A collapse in health and safety standards

The Labour administration has so far displayed sensitivity to such matters in other areas – such as its insistence on lowering utility bills. So one can only question the reluctance to tackle this issue head-on

The fact that two apartment blocks — one in Guardamangia and another in Mellieha — have collapsed in the space of as many months, is clearly a very serious problem that requires immediate attention.

Call it a coincidence, but the two blocks that came crashing down – leaving residents traumatised and homeless - were adjacent to construction sites where excavations took place.

Judicial inquiries are underway to determine the specific cause in both cases, but we will never know their outcome unless the magistrates conclude there is evidence of negligence or criminal behaviour involved.

Nonetheless, the prima facie evidence is enough to conclude that, very clearly, not enough emphasis is being placed on health and safety at either the planning or execution stage.

In the Mellieha case, the developer was quoted as saying that he could not understand the cause, as all the necessary precautions, as stipulated in the permit conditions, had been strictly observed. If this were indeed the case – and the benefit of the doubt must be given – it would strongly suggest that an overhaul of these precautions must be taken with urgency.

Just as it is unacceptable that such serious accidents might b the result of criminal negligence, it is equally unconscionable that our planning procedures are prone to such glaring oversights: either at application or enforcement stages. People who spoke to this newspaper in the aftermath of the collapse were rightly alarmed and indignant. It cannot be tolerated that people’s lives and homes are placed in jeopardy, in the name of a seemingly unstoppable, no-holds-barred construction frenzy.

This is why an independent authority, with the power to regulate and enforce regulations, is required more than ever.

The government has proposed the creation of such an authority, but the process is still lost in consultation phase. And all the while, people are losing their homes.

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

Moreover, at a time when the country faces a construction overdrive, the risk that developers may be cutting corners, doing things in a rush, and closing an eye to the inconvenience and damage caused to neighbours, is much higher than ever. Therefore, more vigilance is needed, not less.

Laws do exist to regulate excavations. Contractors have to keep a minimum distance from party walls when digging, and geotechnical surveys are required if excavations are expected to go deeper than three metres.

Whether these rules are observed is a completely different matter, however. A separate incident, in which a Gozitan contractor proceeded with a development even after PA officials ordered works to stop on site – illustrates the difficulties faced by enforcement officers in such cases.

The PA was forced to issue an emergency cease-and-desist notice: something it may in future wish to contemplate as a first recourse, given the gravity of the possible repercussions. Under the circumstances, it would by no means be ‘undue’ or ‘excessive’ to adopt a zero-tolerance policy to offenders… as governments have done with issues such as drugs in the past.

One must, in fact, question why the authorities seem to approach issues affecting the construction industry with a different yardstick to most other issues. With what appears to be an epidemic of construction site accidents, one would justifiably expect the authorities to come down harder on permit infringements than they seem to be doing.

Separately, people often find themselves at a loss whom to turn to, if these rules are not being observed. The PA has been powerless to address such matters in the past. The Malta Developers Association has set up its own customer care unit, but it remains debatable what this entity can do to rein in rogue contractors.

Other responsibilities must also be shouldered. The construction sector as a whole - including the input of architects and civil engineers - cannot continue to function as if there is no tomorrow. One would expect calls for reform to come within the industry itself. Yet to date, there has been mostly reticence.

This is why a centralised, powerful authority is required.

All this contributes to what the Prime Minister has rightly described as the ‘anger’ of people faced with these circumstances. But while Joseph Muscat claims to share in that sentiment, he must surely understand that part of the anger is also directed at his own government, for failing to bring this sector under control.

By facilitating construction at every turn, the Muscat administration has seemingly turned its back on the plight of people who feel vulnerable and unprotected from a direct threat to their own lifestyle.

People are justifiably scared and angry. They also feel powerless, living in the hope that what happened in Mellieha and Guardamangia does not happen to them and their loved ones. But living in hope is not the way things should be. Serious enforcement is required. And enforcement should hurt the pockets of those who continue to act as cowboys.

The Labour administration has so far displayed sensitivity to such matters in other areas – such as its insistence on lowering utility bills. So one can only question the reluctance to tackle this issue head-on.

People rightly expect the government to act in their defence. Government must now rise to those expectations.

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