Malta Developers Association president Sandro Chetcuti insists he is creating a revolution within the development sector. He believes he shares the same vision as environmentalists. Why? He tells Caroline Muscat that at the end of the day a clean environment is good business

This week you were re-elected president of an association you co-founded five years ago. What was your message?

Where there is unity, there is strength. That strength needs to be used well. It means we have a responsibility to do things right. Our message was that we want a strong economy and a strong environment. The environment and development can’t continue to be politicised.

The economy, the environment and the construction industry go hand in hand. If we don’t protect our environment, the economy will collapse. And if the economy isn’t doing well, you can’t afford to protect the environment. The main players in the construction industry understand this. We don’t want to make the same mistakes of the past.

Developers pushing an environmental agenda? Is this not a contradiction?

Not at all. You can’t have sustainable development based on sound investment without the locality, infrastructure, parking… We’re no longer in the days when we build haphazardly and people give you hundreds of thousands of euros of their money. Nowadays, things have to be done well.

Malta is what it is. It’s small. Perhaps before, we could afford certain mistakes because there was a need for affordable housing. Now it’s not the case… if anything, there’s an oversupply of certain types of buildings.

Now, those who invest in development need loans worth millions of euros. So it’s impossible, unless the developer is aware that people won’t part with their money, to buy or rent a property that is not surrounded by a nice environment. When we talk about the environment, we’re not only referring to the natural environment but also the urban one. That includes infrastructure, the quality of the roads, noise and air pollution.

Developers now understand this. They came together under the MDA because they believe a few selfish people are trying to influence political decisions that ultimately ruin the rest. We are against all kinds of abuse – those who insist on such abuse harm the rest of us.

Are you actually objecting to any kind of abuse right now?

Yes. The stables’ policy is a case in point. It led to rampant abuse… I believe the Prime Minister said at our AGM that the government was going to revise it.

So when environmentalists criticised this policy they were right?


Why the pressure on outside development zones?

We believe that in the countryside, including agricultural land and areas where there are beautiful, natural landscapes, there should be no development for any reason.

The focus should be on areas that are eyesores; where there’s disused property and farms. There’s enough disturbed agricultural land. We can’t afford to eat up more land.

Define what you mean by disturbed land.

A law was passed in 1967 stating that all existing property was legal; an amnesty so to speak. I’m not sure if there was another after that. In any case, whatever is legal is legal. There’s no point crying over spilt milk. But the situation today is different. Now we have a large part of ODZ land that’s disturbed. We believe something could be done to replace that ugliness... but it’s not the developers abusing of this policy.

What is the MDA doing to stop ODZ abuse? Żonqor Point was one of the most contested ODZ projects…

We have discussions with Mepa and the government from time to time. We don’t see the need to publicise every proposal we make. We are hands-on; represented in different fora where we exert pressure on issues we feel are right.

With Żonqor, we were among the first to say the government should make an effort to identify alternative sites. On this project, we have yet to see whether it could have been done by the Maltese.

When a foreigner comes here to invest we give him the red carpet treatment and we’re very efficient when it comes to their investment. I have nothing against foreign investment and I have nothing against authorities accommodating that investor – we are in favour of that if it is in the national interest. But, it’s unfair that the Maltese are not treated in the same way.

All we have in this country was done by the Maltese. The hotels, the factories, the hospitals, the clinics, housing, restaurants – they restored Mdina, Valletta, Birgu – all this was by Maltese investors. We need to take much better care of the Maltese.

The economy, the environment and the construction industry go hand in hand. If we don’t protect our environment, the economy will collapse. And if the economy isn’t doing well, you can’t afford to protect the environment

At one point you said you love the environment more than the environmentalists themselves. You talk about the environment in the same terms they do. Yet the environmental NGOs are taking a stand against ODZ developments and the MDA is silent.

We don’t oppose…

… But you can take a stand.

