I will not back off

Miguela Xuereb

Do you recall the techniques of card sharps? “Think of a car, any card,” they say, as they proceed to con you into believing that they have the magical ability to ‘read’ into your mind and tell you which card you are thinking of. It’s a con, of course. We know it but we still make the right noises and act surprised and amused. And when the con man tricks us, yet again, we laugh, and he gets a round of applause.

A lot like life, really.

We live in a country, a society, with a plethora of authorities. Sneeze and an authority is created. Blink and you’ve missed the creation of another one. All have (ultra?) expensive management, a well-padded staff structure, collective agreements for some sections. Nothing wrong in all that, you’d tell me. I certainly would agree. One big ‘IF’, though – who carries the can, ultimately?

Sixteen years ago, two women were buried in the rubble. They lost their lives in a private tuition session at the house of one of these women. Who would have thought that Maltese could be so dangerous, eh? Mary Vella’s house in St Paul’s Bay collapsed while construction works were in progress next door. It was the first such case in recent history which involved the collapse of a house not due to immediately tangible reasons: lightning strike, crashed aeroplane, floods.

There had been near misses. Also, in St Paul’s Bay but not near the Vella house, a landslide had left half a house hanging in mid-air over several stories of excavation works. That the house did not come a-tumbling down was due largely to the quality of the concrete in the foundations which held together after decades of construction. In this case, remedial action was possible. In the first case, the only remedial action which was possible was through the courts of law. No one can bring the dead back, but some justice may bring solace.

You would think that, wouldn’t you? You’d be wrong but.

Justice Delayed, Denied, Decried

Sixteen years after Mary Vella and Natalia Vavilova were buried in rubble, the criminal case lies buried in the courts of law in a maze of legalisms which benefits no one but the culprits. In Malta, there is a saying that if you are in the wrong, go to court. I will not be judge and jury, but I think I can safely say that the dead are not at fault. Questions asked to the law courts were steadfastly ignored. Questions asked to the AG were steadfastly ignored. We then escalated to the Chief Justice. Ignored. Finally, we got an ‘answer no answer’ from the ministry. Basically: When will the criminal case move out of the maze? Reply: In time.

Some justice.

In the days of the cavemen

But do people have to die for action to be taken, even if it is opening and never to be concluded court case? In the not so distant past, the building industry was much more credible than it is today, supposedly regulated as it is. My friend and former colleague, Perit Ruben Abela, listed the ways in which the Building Inspectors in the cavemen era of the PAPB used to be trained for their job and used to check even minutiae on site. This was a time when, as recently as 50 years ago, the builder in charge, a licensed mason, would be legally bound to call the architect to tell him that they would be laying concrete on the day. The architect would be legally bound to check that the composition of the concrete, before not after laying, would be the correct mix.

That was a time when architects were not paid in shares from developments but in a fee, regulated and structured through a professional body. That was a time when an architect was an architect, not a developer, a lawyer, a businessman or any number of other hats. People knew their profession and respected themselves and their chosen professions enough to put integrity before money. Nowadays, regrettably, all too few are not blinded by the ultimately fake light of shining money.

You can ring my bell

So the song goes. But will the authorities answer? Will they carry the responsibility they were ostensibly set up to carry? For example: will the Planning Authority’s enforcement section be taken to task? Will it now be questioned why a vital aspect of the Building Regulations office, the lists of contractors, is kept by the Malta Developers Association who is certainly not an impartial or a professional party? Will the law and the infamous article 26 be repealed to make mandatory the need for geological assessment and constant surveillance? Will the architects remain the absentee demi-gods of construction – responsible for everything and nothing? Will the building industry remain largely self-regulating when it has shown itself up so many times as being operated by a majority of cowboys?

Someone will now take me to task for saying majority. I mean it. I will not retract. The only way I will back off on this is if, over time, the industry takes steps to ensure that architects remain confined to the profession, that masons are again licensed and monitored. Not on paper. Not on the site notices. Actually monitored. If the authorities, including the law courts, show that they are working for a society that feels safe and not for a society that feels its pockets.

Then I will back off.