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INTERVIEW | Sunday, 27 January 2008

An architect without a job

Martin Debono is a Labour folk-hero turned environmental crusader against MEPA. But has his opposition to big contractors really destroyed his professional career, or is the MLP candidate playing a sympathy card before the election?

Like doctors and lawyers, architects predominate the Maltese political class. But with planning issues becoming politically explosive, architects meddling in politics have to make hard choices in their professional life. MLP candidate and councillor Martin Debono claims that his choices have rendered him jobless.
Asked whether he is committing a professional suicide by constantly accusing MEPA officials of discrimination, he candidly replies: “I feel I have an obligation to inform potential clients that it is easier to get a permit approved if they hire another architect. Once I used to earn a lot of money, but now my career is basically destroyed.”
Is this a case of persecution mania? An attempt to win sympathy? Or is Martin Debono really suffering for being an impertinent thorn on the side of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority, as well as the government and big developers? Debono insists he is a victim.
Martin Debono became a Labour folk-hero in the mid 1990s after taking Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami to court, alleging political discrimination when he was not given a warrant to practise as an architect after practising in Australia.
Now he claims that he is barely earning a minimum wage from his professional work, because MEPA is putting spokes in the wheels of his applications.
Debono contends that his primary motivation to join the political fray when he returned from countries like the United States and Australia, was to bring about the culture of meritocracy he encountered overseas.
“I was always interested in politics. It was always my dream to effect change in the country and politics is the only way to bring about change. After living in America, I could not tolerate the injustices in Malta. It was like being caged after flying like a bird.”
America remains a source of inspiration for Debono, who repeats Barack Obama’s invitation for people to choose hope over fear.
“They try to invent spins against anyone criticising MEPA. But we should have the audacity of hope. Globally a new generation wants to take back their country from the big corporations. People no longer believe the spin doctors.”
He denies joining the Labour Party simply because of his bitter experience when he was not allowed to practise as an architect.
“I always sympathised with the less fortunate and this made me closer to the MLP… But I did not associate myself with Mintoff’s policies.”
Instead, he immediately warmed to MLP leader Alfred Sant. He recalls his first meeting with Sant who immediately told him he could not defend him over the warrant issue because the Maltese law stated that a Maltese degree was required to exercise my profession in Malta.
“But when it became clear that others in the same situation as me were given a warrant to practice, he took up my case.”
Debono was only given a warrant by the university of Malta in 1996, after Labour was elected to power,
Speaking on TV programme Realta’ last Monday, Debono denounced that a particular permit which he referred to as the “tad-Dolm” permit was first refused by the DCC board, chaired by Catherine Galea, but only a week later the same application, this time presented by another architect, was approved a week later.
The application dates back to 2003, when Debono applied on behalf of Tumas Group for the development of penthouses on the New Dolmen Hotel. MEPA contends that Martin Debono’s application was actually never refused, but only deferred by a week.
MEPA’s version of events is that on October 20, the DCC board had deferred the case because the development breached height limitations. They claim that three days later Debono submitted new plans which were deemed acceptable by the Planning Directory. According to MEPA the permit based on Debono’s plans was approved on October 28.
“This is a blatant lie… a spin. The case was not deferred but refused. Present for the meeting was another architect, the objectors and developer Ray Fenech. Those against the project rejoiced and the owner was very angry. Catherine Galea told us that the project breached the draft local plan and could not be accepted. She told us to apply again. They (the board) all raised their hands against the project.”
Debono recalls that two days after the project was refused, the developer called him.
“He told me not to ask any questions because he had to change the architect. I asked him, have I done anything wrong? He told me that if I asked too many questions he would not employ me again.”
Debono contends that he is being discriminated against by MEPA by having his applications systematically refused.
Yet MEPA presented statistics showing that out of 30 applications presented by Debono 17 were accepted, six refused, two are still pending, one was withdrawn by the applicant and two were dismissed because of lack of information and another 2 were dismissed because the applicant failed to pay a bank guarantee.
How can he claim discrimination when most of his projects were approved?
