Manag­ing Ur­ban En­vi­ron­ments: Le­gal ob­sta­cles in ren­o­vat­ing 100-year-old dis­used util­i­ties

Malta Independent - - NEWS - Dr. Joan Ribi

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.

An­ti­quated Law

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.

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