And the construction machine keeps bulldozing on…

OK, so perhaps it was a little naïve of me to expect developers to actually impose some kind of moratorium on themselves – a ‘day of silence’, perhaps, out of respect for the victim of yesterday’s tragedy, and in recognition of the deep national revulsion it has provoked…

Something tells me this is not going to be an easy article to write: among other things, because…

OK, let me put you in the picture: I am writing this at home at around 2pm on Tuesday… and right now, all I can hear in the background is the rhythmic pounding of jack-hammers, and the steady hum of pneumatic drills, from at least three (if not four) building sites within a radius of a few hundred metres.

Admittedly, none of those sites is directly next-door to my own; and in any case, all of them are now well beyond the demolition/excavation phase. Which also means that… hey, I guess my neighbourhood must be one of the lucky ones! Unlike other less fortunate households, in other less fortunate parts of the country… we have withstood the recent threat of nearby excavation works, without being buried under the rubble of our own homes. Hooray!

But that’s just me trying to look on the bright side of things. In reality… no, I don’t feel much comforted by my ‘lucky escape’. There is, after all, nothing stopping a new building permit from being issued tomorrow; and, much more importantly, there is also nothing (or at least, nowhere near enough) to guarantee that the resulting development will not once again pose a direct threat to life, limb and property in the immediate vicinity.

So even if I don’t really feel in imminent danger, myself, right now… well, I’d be lying if I said I felt completely ‘safe’. For that permanent background noise of drills and hammers, also serves as an consistent reminder: not just of the physical threat of ghastly accidents like the one that took place yesterday… but also of the fact that – in spite of everything that’s happened in recent years – construction remains very much the unstoppable, all-powerful force we have allowed to become in this country: and nothing – not even the death of a random, innocent 54-year-old woman – will ever get it to even briefly grind to a halt.

OK, so perhaps it was a little naïve of me to expect developers to actually impose some kind of moratorium on themselves – a ‘day of silence’, perhaps, out of respect for the victim of yesterday’s tragedy, and in recognition of the deep national revulsion it has provoked…

But no. Those hammers and drills just never stop, do they? On and on they go… meticulously keeping time to the same old background music: incessantly reminding us all that there’s one thing - and one thing only – that invariably takes priority over all other considerations in Malta…

… and no, it’s not that people ‘have the right to live in safety in their own homes’.

And this, I think, is also part of what accounts for the outpour of (entirely legitimate) anger and outrage after yesterday’s umpteenth tragedy. To put it simply: people are perfectly justified in feeling ‘unsafe’... also because they rightly suspect that the authorities are (to put it bluntly) prioritising the economic input of the construction sector, over their own life and limb.

For this, they have the evidence of their own eyes and ears: not just because they have already witnessed a number of other buildings partially or totally collapse in recent years… but also because of the sheer futility of all past reactions to such incidents: including a 2016 review of the construction industry and its practices, which was intended to address this very issue.

So when a house suddenly collapses in Santa Venera, killing whoever was inside it at the time… well, it can no longer be viewed as a ‘fluke occurrence’, as might have been the case in years gone by; and, much more worryingly, we can’t even realistically describe it as a ‘surprise’.

It conforms to a recognisable pattern we have all seen unfolding, over and over again: a pattern which suggests that the potential value of any new commercial venture – in this case, an apartment block with underground garage - can (and often does) take precedence over literally everything else under the sun.

To give but one example out of several: did you know that neither of the families left homeless by the last two construction accidents – in Mellieha or Guardamangia – has so far been compensated, all this time later? Well, I didn’t, and… to me, I must say it came as a slight surprise.

As with the ‘day of silence’, I also naively expected that the developers concerned – If not the Malta Developers Association as a whole – would (even if only for PR  purposes) take it upon themselves to compensate those people out of their own free will… seeing as how their loss had been inflicted, one way or another, through the actions of their own industry.

Apart from being the decent thing to do, it would also work wonders for the construction lobby’s otherwise less-than-pristine public reputation at the moment (and besides: it would only cost them two measly little apartments, out of the dozens or so they build each year…)

But no. As with the drills and jackhammers, the entire machinery just keeps chugging merrily on, unfazed and undeterred: so if those unfortunate victims want ‘compensation’… well, they have to fight for it tooth and nail, every inch of the way.

This latest tragedy, however, does at least test the very utmost limits of this apparent disregard for the value of human life. It remains to be seen how the country collectively responds to this latest construction-related disaster; but will our response be substantially any different from the last few times… now that there is also a fatality involved in the equation?

Right: at this point, a few provisos may be necessary. First off, it is too early to establish whether this latest collapse was caused specifically because the developers did not abide by the new building regulations launched in 2016; or, conversely, whether those conditions were simply insufficient to prevent it from happening anyway. For these and other conclusions, we shall have to wait for the outcome of whatever inquiries are ongoing.

But we can still look back at the changes that were actually made in 2016 (and amended in 2019), and try and figure out where and how they might apply to this particular case.

For instance: when presenting the new building regulations last year,  Robert Musumeci placed a lot of emphasis on the fact that the ‘method statement’  had been updated; and that the ‘site manager’ now had to be an ‘architect or perit’ (where before, it could have been any old Tom, Dick or Harry, etc).

In the case of yesterday’s collapse, however, we now know that the architect who certified the Santa Venera construction as ‘safe’, also happened out to be a minor shareholder in the company behind the development project.

To be fair, this may or may not have any direct bearing on the subsequent collapse itself – I, for one, would like to think he genuinely felt the development would pose no real danger to others, before giving it his official seal of approval.

But then again: how seriously can we take these new regulations… when they evidently failed to take note of such a clear conflict of interest, at any point in the permit application proceedings?

Meanwhile, he’s an architect, not a geologist: so he may not have been able to identify something like, say, the existence of a geological fault in the underlying rock…

Ah, but that’s where the geological studies are supposed to come in; and… what do you know? While the original 2016 amendments did indeed include a mandatory geological survey of the site, as part of the preconditions for a permit adjacent to existing development… this particular clause was removed at some point last year: to be replaced with “studies”, described by geologist Dr Peter Gatt as “being there more to aid the developers with designing the building and the foundations, rather than to understand the geology of the area to protect third-party rights.”

Again, it is impossible to say whether any of this is directly relevant to the case at hand. All the same, however: given that those 2016 amendments had been drawn up as a result of several successive accidents, all involving buildings similarly collapsing due to adjacent excavation/demolition work… what sense could it possibly make to remove, or in any way dilute, a mechanism aimed at ensuring the geological ‘safety’ of any construction project?

From the point of view of preventing possible fatalities due to construction tragedies… it clearly makes no sense at all. But from the perspective of reducing the running costs of any given development project – after all, geologists’ reports cost a lot of money, or so I’m told - well, that’s a different picture entirely…

And again, this is why I think this latest, hideous catastrophe may finally mark a long-overdue tipping point, when it comes to prioritising economic considerations over public safety.

For if our response to Miriam Pace’s grisly death is to (yet again) carry on like we’ve always done before… i.e., ignoring or devaluing all expert advice, and watering down any attempts at ‘regulation’ and enforcement’, so as to ensure that the Maltese Construction & Development machines just keeps relentlessly grinding on, no matter what happens…

… well, I don’t know. Maybe we do deserve to be living in fear in our own homes, after all…

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