta Taghna Lkoll has truly gone mad!
He is going to act both poacher and gamekeeper.That's the trend today.