Managing Urban Environments: Legal obstacles in renovating 100-year-old disused utilities
Environment and Public Health Political Studies Association (UK)
The Urban Intergroup at the European Parliament has the agenda to create a suite of indicators for the sustainable management of the Urban Environment. In my articles, Urban vermin: an inconvenient truth (The Malta Independent, 17 January 2016; Animal welfare, people’s welfare and urban sustainability, The Malta Independent, 15 May 2016), I addressed two major urban environmental factors (pigeon filth and rats), that impact on health and need to be adequately controlled by using indicators. In this article I address household utilities.
At the national level, repairs to infrastructure have been supported by funds from the European Union. Three new wastewater treatment plants have been built in Malta with funds provided by the Commission. Funds have also been available for retrofitting water distribution infrastructure. Substantial funds have been given to Malta through the “Energy for Europe” programme to support the installation of the Interconnector. At the household level the citizen copes not only with the expense of repairs but also with the associated legal battle in order to gain access to one’s utilities infrastructure for the purpose of undertaking repairs.
In this article I discuss some stumbling blocks that a citizen potentially encounters when attempting to renovate dilapidated utilities. These stumbling blocks need to be addressed to improve sustainable management in urban environments. Dilapidated buildings are a common sight in Malta, particularly in Valletta. For anyone with an enterprising spirit bent on renovations, beware and be aware. Buildings older than 50 years were built at a time when there were few or no building regulations. The builder built as he thought fit for his purpose, leaving a mess to subsequent users. Renovating 100-year-old disused utilities is fraught with problems.
No quality standards for utilities
Renovating disused electricity, water and wastewater infrastructures is a major headache for many reasons. There is no standard that sets minimum conditions for the quality of utilities to be installed by the relevant agents. The quality of workmanship provided by the relevant authorities can strongly depend on the attitude of the particular workman sent to do the job and there are those who detest working with disused infrastructure as found in Valletta. Their attitude impacts the quality of their work and the efficiency of management of utilities.
Having access to one’s utilities infrastructure can be fraught with problems. A particularly bad case is when one’s utilities infrastructure is housed next door in a dilapidated yard of no tangible ownership. In such a scenario, expect any Tom, Dick and Harry to claim ownership of the dilapidated yard and to curtail your entry by changing the front door lock, thus denying you access. Now that is a real quandary because the law requires you, the victim, to prove that Tom, Dick and Harry do not own the said property. The learned judge does not ask Tom, Dick and Harry to provide evidence that they own the said dilapidated yard housing your wastewater infrastructure and the common electric cable, because that is the way the law (dating from Roman times), works. The defence lawyer can say anything without having to prove it with evidence. That the judge does not require of the pretender proof of ownership gives rise to a quandary when the real owner cannot be found, be it because he has abandoned the property or has died and cannot be traced. The law works in favour of the pretender and against the victim. Clearly, this antiquated law does not serve the purpose of law and order in the 21st Century. There is a need to change this law.
Dilapidated electrical infrastructure and malfunctioning sewerage are a threat to health and life. Indeed, in civilized countries, utilities that are a threat to life and health are regarded as emergency situations and must be repaired immediately. There is a need to incorporate this in the legal system. This not only means that citizens attend to repairs immediately, but any obstacles to access utilities are also quickly removed by the police rather than having to go to court which would require a year.
Dealing with it as a civil matter makes less work for the police, but that should not be the criterion in situations which involve matters of health and life. Moreover, civil cases potentially often go on for several years because the offender has the right not to appear three times which accounts for a year. In such a scenario, one has to put up with threatening situations for several years.
No respect for the victim
A citizen filing a report with the police should be treated with respect at the police station and not be refused or ridiculed. A citizen’s right to justice is interfered with when a citizen has to place a querela (at a financial cost) in order to get access to justice. A citizen receiving the court notice should not be harassed by the officer delivering the notice. When a citizen seeks justice in the courts, one’s human rights should be respected, if indeed Malta is still a democracy. Downgrading a Criminal case to a Civil case or merely reaching a person-toperson agreement is a travesty of justice, consequently providing preferential treatment to the aggressor.
Beware and be aware, when buying old dilapidated property you are entering treacherous terrain. Lies and laws that support the aggressor are a quagmire.