Quality of life should not be the price of success

Having a booming economy is something Malta can be justifiably proud of; but it should not come at the expense of the residents’ quality of life.

That the construction industry causes inconvenience to neighbourhoods is a self-evident fact. That the same industry is vital to Malta’s economic growth is likewise undeniable.

Yet for several years now it seems to have escaped our collective capabilities to enforce some form of discipline on the industry, to at least lessen – if ‘eliminating’ is not practicably possibly – the inconvenience.

In the beginning of June, parliamentary secretary for planning, Chris Agius, announced that all construction sites around Malta were to be inspected over a period of six weeks, in order to clamp down on developers in breach of regulations. Immediately, inspectors from the PA joined the enforcement team of the Building Regulation Office to start carrying out joint inspections in Sliema, St Julian’s and Gzira.

From the outset, the initiative was met with scepticism: Mario Fava, president of the Association of Local Councils, openly doubted whether the human resources available to the BRO were sufficient for any enforcement efforts to curb abuse, irregularities and negligence in the construction industry.

“The idea has a lot of merit because there are definitely numerous infringements, but there is a lack of human resources and this will affect the level of enforcement that can be deployed,” he said; adding that the vast majority of residents’ complaints are related to four main concerns – road closures, dust, noise and basic negligence.”

It is also clear that the main problem arises from lack of enforcement, not insufficient regulation. Rules have been developed over many years, intended to minimise the disruption to neighbourhoods caused by construction; Schedule 1, Regulation 7 of the Environmental Management Construction Site Regulations of 2007 – ‘Reducing Nuisance to Neighbours’– includes a number of conditions any developer or owner must observe.

Fava, however, doubts the announced clamp-down will meet its objectives. “If the inspections were to regularise all shortcomings related to these concerns, most residents would already be satisfied, but I do not think we will be in any position to effectively enforce the sanctions imposed.”

An exercise carried out last week by this newspaper appears to confirm such doubts. The law stipulates clearly that any construction work which takes place between 2pm and 4pm must not exceed a noise level of 65dB. However, from tests we carried out on six out of Gzira’s several under-construction areas, it emerged quite clearly that the restrictions on noise-levels in the “siesta” hours were being disregarded. All six sites we visited appeared to be breaking this rule, with work remaining ongoing during the break period, and noise levels exceeding those permitted for that time of day.

On a positive note, it was observed that all the sites managed to contain the dust generated on-site and stop it from spreading outside their perimeters.

But noise and dust are only two of the discomforts that construction creates. And while some of the players in the industry are professional and do abide by these regulations, many others simply do not care.

For too long now, the regulatory authorities have proven reluctant or unable to rein in some of the more consistent offenders: and it cannot escape notice that the same industry wields considerable clout, partly on account of its contribution to both GDP and employment... but partly also through financial contributions to the two parties over the years. Suffice it to say that the Malta Development Association president had, only a few years ago, famously compared the PN and PL to “two supermarkets” for the construction industry to shop in.

Whatever the reason, the industry has come to be associated with a laissez-faire attitude; and this causes problems to people, communities and the country. Unfortunately, at a time of economic boom this laissez-faire attitude takes on much greater dimensions.

The construction site inspections, initiated last month, were undeniably a step in the right direction. But on its own, this blitz is not enough. Our rudimentary exercise was conducted just a week after PA inspectors descended on the locality; and while it may not have been a comprehensive or conclusive study, it nonetheless highlighted the audacity of some developers and contractors in persisting with wrongdoing even in the face of a publicised effort by the authorities to clamp down on abuse.

It is clear that some in the industry simply feel invincible in the face of enforcement; but this has to change. The regulatory authorities’ response to this bare-faced abuse has to be hard, and it must hit where it hurts most: the bottom line.

Those in the construction industry caught abusing must be subjected to steep fines. Fines have to reflect the upward movement in property prices; as it is useless levying a fine which the developer will be ready to live with, in the knowledge that the money would be recouped several times over when the first apartment is sold.

All this has to be accompanied by a rapid abuse detection system that includes regular surprise inspections and an immediate response to complaints.

Having a booming economy is something Malta can be justifiably proud of; but it should not come at the expense of the residents’ quality of life.