We did on the Lidl supermarket proposed on ODZ land in Birkirkara. We issued a statement.

Because it’s foreign investment?

No. I’m declaring this, right here, that the [development] boundaries should be the same for everyone. We want a level playing field. Those who don’t agree with us can leave [the association]. We’re not going to stay defending this or that individual. We want a policy that applies to everyone.

What’s the solution to stop the pressure on ODZ land?

We must not forget that a good chunk of the countryside is privately owned. Most of the countryside is on a long lease to farmers who aren’t necessarily full-timers. It’s used by some who are part-time farmers and others for picnics.

This situation creates a problem because the landlord has no chance of taking possession of the land. The individual who inherits it pays a lot in succession duty and the land continues to be inherited from tenant to tenant indefinitely. There’s no capping.

Whoever got a chicken will continue to get a chicken. Whoever paid a dime continues to pay a dime, irrespective of the true value of the land.

So there’s this irony where the law states that if the leased land has a development permit then the landlord has the right to take possession. This creates strong pressure for a development permit in a zone where development isn’t permitted, but it’s the only way out for the landlord.

Are you saying farmers should be kicked off the land?

We need to discuss what’s good for farmers, whether it’s time for farmers to adjust their lease payments, since these haven’t been revised in decades, whether the tenant is a full-time or part-time farmer, or whether he’s really a farmer at all, rather than just have his name on the register at Għammieri [the agricultural register] and using it for his leisure on Sunday. Nobody’s raised this issue yet. The law is outdated…

I’m not referring to government land. The government has no pressure to take the land back. When the government leases land for agricultural or other uses rather than abandoning it, it’s a good thing. Nobody’s going to object to that… if families are harvesting the land or making use of the land it’s a good thing, because it creates work in the agricultural sector and in this way the land is kept clean rather than being abandoned. I’m talking about a chunk of the countryside that’s privately owned…

This has led to a kind of war involving those who have land inherited over generations and who have paid tax on this land and then they can’t even set foot on it. So all these people are applying pressure to get development permits outside the development zone. And I assure you it isn’t the developers who are trying to get these permits; it’s the landowners…

So when it doesn’t involve MDA members it is OK to criticise the law?

It’s unjust that someone has to pay a significant sum on succession duty upon inheriting a sizeable plot of land, when the annual rental income is equivalent to a chicken. Faced by this injustice some find a businessman and try to obtain a development permit, while others lobby for policies to allow such permits. Rather than planting and enjoying this land, the heir is pushed to obtain a development permit to reclaim the land.

What are MDA’s proposals to address this scenario?

The matter has to be placed on the government’s agenda.

No solutions?

We have to strike a balance. You can’t starve full-time farmers. There are genuine farmers and a compromise has to be reached that takes into account the difficulties and challenges real farmers face.

Beyond farmers, the government admitted that the Żonqor project would not be feasible if not built on ODZ land.

But then the government decided differently. A substantial part of the land transferred to the private operator for this project is within the scheme.

After protests by environmentalists…

Yes. The final decision includes a sizeable amount of land that is within the scheme, costing several millions.

Do you agree with the decision?

We were the first association in Malta to disagree with the uptake of all that land. Following the revision of plans, and since it’s being promoted as a project of national interest, we had to make compromises. Yet, we’ll speak out if this isn’t a project in the national interest.

Do you still agree that this project, originally promoted as a university, is a project of national interest now that it has turned out to be a higher education institution and is several years away from possibly becoming a university?

We don’t rush. We have to see the plans to be submitted. We have to see that the project takes off the ground as many projects are nothing more than wishes.

But the land has been transferred.

Yes. But, we haven’t seen any Mepa applications yet. We have to make sure the project fits within the parameters announced by government. We’ll never accept a real estate project.

Won’t it be too late then?

I don’t think so. I believe the government always considers objections. It’s only after construction that objections are too late.

