The Malta Independent 30 May 2020, Saturday

Progress, development, eyesores and the environment - Interview with Sandro Chetcuti

Malta Independent Monday, 4 August 2014, 11:30 Last update: about 7 years ago

In a country with limited land resources and where there seems to be a perpetual struggle between development and the environment it is very refreshing, if not altogether surprising to some, to hear the head of the national developers association speaking of safeguarding the environment and of putting the national interest before profit margins.

But that is precisely the attitude of Malta Developers Association president Sandro Chetcuti. Speaking to this newspaper this week, Mr Chetcuti was adamant that, as he puts it, “Once the government puts someone’s profits before the national interest, that is the beginning of the end.”

He also insists that in a country where land comes at a premium and is practically the country’s only natural resource, “We need to make the best use of our land by protecting it through safeguarding green areas especially in the countryside, or by redeveloping the many long-standing eyesores dotting the country into something beautiful.

“And one of my challenges as the president of the Malta Developers Association (MDA) is to see how to rectify those eyesores into developments that the country can be proud of; the MDA is working hard to help any government to ensure the country has sustainable, environmentally-friendly development.”

 

Vacant properties and urban regeneration

According to Mr Chetcuti, the ‘fact’ often cited in arguments against development policies that the country has some 40,000 vacant properties on its hands is not exactly correct. 

“I’m sorry but I beg to differ,” he says. “We now know from statistics that of those 40,000 vacant properties, less than 18,000 are actually on the market, and people cannot buy what is not for sale in the first place.”

Moreover, of the vacant properties currently on the market, many are in dire need of repair while buyers are not necessarily even looking for such properties.

“Not only are they not new and modern properties, the kind of properties most sought after these days, but they have not been maintained and no value has been added to them over the years.”

Along such lines, Mr Chetcuti explains that this is why the MDA is pressing the government to come up with a better urban regeneration scheme and “aggressive incentives” for the restoration of houses in the village cores “so that people begin to seriously invest in these beautiful properties in these beautiful villages”.

In Mr Chetcuti’s opinion, sustainable development is more than a catchphrase; it is a reality that developers need to embrace fully if they are to be successful.

He explains, “A sustainable project or development has three overriding aspects: the environmental, the social and the economic aspect. Without one of these, you cannot have a sustainable project. 

“Additionally, the quality and comfort that people these days expect to see in a property is tremendous. As such, it is important that developers create a better environment because we all know that you cannot live only within your property. Around that property people need amenities, good infrastructure, and a pleasant environment with nice landscaping.

“Being an environmentalist does not mean simply fighting to maintain the status quo. Leaving everything as it is does not mean environmentalism.

“The MDA has had a learning curve in that developers today are not seeking only profits but they also have a new pride in their work and a passion for doing the right thing. After decades of amateurism and the problems caused, professionals today are doing a very good job – they are proud and they love their work. 

“Moreover, competition within the sector is improving the aesthetics, the quality, the finishings – things are changing in the right direction. People are also becoming aware of the need for energy saving buildings and now features such as double glazing, and insulation have become standard.

“Gone are the days of amateurism. If you are not a professional you will not be competitive in this day and age. Twenty-five years ago, the country suffered a shortfall of properties and what was done was done. But today the main challenge is in terms of quality.”

 

White Rocks: no blanket development

With the now infamous White Rocks project having been given a lease of life, and with the government having significantly extended the site’s footprint in its redevelopment proposal, Mr Chetcuti argues against an excessive development of the site on offer.

“We are already seeing some anti-development people criticising the White Rocks project, but what we should be doing instead is convincing the government to develop the site properly, and to not leave it as it is.

“For years upon years, the White Rocks site has been an eyesore and funnily enough, no one complained about it. As a Maltese citizen I complain that we have a project like this in a magical location with such potential, but proper, serious efforts have not been made to redevelop the site until now.

“I am, for example, absolutely against a high density development of the site.  This site could be a real landmark development with some beautiful landscaping and public spaces – and not cramming one building against another.”

He cites Albert Town as another potentially outstanding area to be developed. “With some effort and imagination, and with the Marsa power station due to be closed down, Albert Town can be transformed into a beautiful location. 

“There is also a lot of virgin land n Albert Town that is definitely not good for agriculture or the preservation of the countryside. There is some virgin land in the beautiful countryside that definitely needs to be protected by the government, but there is a lot of virgin land that needs to be developed.

“SmartCity, for example, was also built mostly on virgin land – with the exception of some underutilised industrial estate land – and even though the project is not yet finished, there is already a better environment there. This is a perfect example – should it have been left as it was or was it correct to have this beautiful development that we have now?

“This is why unfortunately some people in environmentalist groups are losing credibility, you need to be positive as well. Development can never stop, and if it does stop it means that the country has stagnated. Progress must continue as it is crucial for any country. But progress must be controlled in the best interest of the country and not be given a carte blanche in the interest of someone’s profit levels.”

