Regulators say lack of manpower makes scrutiny of all construction ‘impossible’

Lands Authority and INDIS chairmen tell Jean Paul Sofia public inquiry insufficient manpower means scrutinising all construction on public land and inspecting every building site impossible

The top executives of two public bodies have told the Jean Paul Sofia public inquiry that manpower shortages hindered their respective organisations’ ability to fulfil their roles.

Lands Authority Chairman, Dr John Vassallo took the witness stand first as the sixth session of the public inquiry began on Friday.

The public inquiry was set up in the wake of the death of construction worker Jean Paul Sofia last July.

Replying to a question by the Inquiry’s chairman, Judge Joseph Zammit McKeon, as to whether the lands authority kept track of what happens on government-owned land, Vassallo said it was "humanly impossible" to do so.

"The authority scrutinises all expropriations and transfers above €400,000… there’s not enough manpower and humanly impossible to keep track of all," Vassallo told the Board.

This was echoed by another witness who testified today Jean Pierre Attard executive chairman of INDIS Malta, who administered the site in question.

“We don’t go around doing inspections… we aren’t specialised in health and safety,” Attard told the Board on Friday. “We have a health and safety officer who takes care of our health and safety obligations. But it is another entity’s responsibility.”

“We are talking about contracts here,” Judge Mckeon pointed out. “The contract you are signing in the name of the Maltese people says that you will enforce the contractual clauses relating to health and safety. My question is how are you going to enforce it?”

Attard replied that Malta would need “between 200 and 300 enforcement officers” to check all construction sites. “You can only mitigate risk. Never exclude it,” he told the Board.

“You wrote this, by the way,” Zammit Mackeon pointed out. “Malta Enterprise told you to include this clause.”

“We included it and we enforce it if there are any shortcomings, but it is impossible to go every day and check for breaches,” replied the witness, saying that the architect is in the best position to observe and report them.

Attard said INDIS did not have the manpower required to inspect every site, adding that it had vacancies which were not filled despite having been open for a year and a half. “Malta is almost at full employment,” he suggested as being the reason for this.

Zammit Mackeon read out a clause from the letter of intent which lays out the requirements for health and safety and all necessary permits required by law, asking how it is enforced. Attard replied that enforcement was the responsibility of other ministries.

But this did not wash with the Board Chairman. “So don’t include the clause!” Zammit Mackeon exclaimed. “People have died, notary. And the only reason that more people haven’t died is the grace of God… don’t think that we’re placing you on a sacrificial altar but you occupy a position and that carries consequences."

Attard insisted that inspections alone could not take the full burden, explaining that INDIS was trying to overcome the manpower limitations with the use of technology, such as drones, and by empowering other people. “I will need to do a lot more if I stay in the role,” he conceded.

"We have shortcomings in finance, technical aspects, manpower, architects, quantity surveyors and so on," Attard said when asked whether he had requested more funds from the government. "Salaries are not so inviting. Even the private sector is facing difficulties, let alone the government. We all know what the wages are. So, if we need 50 enforcement officers, we definitely won’t find them."

“We are going to do everything we can to cover this stain but I can’t do this alone,” Attard said, adding that “to date we don’t know exactly what happened. That is up to the court to say.”

With regards to the recruitment problem, Attard was nothing if not candid. “INDIS is a commercial for-profit company, we don’t need to speak to the minister. We have a shortage of finances [when it comes to recruitment], we know what government salaries are like.”

Planning Authority CEO Oliver Magro told the inquiry board that he had been in the top role for just one day when the Corradino building site collapse claimed the life of Jean Paul Sofia, on December 3 2022.

The PA is obliged to monitor sites to which it had issued a permit, he said, adding that the site of the fatal collapse had been issued two Development Notification Orders, known as DNOs.

The DNO process takes less time than obtaining a full development permit, he explained. Two DNOs had been issued over the Corradino site where Sofia was killed, he said.

The first was approved in May 2020 and expired a year later because the construction was not complete. Developer Matthew Schembri had then filed a second one extending the DNO for another year, which was approved in June 2022.

The first DNO permitted the excavation of the site and the construction of a basement and a number of storeys above it. "Then they did not stick to the permit, continued to build and filed another DNO," Magro said. The second DNO was for the construction of two additional storeys.

After permits are issued it is the architect and developer who are responsible to ensure that the submitted plans are followed, he said. The architect must inform the PA five days before works begin and declare that there are no risks to third parties, he said. “The Planning Authority only checks the names of the architect and developer are correct.”

The PA had received the site’s commencement notice on December 3 2022, Magro said, telling the Board that authority had never been informed about any problems with the site.