“I have only presented 30 applications in the past 11 years. Look at how many applications are presented by architects like Robert Musumeci.”
Debono seems to overlook the large amount of applications presented by prominent architects sitting on the opposition benches. Judging by the number of applications presented, MPs like Charles Buhagiar do not seem to suffer because of their political affiliations.
But Debono points out that his activism has made him an outcast in MEPA.
“Businessmen tell me, we wish to work with you but it’s not wise.”
He recalls that once as he was at the front desk of MEPA a colleague who was standing two metres away from him phoned him on his mobile.
“I thought it was a joke. He told me that he was phoning because he did not want to be seen talking to me…”
Martin Debono has often alleged that corruption in MEPA is rampant. Is he ready to give evidence to substantiate his allegations?
“Corruption is defined as giving advantage to someone over another. You can see architects who present a large number of applications because they have a reputation for getting permits…”
But has Debono reported any case of corruption to the police or the authorities?
“I had a meeting with MEPA chairman Andrew Calleja. I told him about several cases. He asked the same architect who had clashed with me over the Chalet application to investigate these matters. The Director did not even want to talk to me.”
Martin Debono was called by the Permanent Commission against Corruption to give evidence.
“I was asked to appear in front of the Commission but they only asked me to reveal who had leaked internal documents which showed that MEPA officials had instructed case officers to approve the Chalet project.”
Martin Debono was asked to testify after referring to an article written by Julian Manduca in MaltaToday during a radio programme.
Back in 2004, MaltaToday had revealed the contents of an internal email sent in November 2004 from a MEPA director giving instructions to the Environment Protection Directorate’s to present a report to the MEPA board, explaining “why the (Ghar id-Dud) caves should not be protected.”
In another email, another official urged his colleagues to “get moving and prepare a recommendation in favour of the project.”
“Instead of investigating the MEPA officials involved, the commission started investigating to see who had leaked this information.”
Still, Debono acknowledges that there are many professionals and valid people in MEPA. “The problem are those people who have a political agenda who do not let these valid people work. MEPA’s job is not that of acting like the minister’s mouthpiece. It should act like a watchdog over the minister himself”
But is not Alfred Sant himself promising to ride roughshod over MEPA by promising a yacht marina and a golf course in Gozo?
“Yes… but where will the golf course be developed? We will consult everybody including the NGOs who oppose golf courses. They can help us find an adequate site.”
Despite flaunting his green credentials, Debono is a strong advocate of land reclamation, where he envisages the golf course to be developed. Would this not have a negative impact on the marine environment?
“Land reclamation must be contained in a particular area surrounded by sea walls,” he says.
He contrasts the impact of controlled reclamation with the way construction waste is being dumped at sea in barges connected to mega projects like Midi or Portomaso, which, leave trail of rubbish before reaching their destination.
“We also have fish farms which are causing great harm to the environment. Fish farms should be re-locate further offshore. “
Land reclamation offers a number of advantages according to Debono.
“Through good and proper reclamation there will be no need to build in valleys or the countryside. What is important is that such projects will not be given over to ruthless people.”
One of the major problems in MEPA is that practising architects are allowed to serve as MEPA board members: a situation which gives rise to a real or apparent conflict of interest. Catherine Galea’s recent resignation was also tied to a conflict between her private practice and her role as Deputy Chairman. Will an MLP government allow practising architects to sit on the board?
Debono recognises that “whoever sits on the board has a great advantage over other architects.” But he does not exclude having practising architects on boards appointed by an MLP government.
“It all revolves around the integrity of the persons on the board. One cannot have idiots who do not even know the policies sitting on the board taking decisions.”
But how can one measure integrity?
“I believe that people of integrity will limit themselves to the existing policies. What we need is more transparency. Our problem now is that projects which blatantly breach policies.”
He cites Fort Cambridge as an example of a project which defied policies.
“The suspicion of lack of integrity arises when someone is given a permit for 23 storeys when the development brief mentioned 16 storeys. Those bidding for the project had 16 storeys and not 23 storeys in mind. If they knew that 23 storeys would be approved they would have made a higher bid.”
