Monday 21 October 2019

It’s a jungle out there

This article first appeared on Malta Today

The Government is angry, we were told this week, at the news that another block of apartments, this time in Mellieha, collapsed. Well, Sir, welcome to our world.

Then from another statement, this time issued by the new Valletta Mayor, Alfred Zammit, we learned that he was “irritated” by the oil stains left by vehicles on the road of the capital. 

As time goes by I’m sure other people in authority will be voicing similar sentiments, reminiscent of the the way letters to the editor used to be signed by “Disgusted from Sliema”.  The only difference is that when you are the one who is ostensibly in authority, these feelings of anger and irritation at the state of things in the country sound particularly bizarre.  Why are you complaining to us, the public? Aren’t you the ones supposed to ensure these things don’t happen, and enforce the law when they do? Who is in charge around here anyway?

Good question: because as far as I can tell from the daily anecdotes of mayhem, unlawfulness and the general cowboy attitude, no one seems to be in charge. 

I know I will be told it has always been this way, and that’s true. Bus drivers stop in the middle of the road to buy pastizzi, people put chairs outside their front door to save a parking space, and cement is poured on public beaches so that some guy can place his chair comfortably on the shore when he goes fishing. Everyone is a law unto himself.  I guess Malta is a pretty good country to live in if you don’t care about rules, and if you look at laws as a kind of Mastermind challenge placed there so you can figure out ways to bend them or short-circuit them altogether. However, if you prefer to abide by the rules and feel more at ease when law and order are strictly adhered to, then you will suffer on a daily basis.  The reason we are feeling it more acutely than ever now is because that is what happens when there is a gradual, steady breakdown in a country’s already flimsy approach to lawfulness. It spreads like an epidemic. It virtually becomes a jungle as more and more people are taking one look around and realising that, since no one ever punishes the culprits, they might as well go ahead and flout the rules too.  

For example, in the latest Times of Malta report from the war zone formerly known as Qawra, about the demolition of the former Palm Court hotel, it was stated that, “The residents said that, despite rules that demolition and excavation jobs could not take place in tourist areas on public holidays, works on the site continued unabated last Friday. “We called the police and they were here a few minutes later. However, for some reason, work continued a few minutes after they left,” a resident said. Times of Malta was informed that, according to the rules in force, it is up to the Building Regulations Office to see that regulations are observed. However, industry sources commented that office was “practically inexistent”, adding that claims of close connections between officials and developers “are common among several industry players”. 

And in another report, from the equally besieged town of Sliema: “Elderly people and families living in a popular Sliema area expressed frustration on Friday, as they spent the morning of a public holiday listening to construction noise.  Although legislation prohibits the continuation of construction works on Sundays or public holidays, the Building Regulations Office (BRO) issued a permit for the works to continue, police said, overriding those regulations.”

Demolition, noise, dust, you name it, the rules and regulations and laws covering the construction industry are there, coming out of our ears – but actually enforcing them? Don’t be silly, enforcement is for wimps. 

If you have been living in your house for decades; a home which you scrimped and saved for in order to have a nice garden, and someone decides to plonk large apartment blocks next door to you, and the authorities then decide to carry out “road alignment” – you can say goodbye to your quality of life and fresh air. Permits are dished out with abandon without any planning, or consideration of the fabric of the existing neighbourhood. What used to be a very good system of certain areas being designated for townhouses, bungalows, villas etc. has now been done away with. Anywhere is good enough, apparently, for huge, anonymous blocks of apartments – and to hell with what the neighbours who have been there for so long care or feel.  

Meanwhile, if you happen to be living next to an excavation site, you are quite right to feel afraid, very afraid.  You might be sipping a cup of tea in your PJs, watching your favourite Netflix show and the next thing you know the floor collapses under your feet.  First in Guardamangia and now in Mellieha, we have families who have lost everything in the same way that our forefathers lost their homes from the bombs which fell on Malta in WWII.  Only this time, the enemy is your not-so-friendly neighbourhood developer who got his permit to start excavating as quickly as you can say “luxury apartments”.

As the finger-pointing began as to who should shoulder responsibility, all we heard from the PM was that he was calling a meeting of all those involved in the construction industry.   Oh, and yes, that the Government was angry.   

What I would have preferred to hear instead is that all work on construction sites has been stopped until each site has been checked for safety and compliance.  

But taking that approach would upset the contractors and developers too much wouldn’t it? 

Almost like an eerie omen, just as they were about to meet today, and just before I finished this piece, yet another wall caved in, in another apartment block in Guardamangia.  I have long predicted that this construction frenzy cannot go on and that the industry is bound to collapse. Little did I know that it was going to be literally, collapsing, to the detriment of honest hard-working people who are seeing their homes turn into rubble through no fault of their own. 

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