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‘I have never asked anyone for favours’

Photo: Mark Zammit Cordina

Photo: Mark Zammit Cordina

He courted controversy four years ago when he assaulted the then GRTU director general but Sandro Chetcuti tells Kurt Sansone that the experience has helped him grow.

Mr Chetcuti leaving court after the assault case.Mr Chetcuti leaving court after the assault case.

Sandro Chetcuti makes the sign of the cross as he sits down at the desk in a ground floor office below his lavish bungalow in Marsascala.

It is the first outward sign of religiosity from a man who mentions God a couple of times during an hour-long interview.

But as we are about to start, robot scale models of Mazinga Z and Goldrake catch my eye.

The models are an instant giveaway that Mr Chetcuti was raised in the 1980s when children watched Japanese cartoons on Italian television. The robots on display were popular cartoon characters with boys.

And next to the robots stands a miniature statue of Elvis Presley, Mr Chetcuti’s favourite singer.

Rags To Riches – a Presley song – may be a too dramatic characterisation of Mr Chetcuti’s life but he acknowledges having started young in business with a bank account that had no money in it. “I am a labourer’s son,” he says.

At 42, Mr Chetcuti is not only a successful and wealthy developer but was recently elected to head the Malta Developers’ Association, a powerful lobby group he helped set up.

The conversation kicks off with what is possibly the lowest part of his career when four years ago, in a fit of rage he assaulted Vince Farrugia, then director general of the Chamber of Small and Medium Enterprises, GRTU.

I don’t think people who know me have the impression that I am a bully

Last September, the court found Mr Chetcuti guilty of slightly injuring Mr Farrugia and sentenced him to a one-month jail term suspended for a year.

However, the court also ordered the police to investigate Mr Farrugia and other prosecution witnesses over perjury in a case that turned out to be an embarrassing affair for the police.

After originally accusing Mr Chetcuti of attempted murder, the police dropped the charge during proceedings. Mr Chetcuti is relieved the case ended the way it did and although he admits making the mistake of losing his cool, insists he is no bully.

“It was a trauma and I don’t wish it to happen to anyone but I don’t think people who know me have the impression that I am a bully. I found a lot of support after the incident when it became evident that the charges against me were trumped up.”

Mr Chetcuti says he had to fight against powerful institutions: the police, doctors and influential people who represent business who testified falsely against him.

It is evident the incident has left its mark. His calm disposition still displays hints of bitterness at the way he was treated by the institutions. But these feelings also mingle with regret.

“I made a mistake. Irrespective of how right you are or how stressed you are it is not justified to lose your temper. The trauma has taught me to resist falling for those who may have other agendas in life.”

Anybody can make mistakes but the mistakes of some are amplified by the media, he says in a telling comment that stops short of openly criticising the media’s handling of his case.

Mr Chetcuti helped form the MDA shortly after the Farrugia incident as he broke away from the GRTU. Headed by former Nationalist minister Michael Falzon, the association grew and last January Mr Chetcuti was appointed president after Mr Falzon stepped down.

Barely a month later Mr Chetcuti was in the news again over his close ties with the Labour Party and the potential conflict of interest this creates with his new role at MDA.

He shuns the suggestion that his closeness to Labour may be perceived as having the government in his pocket.

“It does not mean that if you are close to a party, the politician is in your pocket. Whatever I achieved was a result of hard work and with the help of God. I never asked for favours. Not everyone who has succeeded in business has received political favours.”

Mr Chetcuti says his contribution to the Labour Party is on a voluntary basis and has never been offered a post.

“I am not an official and was never a candidate. I do voluntary work but I would help anyone who asks me. My personal network traverses party politics and I possibly have more Nationalist friends than the current PN general secretary.”

He refutes comparisons with Mr Farrugia, who had contested the last MEP elections on the PN ticket while still retaining the post of GRTU director general.

Mr Chetcuti says Mr Farrugia could not occupy both roles at the same time and emphasises that if in the future he had to occupy a political role, he would have to give up his position in the MDA.

“My predecessor, Michael Falzon, was a former PN minister, always remained close to the party and is a life-long member but no one ever accused him of a conflict because at the MDA he worked apolitically for the best interest of the sector.”

The conversation moves on and Mr Chetcuti is particularly keen on addressing what he believes are the wrong perceptions people have of the construction industry.

He is irked by my use of the word ‘cowboys’ to describe operators in the sector. “People pay taxes to finance the planning authority and they expect it to ensure there are no cowboys... It is unfair to tar everyone with the same brush,” he says.

What about the abuses that have been going on for years at the Ħal Farruġ complex belonging to Polidano Brothers and which only last year the Malta Environment and Planning Authority decided to clamp down on?

Mr Chetcuti puts his arms in the air and admits he can only answer the question with another question.

“If Polidano did what he wanted, people should ask why. If that is the case, who allowed him to do as he pleased? Why is it that with a change in administration he did not continue doing what he wanted?”

He says the past decade was characterised by rampant abuse with small groups of people being given preferential treatment. At the same time proper planning nose-dived, he adds.

