From Dingli to Ramla
Harry Vassallo
Friday, June 22, 2007

Most readers will recall the exceptional demolition of a villa at Dingli. It had seemed such a break with the lethargic enforcement practices which Mepa had accustomed us to that it seemed a little fishy. The press was present in late evening to witness and report in full audiovisual detail the complete demolition of the villa sited in a splendid location and in glorious isolation. That too was unusual.

The victim was isolated too. The public was led to believe that he, she or it had had monumental cheek to develop a pristine site and cock a snook at the regulator for many years. Very many were deceived into thinking that at very long last Mepa would be taking a firm stand on planning violations. A very few suspected that it was a PR exercise drawing attention away from the debacle over the Solemar Hotel development which had erupted in the news a few days before.

The truly jaded such as I wondered why Mepa had picked the Dingli villa when so many other hulks illegally built decades before continued to dot the landscape unscathed except by wind and weather.

Days later I met Mr Satariano who had been billed as the villain of the piece by the Mepa PR demonisation exercise. He told me that many years before he had bought the Angel's Leap Restaurant which was a legally constructed eyesore. His property had been damaged beyond repair following the issue of a quarry permit across the road and he had applied to redevelop the site. Left in limbo for years by the planning regulator he had gone ahead faithfully replacing the pre-existing structure except for a minor alteration which allowed the connection of two rooms separated by a small open space.

An eyesore had become a splendid villa. The matter had infuriated Mepa which insisted on the complete demolition of the place before any permit could be issued to sanction the development.

The applicant had found this altogether unreasonable and had fought a long battle in court. As soon as Mepa found a gap in the bulwark of injunctions placed in its path, the bulldozers turned up and flattened the place.

Mr Satariano had taken a risk and lost. Mepa had chosen to exercise its legitimate powers however unreasonable it may have been. Instead of two wrongs not making a right, it was a case of an isolated right in a sea of wrongs becoming an obvious injustice.

It all came to mind when the permit was issued to build tens of villas on the clay slopes overlooking Ramla Bay. The main difference is that there was no original permitted structure at all. The Ulysses Lodge had been a gigantic defiance of any semblance of planning for decades. Mepa's own before-and-after pictures condemn it as an unacceptable intrusion in the landscape. So why was it not demolished long ago? How can it be used by Mepa in its PR campaign to justify the issue of new permits which will "improve" the situation?

One argument which Mepa has raised in its defence is that the area had already been committed to development. Is that enough? Should one not ask whether it had been committed to development according to law? If not, should the site not be cleared of construction and rehabilitated? Where is it written that every site that has been developed whether legally or otherwise should qualify for redevelopment?

As far as I am concerned this was an application for the construction of villas outside the development zone and should have been thrown out on its ear on the first day. How many Ramla Bays do we have to spare? If gargantuan cheek and official acquiescence had inflicted upon it a carbuncle the size of the Ulysses Lodge for decades, should that mean that the carbuncle will never heal but transform into something else, with full permits? What kind of precedent is that?

It is like a giant billboard across the Gozitan landscape which reads "planning crime pays". The lesson being taught is that anything illegally developed anywhere will eventually be sanctioned.

Time and again the public has been asked to sympathise with developers who run the risk of losing a cataract of cash if the law is applied to them in all its force and majesty. I have never been able to work it out. How can it be reasonable to be completely callous with regard to the losses incurred by delay in the processing of minor developments by would-be homeowners with not a cent to spare and then become subservient to would-be eco-criminals risking millions?

Does the money element change the matter of rights, the question of equality before the law? The Ramla Bay case may be the final straw. The issue now goes beyond the simple matter of planning and raises the question whether we can continue to tolerate a two-tier or multi-tier citizenship. Is there one law for some of us and another law for all the rest? It becomes a matter of justice more than planning.

When, as in the case of Ramla and in several other cases, it is suspected with good reason that some have more rights than others, that the law is applied and interpreted differently with regard to different persons, all deals are off. Most of us can live comfortably with the idea that wealth affords more options, greater freedom, more power even when we are not wealthy ourselves or harbour such ambitions. None of us can afford to accept to become second-class citizens.

The award of unjustified privilege whether on the basis of political affinity, financial support granted or simple arbitrariness, makes the proper application of the law on all other persons a form of oppression. In making unjustified exceptions to the law, the rule of law is undermined. It is discredited in the eyes of ordinary citizens. It is a public scandal properly so called.

The damage done is far more serious that the construction of villas where no villas should sprout. Each such scandal robs all institutions of credibility and makes the experience of submission to the law when one's personal interests suffer much harder to bear. If one's plans are thwarted by the law, when will it be possible to shrug off the pain if, altering the landscape, before us all, stand several developments which should never have happened? It is more than a matter of money, it is more than the lost opportunity to make a packet, it is a deep affront to one's dignity, to one's right to respect as a citizen. Loyalty to a hazy commonwealth evaporates and the paying of taxes is experienced as forced submission to extortion.

The Ramla case is a quintessentially political case. It goes so deep that the environmental and planning outrage takes second place. It strikes deeper than partisan prejudices can reach. It undermines the common foundation of our citizenship. The divide is no longer along party lines but in terms of the level of civilisation we may have achieved: those who have acclimatised to the system of begging favours and being granted boons and those who want to reach out for an era in which the law is known and evenly applied giving us all our natural chance to make a success of our private lives and of the economy on which we all depend.

The protest being organised by NGOs on Monday should be attended by all who feel that Malta and the Maltese deserve a higher form of government than that which we have enjoyed so far. We should make it a statement in favour of the rule of law, in favour of respect for citizens and all citizens of all political beliefs and of none should feel they are more than welcome. Those who have been granted favours in the past should also turn up and break with our corrosive tradition. In a way, they too are victims by having had their citizenship corrupted in being allowed to steal a march on their friends and neighbours. It is time for us all to grow up and to try to become decent.

Dr Vassallo is chairman of Alternattiva Demokratika - the Green party.
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22 Jun 2007 by