Time to reassess our priorities

But what does growth mean for those who die, or lose their loved ones? Clearly, we must reassess our national priorities… otherwise we would have failed the victims of these, and future tragedies

The death of a woman, buried under the rubble of her own house, has once again robbed the country of its collective sense of security. Not only has a life been tragically cut short, but thousands of people living next to construction sites are now living in anxiety.

Some have argued that this should be a moment of reflection and unity; respectfully, this newspaper disagrees. In fact, it should be a moment of civil awakening from our collective slumber.

People have already lost far too much to rampant overdevelopment: including landmarks, open spaces and tranquillity. It is intolerable that we should also lose the most basic of rights; that of feeling safe in our own homes.

That is why MaltaToday wholeheartedly supports next Saturday’s non-partisan protest organized by Moviment Graffitti, which is the only movement with the credentials to unite people of different political persuasions behind one legitimate demand: peace of mind in our homes.

But this latest tragedy also underscores that tinkering with policies and regulation, while leaving things as they are, is itself a recipe for disaster. Malta had to experience six construction tragedies before building regulations even came into force. But the latest fatality occurred with the new regulations in place, and after a much-vaunted moratorium.

It is now clear that all this was nothing but a show, to give the impression that former PM Joseph Muscat was flexing his muscles against his erstwhile allies in the construction sector. For despite all the good intentions, ultimately the new regulations were also drafted by an architect known for his pro-development bias and proximity to the construction industry.

In this case, the planning permit had been issued with a clearance from the Building Regulation Office, following the required method statements: submitted by an architect who turns out to be a shareholder in the same company behind the development.

Although responsibilities still have to be established, the case already raises questions about the effectiveness of the BRO, and the close proximity of architects and developers to the decision-making process.

If anything, it should be the BRO itself – once fully equipped with all the necessary resources – which should establish whether excavations are safe or not, following reports and inspections by professionals not connected to developers. The developer should bear the costs, but the professionals supervising the works should be accountable to the State.

It is also vital that the geology of our towns and neighbourhoods, and the foundations of neighbouring houses, is properly assessed before excavations are permitted.

But planning policies must also be holistically reformed. We cannot subject neighbourhoods to multiple constructions projects, which – even if done correctly – exert intolerable pressures on daily life.

As things stand, people still feel that they are at the mercy of developers. Moreover, it is grossly unfair that people with limited resources are often forced to hire their own architect to safeguard their third- party rights. This goes against the spirit of social justice. People should have their mind at rest, that the state is safeguarding their safety.

And yet, instead of shouldering political responsibility and submitting his resignation, Infrastructure Minister Ian Borg has taken to social media to grumble against those who ‘use the tragedy to score a point or even to win votes’. Such a reaction makes Borg’s position not just untenable, but disrespectful and indecorous.

The MDA has reacted by suspending the developer, who turned out to be himself one of its council members. But this is not enough.

While we have always welcomed the role of the MDA as an interlocuter, we disagree with the impression given by the MDA that the fault lies solely with ‘cowboy developers’. It is the entire system which is rotten to the core.

Now it is clearly a time for reckoning. We have already normalised an equally deplorable situation concerning incidents involving workers on construction sites. If we do not rise up to be counted, we will be normalising even such tragedies – where houses literally collapse onto their occupants - as the ‘collateral damage of economic growth’.

But what does growth mean for those who die, or lose their loved ones? Clearly, we must reassess our national priorities… otherwise we would have failed the victims of these, and future tragedies.