Village cores and towns where construction had reached its limit were re-opened for widespread development when height restrictions were lifted and permits issued for fourth floor apartments and penthouses, he argues.

The policy change that happened some eight years ago saw localities like Swieqi and Marsascala, which had a height restriction of three floors, suddenly witness a building boom as owners added fourth floor apartments and a penthouse on existing blocks.

Mr Chetcuti says this was “bad planning” because it marred streetscapes and did not cater for more open spaces in urban areas.

“Even Santa Luċija which was largely built in the 1970s was planned in a better way with open spaces breaking the rows of apartments and terraced houses,” he notes.

But much as he lambasts the policy change, the truth remains that developers hardly protested when height limitations were relaxed. On the contrary, they took advantage and added new floors.

Mr Chetcuti justifies their actions. “If you are in the job you cannot stop and when competition becomes unfair you have to fit in the box.”

However, he draws a distinction between “professional developers” who love their job and have a passion for good buildings and people who simply have cash and just want to make a quick buck.

Mr Chetcuti says the malaise of recent years was partly due to the various fund repatriation schemes the government introduced to attract undeclared Maltese money abroad, especially in the run up to the euro.

The economy was suddenly awash with cash and a lot of it found its way into the property market.

Mr Chetcuti believes the improved building quality witnessed after 1987 with the introduction of the planning authority was suddenly ditched.

“The money repatriation schemes were good but we abandoned environmental sensitivity and good planning policy,” he says.

And in another example of bad planning he points towards the rows of “old” apartmentblocks in the Qawra and Buġibba areas. He says the only solution to replace these small apartments is to pull them down and rebuild them nicely.

Mr Chetcuti smiles when I point out that his sweet talking resembles that of an environmentalist concerned about urban and natural degradation.

“The environment and development have to go hand-in-hand,” he says, adding it is only natural that a developer would want to have quality projects that can sell. He insists the country has to look after what is good, replace the old with the new and allow sites within building schemes to be developed with quality properties.

Mr Chetcuti insists he was against extending the development boundaries in 2006 and emphasises that the MDA does not want building zones to be extended further.

Yet, a new Mepa policy on outside development zones will allow limited development for agri-tourism purposes on sites that are currently pristine.

Green groups are fearful because they claim the policy will set a precedent for construction in ODZ areas despite the limitations and conditions imposed on developers.

Mr Chetcuti is unfazed by the argument.

“Fear does not let you focus and stops you in your tracks. The policy has been created to avoid abuse because in the past we had no policy on agri-tourism and people took advantage of the situation.”

He insists that no speculator in his right mind will buy 60 tumoli of land – the minimum amount of adjoining farmland an owner would need to be able to have tourism accommodation on site – to be allowed to build on only 400 square metres.

“It will not be viable for a speculator but for a farmer who wants to develop his business and invest to create an alternative source of revenue, the policy makes sense,” Mr Chetcuti says.

But his is a practical approach to development. He insists that a project has to be viable and so a balance has to be sought that does not stifle development.

“This is like a property negotiator who tries to ensure the deal is good for both seller and buyer.

“But at some point the deal has to close and this is where environmentalists sometimes falter,” he says. Mr Chetcuti says he is ready to hold regular meetings with environmental groups to find a common way forward so that politicians do not continue pitting them against each other.

He says the MDA will not support members who decide to propose projects that go against policies that make sense. But within the wider context does it make sense to continue building new apartments when so many properties are empty? Mr Chetcuti says there is no easy solution to cut down the number of empty dwellings because the reasons why they are abandoned are varied. He urges NGOs to come up with their own solutions and notes that the MDA has submitted a paper to the government with a solution on how to re-use empty properties in village cores.

He does not elaborate but insists the proposal is “doable” and not just a wish jotted down on paper.

Mr Chetcuti completely disagrees with a tax on vacant property, a request made by Alternattiva Demokratika to encourage property owners to look after their dwellings and put them on the rental market.

The only solution to replace these small apartments is to pull them down and rebuild them nicely

But Mr Chetcuti’s voice displays a sense of incredulity at the suggestion: “Taxing vacant property is not a solution. If you have a sick man, do you solve his problem by killing him?”

Mr Chetcuti says it is not an exaggeration when developers and politicians refer to the construction industry as an important economic sector and quotes official statistics putting the value of the sector at 10 per cent of GDP.

He worries at the constant reference to bad loans linked to the property sector in the Central Bank of Malta annual reports.

All business is tied to the property market, he says.

“Service companies need offices, people need homes to live in, industrialists need factories to operate from.

“If the property market crumbles we will have trouble in our financial institutions and this is why good planning is important and investment is done in projects that give a return.”

He says green groups should support such a strategy, especially one that focuses on improving the country’s infrastructure. It would be a mistake to stifle the industry, he cautions.

Mr Chetcuti argues that buildings get old and need to be upgraded or changed. “It is only nature that does not get old and this is why we have to look after it. It is a never ending story.”

ksansone@timesofmalta.com

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