The Chair of the newly-established Building and Construction Agency (BCA) appointed by Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia is an architect for developer Joseph Portelli, casting doubt on the seriousness of the government’s intentions to address irregularities in the sector.
Touted as the government’s bold initiative to introduce reforms, particularly following the tragedy of Miriam Pace who lost her life due to construction work adjacent to her home, the BCA is meant to ensure the industry falls in line.
On paper, the legislation introducing this agency empowers it to intervene whenever any building illegalities are reported, to make regular inspections and impose hefty fines where necessary.
The architect appointed Chair is Maria Schembri Grima who, despite limited experience, is fronting a number of planning applications for massive development projects by Joseph Portelli and his associates.
While already involved in the development project by Portelli to replace the Forum Hotel in St Andrew’s, Schembri Grima is also listed as the architect on Portelli’s application to turn the former Dolphin supermarket in Balzan into 90 apartments.
Schembri Grima has also been entrusted by Portelli and his associates with the Mayfair Residences project that will encompass some 46 flats overlooking one of Malta’s finest baroque villas – the 18th century Villa Bologna in Attard.
“With all due respect to the young architect, no one in our industry believes that she has what it takes to exert the necessary pressure to control the cowboys in our industry. She can’t really do it as she is being fed by one of them,” a veteran developer told The Shift.
Asked to confirm whether she works for Portelli and his partners and to comment on whether she sees a conflict in her role, Schembri Grima downplayed the issue.
First, she denied working for Portelli, insisting only that she was self-employed (like most local architects). When pressed on whether the Gozitan construction magnate was one of her main clients, she said: “I have lots of clients”.
According to Schembri Grima, since her role as Chair of the BCA is “non-executive” she does not feel that she has any problem leading the construction regulator while having one of the country’s most prolific developers as her client.
Asked to state what she will be doing to rein in her client, who is currently operating a massive illegal concrete batching plant on public land in Gozo, Schembri Grima said that was the Planning Authority’s duty.
“Illegalities related to planning, if any, are not the competence of the BCA,” she insisted, even if developments were using concrete produced illegally.
Industry sources told The Shift that it would have been much wiser for the government to appoint someone with more experience and with no strings attached, like a retired professional, as Chair of the BCA if it was to be taken seriously.
Apart from Schembri Grima, the agency’s board includes several other major developers and government apparatchiks, including Minister Jose’ Herrera’s nephew, Alex Scerri Herrera, casting serious doubts on whether the agency could really work to achieve the stated aim.