Citizens have no power | Claire Bonello

Lawyer and environmentalist Claire Bonello, who heads an NGO offering professional advice to people affected by construction issues, analyses the underlying causes of the recent building collapses

Claire Bonello
Claire Bonello

Three buildings have been accidentally demolished in the last two months. You have been warning about improper planning and monitoring practices for many years. Do you see this as confirmation that the policy approach to this sector has all along been flawed?

These are all tragedies that have long been foretold. In 2016, new planning regulations were introduced, whereby the PA had to issue a decision on planning applications within a certain time-frame. If the PA did not meet those deadlines, it would have to refund the applicant at the rate of 500 euros a day. Obviously, this puts a lot of pressure on the planning authority to issue permits in a very expedited fashion. So there has been a flood – an avalanche – of permits: if you compare the number of permits issued per year, they’re growing exponentially. This results in two things: less scrutiny by external consultees and watchdogs, and less available monitoring power on the ground, to oversee the safety issues, compliance, etc. Another thing is that: everybody is now talking about ‘geological reports’. How many geologists do you think there are, to carry out these studies for the thousands and thousands of developments around the island?

I know of only one, who is also very vocal on the same issues you mention…

Yes. But can Peter Gatt turn into Padre Pio? Can he miraculously cope with the workload of thousands of applications? So, on one side, there is pressure on the PA to churn out permits like pastizzi. The Planning Commission, which has a sitting every day, has to deal with an obscene number of cases. If you divide the time for the sitting by the number of cases, it will be about seven minutes per case. But this wasn’t tied to a commensurate in resources for enforcement or monitoring powers. So basically, we’re just unleashing an avalanche of building permits on the island, with no corresponding enforcement or oversight…

What is the extent of the PA’s enforcement powers right now? What can the authority do already, with the (limited) resources it has?

There are two enforcement agencies: one within the PA itself, to ensure compliance with the planning permit. And there’s the Buildings Regulations Office, for compliance with safety standards, etc. Now, the enforcement section of the PA… good luck with that. They have as much vim and vigour as a snail with haemorrhoids. You have to email them, chase them… then they seem to assume they can get by persuading: like they can convince developers to observe the rules through the power of persuasion alone. All the same, however, I blame the government for this. There is legislation whereby anybody who has a daily fine imposed, can appeal it… either for ‘impelling’ or ‘humanitarian reasons’. These tribunal sittings, which decide whether to mitigate or do away with these fines, are not publicised. The decisions are not published anywhere; and very, very often, the fines have been reduced. There have been examples of someone taking over a pavement on the Gzira seafront – a very lucrative spot of land – having his daily fine reduced from 3,000 euro, to 1,000-something. That makes it a great bargain. So the enforcement mechanism is practically non-existent; the only sanctions are these daily fines; and they can be reduced or removed, totally in secret. Because the public is not notified. This is one very clear indication of how the law purposely does not favour enforcement. The legislator has auto-castrated the enforcement mechanism, on purpose. Then there’s BRO. They are under-resourced, and overwhelmed by the sheer amount of development going on. They’re useless, basically. And what’s more, there is no way that a third-party, a citizen, can prod them into action. The provisions of law which allow them to appeal are ‘held in abeyance’. The minister still has to render them operative; and he has not done so for three years. This law was introduced in 2016. And for three years, the minister has not thought fit to introduce the operational mechanism whereby citizens can appeal against even the general direction, or the inaction of the BRO…

You said ‘on purpose’…

Yes. And I said it on purpose, because it is deliberate…

… and this ties in with a general perception that there is deep collusion between the construction lobby, with the political class. It is a well-known fact that political parties are still financed by the business interests behind these projects. In your experience, how much of the problem is down to this?

It has gone further than what you are stating… the ‘collusion’ is now an official partnership between the developers and the government. Let me explain. A couple of years ago, the Property Malta Foundation was set up between the Malta Developers’ Association, and members of the government. They have a foundation together, to promote property sales, and things like that. I think they have premises. They have funds. And they have official recognition. So the government is MDA’s partner. And the government has not entered into a foundation with any environmental NGO, or with any other lobby group. I think journalists should be investigating this. On what grounds does the government enter into a partnership – a legal body – with any particular lobby or interest group? Why not with the farmers? Scientists? Any others are of interest? I’m not only talking about environmental NGOs. But no. The building lobby has been favoured with an official partnership with the government. They get premises, they get funds, they get jobs…

You seem to be implying that the premises, funds, etc, are given for free, or subsidised by the taxpayer…

I’m assuming it, yes, because it is something that has to be looked into. Where are this funny foundation’s accounts? Why do government members attend every single MDA event? Why is it that, when Sandro Chetcuti sneezes, you have five government ministers running to wipe his nose? Another example: recently, there was a press conference where the MDA announced the launch of the ‘Considerate Contractor Scheme’. Wow, that sounded really, really good, didn’t it? I think there were three or four ministers present. But when you really look into it, you realise that: one, there is no ‘Considerate Contractor Scheme’ actually in play. It is voluntary; and all that was done at that time… for the press launch that was attended by three ministers… was that a memorandum of understanding had been signed between MDA and the ministers, to start drawing up this scheme. When it can easily be photocopied from the one in place in the UK. So basically, we had this whole ceremony for… bullshit. Nothing. They hadn’t done their homework. And they announced that they were ‘going to start doing their homework’. It’s like a student asking the Dean of his Faculty to ‘announce’ that he’s going to start writing his dissertation...

