GRTU members up in arms over new billboard law

Chamber of SMEs president Paul Abela confident that situation will be resolved through discussions, however

GRTU president Paul Abela said the chamberhad never been consulted prior to the enacting of the law
GRTU president Paul Abela said the chamberhad never been consulted prior to the enacting of the law

Sign manufacturers and importers have suffered a 90% drop in sales “overnight” as a result of the confusion caused by the haphazard implementation of regulations on billboards, according to the GRTU.

A recent legal notice amalgamating the existing billboards and advertisements regulations into one law has resulted in widespread confusion, according to the union.

Speaking to Malta Today before a briefing by the GRTU for its members and the press, CEO Abigail Psaila Mamo explained that MEPA had immediately started enforcing the new regulations with the billboard operators. “As soon as we noticed the Legal Notice (LN103 of 2016) was published, we went through it and we were shocked both at the content and the impact it would have, as well as because it was introduced without any form of consultation.”

“We were very taken aback at the introduction of the legal notice. Everyone knows who GRTU is, they knew who to consult,” Psaila Mamo continued. “Signs sellers saw an overnight 90% drop in sales when the LN was published on March 29th this year.”

The introduction of a steep fee had been reversed, but problems remain, said the CEO. “The government seems to think that because they removed the €1500 fee, all problems have been solved, but this is not the case.”

“We assessed that the impact would be massive and would affect every business. Yesterday, the Government issued a statement saying that shop signs are exempt from permits and licensing, but only unless they are smaller than 0.5sqm.” The difference after the update was “inexistent,” she added.

“The situation is that there are shop signs on one hand and billboards on the other, but there is uncertainty as to into which categories other types of advertisements fall. What will be exempted?”

Government departments were calling the GRTU to confirm whether the stories were true, as they had not been informed, she said.

“ The Government said that a clarification is needed, but we think that a bit more than that is required– the law needs to change. Just because the Transport Malta €1500 fee has been removed, this hasn't fixed things.”

The 0.5sqm size limitation had been introduced in 1993 and was subsequently superseded by other laws. “But a lot of the 1993 law was incorporated into the new legal notice, rendering it immediately outdated,” Psaila Mamo explained .

The law as it currently stands requires that any advert visible from the road needs to have the permit number integrated into the design of the sign. “We cannot understand how this is workable.”

The daily €50 fine for non-compliance is also unclear as, while it appears to have been capped, there was a separate possibility of a €1000-5000 fine, imposed at the discretion of the Planning Authority. The GRTU CEO described the fines as “terrifying.”

Addressing a gathering of GRTU members, the GRTU CEO said that the government could not avoid consulting with the union. “The way they carried it out and the way it was implemented, however, is not acceptable.”

She accused government of “downplaying the impact and trying to calm the panic” instead of admitting the GRTU was right. “But it is still there, in black on white.”

The new regulations apply to any advertisement visible from the road and includes shop signs.

In addition, previously, adverts in place for 28 days or less did not require a licence or a permit. This is not so under the new legal regime. The new exemption is only on licences, but the MEPA permit is still required. “The fact that every advert that you have on your shop needs a MEPA permit doesn't make sense. Why should I have to go to MEPA for every paper I stick on my shop window?” 

Also nonsensical was the requirement for a reference number which must be integrated into the design of every advert and must remain legible. “This doesn't make sense and is unacceptable to the GRTU. We are going to work for its removal.”

The union's pressure resulted in a meeting to discuss the issue with Parliamentary Secretary Deborah Schembri being scheduled for Wednesday. The GRTU was very happy to have achieved a positive result in such a short time, Psaila Mamo said. “We are proud to have achieved this result and so should you, as members.” 

Abela advocated further cooperation. “At the end of the day we need to thrash this out with the Parliamentary Secretary when we meet next, before a final decision is made”

Psaila Mamo's outlook was cautiously optimistic, saying she had been encouraged by the progress made by negotiations in such a short time.

The billboards issue has been here for years and is not something that will be resolved in a week, said Psaila Mamo.

GRTU President Paul Abela's thoughts were with the business owners. “The imposition of €1500 for every sign, imagine the impact this would have especially on small businesses.”

The union had never been consulted prior to the enacting of the law, said Abela. He pointed to a press release issued by the government yesterday evening, saying that the law would be repealed, but added that as of this afternoon, the Legal Notice was still in force.

“We are going to insist that the Legal Notice is clarified. There is still a big problem with the billboards regulations. It is still in force and every billboard now has a notice attached to them warning that they will be removed.”

Deborah Schembri's ministry falls under the PM's remit, said Abela. “I think the problem was the rush to remove the billboards and I think we could have had a better result. I appeal to the government to work as they used to in the past, through continuous dialogue.” 

He seemed confident that the situation would be resolved, however. “We always end up issuing a joint statement with the government. We always reached a solution. GRTU is like a lion, its quiet as long as its fed, but once you step on us we rouse ourselves.” He decried the alarm caused by the issue. People had cancelled orders for billboards because of the confusion, he said.

The introduction of the legal notice as “such a rush job, that the daily €50 fine was removed from the law, but is still referred to in a subsequent article,” said an incredulous Jean Karl Farrugia.

Union officer Matthew Agius highlighted the impact the issue has had on the signwriting sector. “We were seeing that this sector had stalled immediately. Orders stopped and payment halted due to the general alarm amongst shopowners. We gave them our assurance that we would be supporting the sector." 

He, too, is hopeful. "At the moment, all we have is a press release but it looks like that the pressure is working.”