Tuesday 18 December 2018

No wonder property developers are always smiling

This article first appeared in Malta Today 

Digital archives are a wonderful tool – they bring up all sorts of memories which people may have forgotten, or conveniently deleted from their memories.  So far, I still have a pretty good memory, which is why it did not take me long to trace a couple of interesting photos from 2012, which are pictured here.  

Yes, good old Eddie Fenech Adami (who by then was no longer the President of Malta) and good old Lawrence Gonzi (Prime Minister) posing for photo ops, while Silvio Debono from DB Group was all smiles at the inauguration of his revamped Seabank Hotel in Mellieha.   In 2010, Silvio Debono was granted public land for an extension of a further 340 rooms which took up even more agricultural land. What’s not to smile about?  Property developers are always grinning from ear to ear, and not only because the photographer has instructed them to say ‘cheese’.  They are invariably pleased as punch, not to mention laughing all the way to the bank, because they have a foot in each political door, and make sure to contribute to the finances of which every party looks like it has the best chances of ‘making it’.   

Up to 2008, the choice was invariably PN – Labour at the time did not have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting within even an inch of Castille.  The PL at the time also had Alfred Sant at the helm – for all the mistakes he made (primarily his handling of the EU referendum), he was averse to cozying up to the big guns.  In fact, he became rather famous for coming up with two catchphrases which are still used to this day ‘ħbieb tal-ħbieb’ (friends of friends, which could basically be Malta’s motto) and il-barunijiet (the land barons).

This was of course, in the period between 1992 – 2008 while Sant was leader of the Labour party. The next PL leader, Joseph Muscat, as we now all know very well, has absolutely no problem with land barons, nor with cultivating certain friendships. 

No wonder property developers have never stopped smiling.  Many had it good under the PN – let us not forget that in 2017, Simon Busuttil himself confirmed that DB Group had been a happy contributor to the party’s finances but threatened to pull the plug because the PN was criticizing the ITS land grab.  Bizarrely, Deputy PN Leader Mario de Marco represented Silvio Debono on the ITS deal. 

Photo ops of former PN Prime Ministers such as the one shown here, and more recent ones showing PM Joseph Muscat with the same Silvio Debono, speak volumes. 

But this is not an isolated case of how property developers have always ended up getting what they wanted, with the PA (formerly known as MEPA) dancing to their tune.

Writing in Malta Today in 2016, James Debono reported that, “Originally built as a small 16-room hotel in the 1960s, the ‘Solemar’ (which later become the Riviera hotel) became the centre of a planning controversy in the late 1990s.  Developer Charles Polidano obtained a PA permit to extend the hotel in 1997 despite a negative recommendation by the PA’s planning directorate; another application for an extension was refused in 2000 but Polidano carried out the expansion illegally, and in 2001 the PA was asked to sanction this extension retroactively.

The case caused wide embarrassment within the PA, as its planning directorate urged a refusal, arguing that the development was incompatible with the rural and coastal characteristics of the area, and also ran counter to the Structure Plan.

Instead the then-MEPA board legalised the development on pain of a Lm200,000 (€460,000) fine on Polidano.

When Polidano failed to pay the fine, MEPA froze his assets, at which point he retaliated by serving his 1,200 employees with a notice of forced leave, telling them he could not afford to pay their wages. Three days later, MEPA backed down, unfroze his assets, and agreed to different settlement terms.

This is not to justify the atrocities which are happening now – far from it. What is scandalous and unacceptable will always be so in my book.  

However, when one reads articles dated 2006 entitled “MEPA has failed” and again in 2012, “MEPA lacks resources to deal with big developers” then you begin to realise how deeply rooted the problems of regulating those with fat bank accounts really are. Especially when politicians and those sitting on boards which are meant to provide checks and balance have no scruples themselves. 

And after we have built these hundreds of apartment blocks, then what?

I carried out a quick straw poll on my FB profile asking how many construction sites people had in their own street or area, and to name their town or village.

It may have seemed like a silly, obvious question, because we see them with our own eyes every day. But as the replies came pouring in from all over the islands, with an average of 2 – 6 sites within people’s immediate vicinity, the sheer impact was very powerful. With wry resignation, those in Sliema, St Julian’s and Swieqi simply mentioned their whole town.  The air of defeatism was palpable and it is no wonder everyone seems to have accepted the inevitable. The answers also made it amply clear that this construction boom is creating a glut of properties which is completely unrealistic and unsustainable in the long-term.  Please spare me more talk about an economic boom and ‘progress’, because when it all goes pear-shaped, it won’t be pretty.  We can already feel the ripple effects of over-population, lack of planning, no enforcement of building regulations and inadequate infrastructure. 

This Bacchanalia of greed and frenzied building does not bode well.  Just as has happened in other countries, the property bubble will also burst here. For, as much as we like to think to the contrary, Malta is not special.

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