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister has issued an immediate halt to ongoing excavation works: which in itself is an extraordinary measure, suggesting that radical intervention is now the only response. Yet the construction itself is also government’s official policy: ‘Economic growth cannot be stopped’. Stopping it would shock the economy. Would you agree that we, therefore, are on a collision course with disaster?

Yes. It is blatantly clear that both this government, and the one before it thought that ‘endless growth’ was the path to success. The only thing that has ‘endless, exponential growth’ is the cancer-cell. If we want to forge ahead with that kind of model in mind, we can all die of it, basically. It is ironic, that a government that is touted as so ‘progressive’ and ‘forward-thinking’, is actually very, very old-fashioned. This is ‘scorched-earth’ thinking: we are ruining everything. It is terribly, terribly old-fashioned. I can’t understand why they can’t see it. But it is not in the government’s mindset. I have even had, a few years ago, a government minister telling me: ‘Listen, when we do the surveys, it shows up that the environment isn’t high on the people’s list of priorities.’ But this has changed. Of course, there are other ways of doing things. But the government is not really being ‘progressive’. It’s going off on all these tangents: space, robots, whatever… and it’s not even taking care of our territory, and our people. Now, people are realising that it had to get really bad… but really bad… till the visible, tangible effects of all these multiple, deliberate decisions by the government were felt. The next thing people will be feeling is the effect of traffic congestion and emissions. Because no matter what [Traffic Minister] Ian Borg says, and how many roads he widens: the more you widen roads, the more you increase traffic congestion. In fact, I have just unearthed a presentation made by Transport Malta, were they themselves recognised the fact that if you widen roads, you will get more congestion and more emissions. So even here, government is purposely going against the stated objectives of the transport strategy plan. And they don’t care about anything else: alternative modes of transport, etc. Ironically, after all that talk about the power station being a ‘cancer factory’, now we have little cancer factories everywhere…

On the subject of ‘drastic things needed to happen, for people to see the problem’… do you think these recent collapses may prove a turning point in public perceptions to these issues?

One of the things I found… I don’t know, ‘poignant? ‘moving’?... is that, in the photos of one of the apartment blocks, when you look at the exposed walls of the apartments, there was a poster of Dom Mintoff – ‘Is-Salvatur’ – and next to him, Joseph Muscat: who is arguably the greatest leader Labour has ever had, with his huge majority, with his international standing, etc. Yet, despite this... the laws that this great leader has put into place, are not enough to protect his own supporters. The people who love him the most. I found that sad.

Questions have meanwhile been raised about the legality of his intervention. Some have compared it to ’Putin-style politics’. From a legal perspective… is government arrogating unto itself powers that should really be wielded by independent authorities?

We have seen a shift from the first accident in Gwardamanga, when the Prime Minister said: ‘Don’t let this accident characterise the whole construction industry.’ Which I thought was really not on. You’re either waiting to see the results of the investigations; or else you’re just excusing them. But anyway. There has been a shift to ‘all-out action’ since then. We are now realising that it’s going to be a constant, recurring problem. We saw the ‘war-room’ at Castille, we saw everybody on their phones… we saw the action being taken. It was a bit of an overkill, really. Like the movie ‘Independence Day’. You expected Will Smith to charge out from under the table… but this action was taken under the guise of a legal notice, of which Section 18.2 states [reading]: ‘where the director of the Building Regulation Office […] deems that the cessation of construction activity is immediate, because of imminent severe damage to contiguous properties, or danger to the public, or third parties, the enforcement notice and required preventive measures may be issued, on site, in a verbal manner, and later confirmed in writing within 24 hours of issuance.’ So the Prime Minister came out with it under the ‘remit’ of the director of the BRO. However: politically, and for the mental well-being of everyone around, who is petrified that everything’s going to come crashing down around them… it may well have been a good move; a popular move. But come on… this is bloody ridiculous. This section of the law is meant for individual cases. Unless there’s an earthquake, or something of that magnitude, you can’t all of a sudden extend that legal notice to every property in Malta…

Well, you said it yourself: we were promised an ‘earthquake of change’, and now we have an emergency situation…

But is it an emergency situation everywhere? Across the entire country? I am not one to fight for the rights of developers, far from it; but imagine a case where a developer who abides by the rules, and has penalties attached to not competing the project within a fixed number of days. Then he has to stop, because the cowboy down the road accidentally demolished a building. And by prime ministerial decree, too. It is madness. I don’t want to overstretch it, or turn into a controversy… but what are these weird, all-encompassing diktats, anyway? To me, they’re an acknowledgement that the institutions are useless. Hopeless. Powerless. So we have to keep going to Castille, to convene that big war room, every time…

That raises the question of what else could be done in the circumstances…

I don’t deny it was a popular move, or that something had to be done. But popular moves are not the answer. We need to resource the authorities – the white paper for it was published last September. Nine months later, nothing has happened. Now, we’re going to have regulations drafted over the weekend, followed by five days of consultation. It’s a farce. The citizen has no power in this country.

More in Interview