As a practicing architect does Debono consider himself eligible for a post on the MEPA board?
“Well, currently I don’t have much of a conflict… first I would have to rebuild my professional career… At the moment I do not even earn a minimum wage. ”
Debono does not mince his words when it comes to criticizing big developers. He claims that the new traffic plans which divert traffic from Bisazza street to Tigne’ through an underground tunnel simply serve MIDI’s commercial interests.
He also contends that, instead of MEPA assessing the cumulative effects of projects like Midi, Fort Cambridge and Town Square separately, a study should be made on the effects of all these projects together.
“There should be a holistic approach to town planning. The ADT is saying that there will be an extra 1,500 cars per peak hour. What about people suffering from cancer because of the fumes?”
But the new road system will also free Bisazza street from traffic, thus making Sliema commercial core similar to shopping area in most European cities. Why oppose pedestrianisation?
Debono makes it clear that he favours pedestrianisation in principle.
“I was the person who introduced pedestrian zones in Bugibba. At first people were up in arms. After the area was pedestrianised the commercial community invited me for a party and presented me with a silver trophy.”
But he contends that Bisazza street is a different story.
“In this case traffic is being diverted to the Tigne’ project. If pedestrianisation is being done to facilitate access to Midi, it is not acceptable.”
He asks: “If you are going to buy a pair of shoes from a shop, where would you prefer to park? In the Midi car park where you are taken by a lift to the new commercial complex? Or risk a warden’s fine as you struggle to find a parking space at the Ferries? I have no problem with Midi making a successful and beautiful project. What irks me is the attempt to destroy one commercial area to develop another one.”
But didn’t Martin Debono himself present plans which included the pedestrianisation of Bisazza Street when he drafted the traffic plans endorsed by the Sliema local council?
“When the Transport Authority’s plan arrived at the council I criticised the plans. I told the rest of the council that I could present a better plan. They laughed and dared me to present a better plan. I accepted the challenge. The only condition they made was to keep Bisazza street pedestrianised. Since I was drafting the plan for the council I had to respect the wishes of the council. When I presented the plan the following week the council endorsed it.”
Debono is also irked by the proposed yacht marina in Tigne’ which was included in the government’s vision for Marsamxett.
“In the plan I prepared for the local council I had proposed a yacht marina at the Ferries as part of a land reclamation project. Now they have taken my idea but they have put the yacht marina next to Midi.”
Does Martin Debono vociferous voice on Bertu Mizzi’s Midi project contrast with the silence of the Malta Labour Party on this issue?
“I am part of the MLP. Therefore the MLP is criticising Midi.”
He also points out that the Labour Party has endorsed his alternative traffic plans which safeguard parking spaces on the Ferries.
Martin Debono will once again be contesting the 10th district alongside heavyweights like deputy leader Michael Falzon and Evarist Bartolo. Debono is more optimistic because with the addition of Gzira to the district the MLP could elect two deputies instead of one. He also flaunts his credentials of his stand against overdevelopment.
“I am one of the few candidates who speaks against Midi. I speak about developers which could be my own potential clients. I even spoke against Tumas Group even if they used to provide me with 80% of my work.
But Debono sees as a silver lining in his fall from professional grace.
“Nowadays I prefer not to be involved in projects which increase illness among children. I don’t want people to get sick because of my project.”
According to Debono the major problem is that Malta is “run by five developers” but will the advent of a Labour government make any difference, won’t a new class of Labour leaning contractors take over?
Debono candidly admits that unfortunately, “there are powerful businessmen who have friends in both parties.”
But Debono insists that he always found the support of the Opposition Leader in his campaigns against overdevelopment in Sliema. He also promises that if elected he will remain true to his principles.
“There will be people like me who defend the people. When I was elected to the Sliema counci I had personally confronted Charles Polidano when some of the roads started cracking. When I met him he told me that the sub contractor was a Labourite. I told him that I was not interested in his internal operations. From then on he started doing the work properly.”
But will he remain a voice for residents and the environment if Labour is elected?
“You answered the question yourself when you asked if I feel alone speaking on certain issues like Midi.”



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