 

Undue political criticism

Earlier this week was the second time this year in which Mr Chetcuti has come under fire for his attachment to the Labour Party in government, with Flimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar’s Astrid Vella describing his presence as a Labour vote counting agent during the recent MEP election as “obscene”.

To the criticism, he replies: “I appreciate everyone’s opinion, including that of Astrid Vella, and my message is that our members are mature enough to work together as a team in the interests of the industry – even though we have different political opinions, our members hail from both sides of the political divide. 

“Today in 2014, people are learning to make a distinction between politically supporting someone who you think will work for the country’s best interests and doing your work in a professional way.

“It is like local councils for example, where in certain localities even though the councillors are elected on a particular party’s ticket, they are in some cases working in the interest of the people of their locality – irrespective of their parties’ stances. I am sure my members and committee unanimously appreciate my efforts for the construction industry.

“I acted as a counting agent in an MEP election where recently we saw candidates that represented even trade unions running as actual candidates and no one said anything, while others from environmental NGOs have also contested in the general elections.

“This is my style: there are certain people who play the game a little here and a little there without showing their true colours. On the other hand, I am honest and I put all my cards on the table – you always know where you stand with me.

“As long as I am objective and my arguments are truly in the interest of the industry and the country, there is no argument to be made. This is just a case of childish criticism.

“Even as a private Maltese citizen, I do not believe that you should support a single political party your entire life no matter who the people in that party are and no matter what their policies are. 

“I truly believe that, being an honest Maltese patriot, I support those politicians that work in the best interest of the country. I am not hijacked by anyone, this is me and I have my own mind.

“But when I act on behalf of the MDA, I am very careful and prudent to not allow my personal opinion to influence my professional work. That is why I am not reticent about expressing my personal opinion.

“I work hard for the MDA, and I founded the MDA together with PN stalwart Michael Falzon. Today he is our consultant and a person with whom I have worked very well in the interest of the industry. And even though he is on the PN executive, we work excellently together.

“In fact, I have managed to carry out some good lobbying for the industry with both the PN in government, where I managed to get a number of favourable conditions for the industry before Budget 2013, and I have also secured good conditions from this present government.

“I’m not afraid to negotiate with any party in government and my personal political opinion does not minimise or maximise my negotiation skills. I am also proud that the Opposition leader very recently met with the MDA because he also wants to build a good relationship with the MDA.”

 

MDA joining the industry’s multiple forces

The MDA has also been actively seeking to join the multiple forces involved in development – from developers to contractors and from trades such as carpenters which recently joined the MDA to the likes the Federation of Estate Agencies and the Kamra tal-Periti (Chamber of Architects), which collaborate closely with the MDA.

“I believe the MDA is doing a fantastic job. The most positive thing is that all those involved in the industry now have a positive feeling that we are united. We are united irrespective of our different political opinions and we truly work together in the best interest of the country.

“Profits, yes, are important, and this is a very crucial time for the industry. Although the feel good factor is positive at the moment, entrepreneurs are unable to see reasonable profits at the moment because of multiple factors.

“A lot of damage has been done to the property market through a lack of good planning in the past and as such it is not that easy to rebuild that confidence among entrepreneurs and the banks. Banks, which for many years supported the property industry, are now extremely cautious.

“I think the government is, rightly so, moving in the right direction to kick-start the economy, especially in the property and construction sector.

“Let’s not forget that for eight years the property industry stagnated and we nearly went into a recession. It is only because entrepreneurs were intelligent and courageous and the banks were liquid that we did not slip into a recession.

“The Maltese business community went through a very hard time for a number of years without losing hope. Most of them kept their employees, lost profits and struggled with bank commitments but they stayed strong – and the Maltese should be praised for this. The Maltese people are good sailors in bad weather and it shows in the way that while most of Europe was hit hard by the recession, the effect on Mata was only slight.

“Now I believe the government is facing a great challenge to get the ball rolling because at the end of the day no big projects have been started. We have some projects that have had permits issued but for one reason or another they have not got off the ground – such as the Mistra Village or Metropolis projects, both of which can stimulate the economy. 

“Soon after the Labour Party was elected, it launched the land reclamation project expressions of interest and yet no project has yet been started. So when some people say that everything is going in favour of development, I actually think that a lot more effort is needed to stimulate the industry.

“The fact is that property in Malta is still a good investment. The market stopped its downward spiral but now what we need are better quality properties that match the market’s new expectations. But we unfortunately do not have enough high quality properties on the market because of the country’s previous bad planning and lack of foresight, so we lack good quality properties today.

“We are hoping that we can continue to work and negotiate with the government and the Opposition alike to achieve the right policies for developers and for the betterment of the country as whole.”

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