The Ministry of Justice has taken more than 170 people into custody, mostly contractors, in connection to the building collapses. However, many are now focusing on existing building regulations and pointing the finger at them. A 2018 “amnesty” law that legalized hundreds of thousands of structures in the country without planning permission or disregarding building codes, including earthquake safety precautions, is particularly noteworthy.
The amnesty law allows the owner of an unlicensed construction to pay a small fee and have it legally licensed without the need for any inspection. Critics claim that the new regulation allowed builders and contractors to ignore building codes, while the government collected fines and fees.
Murat Kurum, minister of environment, urbanization, and climate change, stated to parliamentarians that the government had collected 23 billion Turkish Lira (roughly $4 billion) following the 2018 legislation’s implementation.
In a 2021 statement, the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects stated that “the amnesty was murder.” The organization stated that it is safe to assume that all buildings under the amnesty were not subject to engineering services and should be inspected.
The role of professional chambers in Turkey is important. They represent the interests of 650,000 civil engineers, architects, and urban planners. According to the Constitution, the bodies “function as public institutions” to “protect professional discipline, ethics, and protect the environment.”
A parliamentary report also found that 8 million of the buildings built in 2021 were extremely vulnerable to earthquakes.
Erdogan, who has a reputation for being pro-business, voted in favor of the amnesty legislation.
Hatay was one of the hardest hit cities in the earthquakes. He spoke at an election rally in 2019.
Kurum claims that more than 7,000,000 buildings were made legal by the amnesty.
Turkey’s Ministry of Environment, Urbanization and Climate Change and Erdogan’s office didn’t respond to inquiries about this story. Erdogan stated that it was impossible to prepare for a catastrophe this large in Hatay on February 8.
Boom in construction
Both the central government of Turkey and local municipalities play an important role in shaping cities. It holds the most seats in Parliament, and can pass important legislation like the amnesty. This is why the ruling AK Party has been so heavily criticised. It also controls the public-housing authority, which is responsible for urban development projects.
The role of local municipalities, whether they are run by the ruling party or the opposition, is also significant. They are responsible for creating zoning maps that define building rights. This includes determining which areas are available for construction, imposing floor area limits and height limits, and deciding where to build. Municipalities are also responsible for inspecting and issuing permits to construction projects within their boundaries.
Experts say that laws like the 2018 amnesty have fueled the building boom and given developers across the country hope that government support would be available.
“Turkey’s growth in economics since the 2000s has been heavily dependent on construction,” stated Bengi Akbulut (associate professor of geography planning and environment at Concordia University, Montreal).
“This can be seen in the growth rate for the construction sector between 2002 and 2014, which has exceeded and sometimes even doubled the rate of GDP growth,” said Akbulut who has written extensively about Turkey’s economy, government, and politics.
The AK Party has made massive development projects, large highways, bridges, and airports a major focus of its campaigning, which was covered by pro-government media and promoted during rallies.
After the 2012 introduction of a controversial law that addressed areas at high risk of natural disasters, construction peaked. The government had promised to use the legislation for rebuilding unsafe buildings. However, the new regulations gave the government greater powers to declare entire neighborhoods “at risk” or forcefully seize property by eminent domain.
One of the most popular pledges made by AK Party over the years has been to renew unsafe and old buildings. However, critics such as Gencay Serter from the Chamber of Urban Planners claim that authorities didn’t prioritize new construction, despite the increased powers granted by the 2012 law.
Turkey’s construction industry has been plagued by allegations of corruption and poor building safety.
Howard Eissenstat, associate professor of Middle East History at St. Lawrence University, New York, says that building regulations enforced at the local level are often not followed due to “cozy relationships” between construction firms, government, and other individuals.
A building inspection system, which was established in 2011 and remains in effect until 2019, contributed to the lack of supervision. According to the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects, it is still in force until 2019. This system allowed contractors to choose any inspection company and to pay the inspectors.
“This led to some illegality within the system,” stated Mustafa Erdik (a professor at Istanbul’s Bogazici University’s department of earthquake engineering).
In 2019, the law was updated so that the Ministry of Environment, Urbanization and Climate Change started assigning inspectors and contractors to the law. The ministry announced the revision and stated that the main goal was to eliminate inspection shortfalls caused by illegal commercial ties between inspection companies and building contractors. This was something all actors agreed was the greatest problem in the system.
Also, zoning changes made centrally or locally by government officials were a problem.
Serter stated that areas that were unsafe for construction such as riverbeds and other instabilities were subject to zoning changes, which opened them up for construction.
The Chamber of Architects has sued the government numerous times over the years to stop construction projects from being unsafe. Some of these cases were won, but they delayed projects and angered Erdogan.
Erdogan stated in 2016 that “these chambers, their names were architects, engineers.” “But their goal was to demolish, and not to build.”
Since April, two outspoken critics against the government’s building policies, Mucella Yapici, an architect, and Tayfun Kahraman a urban planner, were jailed over their participation in the Gezi Park protests. These were sparked in part by the government’s plan to build shopping malls in the park.
Yapici is a vocal advocate for earthquake proof standards and asked her lawyers to send her a tweet on Saturday.
Yapici wrote, “After the search is over, prosecutors must come to every wreck.” “Concrete/iron etc. As evidence, samples from wreckage must be taken!