Isn’t this a frequent problem? A project is launched and promoted while the plans are not public. Aren’t environmental groups right when they say procedures must be followed irrespective of whether the project sponsor is a private or public entity?

They may have an interest. Everybody presents his proposals according to one’s particular manner. We never took to the streets.

Maybe that’s because you have better access to power.

I faced suggestions to organise a protest using the construction workers to occupy the streets but we never opted for this move. I won’t complain about how environmentalists protest. I have my own way of showing disagreement. Żonqor isn’t a project that will benefit the MDA. I have no conflict of interest here. Our interests are to safeguard the land, even within development zones; we’re not pleased if developable land is transferred for a pittance. We want to ensure this is a project that can’t be done by the Maltese and that it’s really a project of national interest.

So, at this point, you’re still not convinced of this project.

I always monitor what I’m told. I don’t rush.

This discussion has been going on for a long time. How much more time do you need?

I don’t think I shouldn’t believe the government just because I have some doubts. I decide not to believe the government only when I’m cheated; not when I have doubts. Every government is bound to do what’s been promised. I’ll judge this later, when the plans are clearer… if we object, we’d face accusations that we’re after the land. We’ll object if it’s not in the national interest.

So you’re not yet convinced this is a project in the national interest?

The government said so. Why should I doubt the government?

You just said you have doubts…

Everybody has an opinion. We wouldn’t be responsible if we just blab on about an opinion. The MDA can’t act that way.

Developers’ funding of political parties’ electoral campaigns gives them political influence. Two years after the Labour Party’s electoral victory you told your members to “make hay while the sun shines”. Have developers fared better under a Labour administration?

Sometimes we’re misunderstood. Sometimes it’s our fault because we don’t explain matters clearly. Other times we’re misunderstood when someone twists the facts…

Did you or didn’t you say it?

‘Make hay while the sun shines’ was my message as the association’s president on the fifth anniversary. I told members the economy was moving in the right direction and it was the right moment to invest wisely. At no point did I want to convey the message that we should do whatever we like.

We’ve passed through tough times. Building contractors were shedding off some of their workforce. Now, this has changed.

I don’t agree that developers are sponsoring political parties. Everybody supports them. Throughout the year, political parties organise telethons to collect money from the people. Contractors aren’t the only businessmen in this country. The rest support political parties too. I don’t think donating money to political parties obliges them to grant something that’s not deserved.

Still, I believe that a system guaranteeing a certain level of funding to political parties from taxpayers’ money should be developed.

Let’s face the facts. Those registering a hefty profit from development projects can donate much more than an employee.

I know egg sellers who are millionaires; some are richer than developers. I know haulers who are multimillionaires. They worked hard and God bless them. They’re big businessmen who aren’t involved in construction.

There was significant pressure under the previous administration to tighten development regulations. The complaint is that progress is being rolled back…

The previous administration’s mistake was that it stopped short of deciding. Applications were shelved. Before the last administration there were 20 years that were good. I’d say there was more development than there should have been, besides bad planning.

During the last administration there were several projects suspended because we weren’t able to say either ‘no-go’ or ‘yes’. There were projects where people went bankrupt.

This administration decided to give the building and construction industry its due importance.

You speak of sustainable development but one of your council members, Anton Camilleri known as tal-Franċiż, submitted applications for massive developments in St George’s Bay, St Julian’s, that even include the protected Villa Rosa Gardens. Is this sustainable development?

Again, we’ve seen no plans. How can I comment about a project when no plan is available?

Plans do exist.

I haven’t seen them…

The theme of your AGM was similar to the PN’s convention on Idea Ambjent. Are you trying to please everybody?

I value the parties according to the service they give to the people and the country. The country comes before the party. The party is not a religion. We collaborate with those we consider as moving in the right direction.

You mean the direction indicated by the MDA?

The direction towards a strong economy and a healthy environment. Our members have different political views. We’re willing to collaborate with anyone in government.

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