Regulating the construction industry

Construction in Malta has progressed by leaps and bounds since that time... and we have now found that our legal framework has not kept pace with this evolution

The evidence given in the public inquiry on the death of Jean Paul Sofia is indeed revealing. I will not comment on the inquiry itself before the relative report is published but I can safely say that serious lacunae in the monitoring and the regulation of the building industry have been revealed - and shocked many.

The evidence given in the inquiry regarding the allocation of public land for factories by INDIS Malta Ltd - a state owned entity that deals with applicants who ask the state for help in setting up some industrial venture - plus the evidence on the limits of the powers of the Building Construction Authority (BCA) has been an eye-opener for all.

The problem cannot be solved unless the needed legislation is proposed as one that comprehensively regulates all aspects of the industry. Unfortunately, we have been amending legislation over and over again, mostly as a knee-jerk reaction to some accident or failing. We need an all-inclusive and clear legislation if the various lacunae are to be eliminated. Introducing regulation by bits and pieces has proved to be a non-starter.

Meanwhile, the Ministry for Public Works and Planning headed by Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi has been working on one very important aspect of the issue - the licensing of contractors and a new regulatory regime for the construction sector in Malta.

The regime will lead to the eventual licensing of building contractors, and the enforcement of relevant provisions was set to begin on the first day of this month. I understand that some 1,745 contractors have registered for a building construction licence, while 1,233 contractors have registered for demolition works and 806 have registered as excavation contractors.

One should not make the mistake of adding these figures up to find the number of contractors in Malta and Gozo as there are contractors who have registered under more than one category. Moreover, I think that the number of rogue contractors is small - a minority that is wrongly perceived to be a majority.

At this point in time, nobody can undertake any work in the construction industry unless they have registered and the possibility of further registration is blocked until the final law is published. The draft law that will introduce a licensing system for building contractors is expected to be published in March 2024.

Although this process is intended to regulate the building industry, licensing building contractors can offer several benefits, including the instilling of more responsibility and the boosting in their credibility and trust. And, hopefully, to eliminate the few cowboys that are responsible for the bad name of all contractors.

Licensing building contractors is not enough, of course. The legislation that brought into being the Building Construction Authority (BCA) also needs a rethink, as we keep finding more construction cases that, in practice, are not regulated properly by the BCA.

The problem is that the legislator had in mind the protection of the neighbouring property abutting building sites - a reaction to justified complaints of many who found the house next door being given a permit for its demolition and redevelopment. Hence the law was intended to protect third parties rather than to control and monitor building sites. In fact, the BCA monitoring of stand-alone buildings is unclear - as has been amply shown by the conflicting evidence given in the Sofia public inquiry.

Many think that this is another ‘Maltese’ problem. It is not that simple!

We build differently - or so many Maltese used to think when building was practically all carried out by the use of load bearing walls in Maltese stone blocks carried on the shoulders of workers. Cranes and excavators and other machines did not exist.

Construction in Malta has progressed by leaps and bounds since that time... and we have now found that our legal framework has not kept pace with this evolution.

The eye of the beholder

Recently the MDA President Michael Stivala was publicly pilloried for replying to what was actually a ‘trick’ loaded question: Do you think that Malta is more beautiful now than it was in the past?

Stivala gave a straight answer to what was apparently a straight question, saying he thinks Malta is more beautiful today. He should have been clever enough to give a vague reply that could mean anything - because the question assumes an absolute representation about an issue that is more emotional than factual. In fact, public perception and nostalgia for the past - all based on emotion rather than on some measurable value - play the most important part in this issue.

I can think of various areas - like Valletta and Birgu - that are today more beautiful than they were twenty years ago. Conversely, there are areas that have been uglified because of overdevelopment.

The idea that because of greed, developers do not give a toss whether their projects will enhance or destroy the area where they are built, is also a generalisation based on perception. Many developers, in fact, realise that enhancing the area where their projects are built increases the value of their assets. The so-called ‘greed’ does not militate in favour of the uglification of Malta.

It is rare to find just one building that makes an area ugly, but it is also true that lack of long term vision that is inherent in the Planning Authority’s policies - like the increase in allowable height practically across the board - leads to making places ugly, or uglier than they were, as the case may be.

Worth preserving

In last Tuesday’s Times of Malta there was a feature written by Perit Ruben Paul Borg about the folded concrete structure that was once the canopy of the area where liquid gas cylinders were filled by what was then Enemalta’s gas dvision.

The folded plate concrete structure in Qajjenza was designed by the late structural engineer, Godfrey Azzopardi.

I agree with perit Borg that this concrete structure is unique and should therefore not be demolished. In fact, there is a pending PA application for the redevelopment of the area with residential units.

This structure is part of our industrial heritage and is unique in Malta, more so as it was built in the 1970s. At that time, it was nothing but avant-garde.

Sometimes many NGOs exaggerate in their quest to preserve old buildings of practically no historical or architectural value. Meanwhile, they have completely ignored the proposed demolition of this structure.