The newly appointed Director General of the Malta Developers’ Association, Deborah Schembri, stressed the need for strong enforcement in the construction industry, due to those who ignore regulations giving the whole sector a bad name.
In an interview with The Malta Independent on Sunday, she referred to the Building and Construction Authority (BCA), and said that she is all in favour of enforcement, “as that is the only way that those who want to steamroll over people are stopped.”
Schembri said that those breaching regulations shouldn’t be allowed to do so, as it sheds a bad light on everyone in the sector. “Bad news travels fast. When something bad happens, it is as though all contractors and builders are at fault, when it is really not the case. There are many who are trying to do their best and do things right.” She spoke of the need for the BCA to have strict enforcement in order to stop rogue developers from shedding a bad light on the rest of the sector.
She said that not all developers and contractors form part of the MDA.
She said that it was the MDA that insisted with the government on the importance of having an authority to oversee the construction industry.
Parliamentary Secretary for Construction Chris Agius had previously revealed that the BCA will eventually issue a regulation which will oblige all contractors to be licensed. Schembri was asked whether she would be in favour of contractors breaching regulations losing their license, and whether she would be in favour of a developer or contractor trying to circumvent regulations being removed from the MDA if they are members.
“We would very much like to give the authority bite. We are all for the BCA having power in enforcement, as we lack enforcement in this country… If the authorities are given the right amount of power to act and enforce, then I am all for having regulations within the MDA to deal with people who consistently break the rules, as we need to show that we are an association with good intentions, that adheres to high standards. We need to walk to talk.”
Pressed and asked if she would be in favour of the BCA revoking the licence of a contractor who constantly breaches regulations, she said yes. “We need standards which do not just sit pretty on paper. Those who keep breaking laws as though they don’t exist give the rest a bad name. Now they might not be members of the MDA, or they might be, but if they consistently break the law, putting people in danger, creating problems for neighbours, why should they be allowed to continue as though nothing happened? The reason I say that I’m in favour that, if a contractor continuously breaches regulations he or she should have their license revoked, is because when you reach a certain level, issuing a fine is not enough. If they have enough money it just doesn’t make sense.”
Schembri highlighted that one of the important challenges will be to change the negative view people have of the MDA. She said that this negative aura is present due to some people in the industry not adhering to legislation – who are not necessarily members of the association – which reflects badly on the industry as a whole.
She said that the MDA has always been trying to raise standards.
One of the main criticisms levelled against the MDA is the idea that developers and contractors are running roughshod over the environment. There would be instances where an application would see hundreds of objections for instance, showing a clear divide between what developers want and what the people want. There has also been criticism that some development is leading to the uglification of Malta.
Asked about this, she argued that the real problem lies with the legislation and planning policies, not with the developers.
She said: “We must make the distinction between those developers who follow laws and those who break them. We are never in favour of any contractors or developers who try to break laws.”
She said that as long as legislation permits development, and that the plans pass through the Planning Authority process abiding by the rules and regulations, “then there is nothing intrinsically wrong in that.”
She argued that if the rules and guidelines allow for development that leads to the uglification of an area, then the problem lies with those laws, guidelines and the Local Plans. “You cannot really blame a developer for developing the land within that which the law permits.”
“Many people grumble, but if they are left a piece of land, they will develop it to the full extent of the law. When a big developer does this and acquires the required permits, we speak about the developer creating a problem, but really and truly if a developer working within the legislation results in something ugly being built, then it is the legislation that is the problem.”
During the interview, she also argued that it is unfair to perceive the MDA as being against the environment. “We work within the ambit of the law and we also propose legislation which is in favour of the environment, such as incentives regarding village cores, listed properties and old buildings. It was also the MDA that insisted with the government, back when there was a discussion about it years ago, not to extend the development zone.”
She was asked whether more policy is needed in terms of design and streetscape uniformity, given that some localities have lost their character due to hotchpotch construction and clashing design.
“I cannot simply say that because I don’t particularly like certain buildings, then I have to impose what I like on others. What is important is that, at least, when looking at a streetscape, you wouldn’t shudder.”
She agreed that such a situation does exist in certain areas, “and unfortunately there is legislation and guidelines in place which permit it.”
Schembri highlighted that the MDA is working on proposals to “create better planning. We have suggestions as to how we can create more comprehensive planning and a better streetscape… where you wouldn’t see pencil developments for instance, which the law currently permits.”
“We cannot blame a person for developing a piece of land they own, but we should have regulations that permit and incentivise people to plan a street comprehensively for instance.”
“We are in the process of drawing up a report and it is not yet concluded.”
She also pushed for local plans to be reviewed and amended.
She was asked about development in Gozo, whether she believes there need to be stricter guidelines for the island.
“I believe that, if something leads to the uglification of any area, it shouldn’t be permitted, be it in Gozo or in Malta.”
“What has been done, has been done. When you have a vested right, meaning that you have a valid permit given by a legal authority, nobody can take that away from you just because it is ugly. So we have to make a distinction between what has been and what will be. With regard to what will be, rules and regulations for Malta and Gozo should not permit, or should be drawn up in such a way so as not to permit, planning which is unsightly and which is not according to the concept of the respective area.”
“The problem is not whether we are speaking about Gozo or Malta. If we are talking about something historical, then let us preserve it, if it is something that cannot be made ugly by having old and new together, then let us ease into it. For instance, we are all for easing into Urban Conservation Areas, rather than what happens now.” She clarified that at the moment, a building right outside such an area can be extremely high right next to a UCA building, “and we are for easing into the UCA instead.”
She said that the MDA is in favour of having better planning and said that if there is something that needs to be changed, it should be the Local Plans. “If the Local Plans permit it, then you cannot tell someone who has a building potential of six storeys to build two, as they won’t. We need to be practical. If someone buys a townhouse in an area where six-storey developments are permitted, that person is buying the potential for six-storeys. So the price would reflect that. If that person builds only two levels, then the price would not tally with what that person bought it for. If the Local Plans don’t permit six-storeys but two, that would affect the price. The Local Plans are a major problem.”
She was asked whether she is still a legal counsel to the Planning Authority and the Lands Authority, and if yes whether this is a conflict of interest.
She said that she resigned as legal counsel to the PA when she took up her post with the MDA, even though she believed there was no real conflict due to the nature of the work she did. As for the Lands Authority, she said she only deals with expropriation cases and does not believe this would be a conflict. She said that she has absolutely nothing to do with the decision to expropriate land or not and the cases mainly deal with issues where the private citizen would believe their land is worth more, where she would represent the authority. She said that if there ever would be a case where she feels there would be a conflict, another lawyer who she works on the expropriation cases with, will take over.
In the interview, she also said that the MDA had made a number of proposals to the government which resulted in policies being created, like the first-time buyers scheme and the second-time buyers scheme.