In Malta buildings had to collapse before governments took action

The way goalposts were changed for the construction industry in the past two decades in the absence of strong regulation is at the root of the present safety emergency

On 25 April, a building collapsed in Gwardamanga
On 25 April, a building collapsed in Gwardamanga

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has admitted that the construction industry in Malta has grown at a faster pace than the entities regulating it: “The industry grew at a much faster rate than the institutional capacity of the institution governing it, that is the truth,” Muscat said. “In this regard, we need to ensure that this gap is reduced as much as possible.”

What Muscat does not say is that this growth, which led to the approval of 13,000 new dwellings in 2018, did not just happen in a vacuum.

It happened against a backdrop of policy changes his government enacted without any consideration of the social impact of yet another construction boom on the daily life of common mortals, in terms of broken pavements, noise and safety.

It was not first time this had happened. Between 2005 and 2007, 30,833 dwellings were approved in three years. In April 2017 two men, a 44-year-old from Siggiewi and a Serbian residing in Gwardamanga, lost their life when the ceiling on which they were standing gave way.

It was only after that onslaught that former PN minister George Pullicino announced new rules requiring developers to appoint site managers. Two years later the regulations were amended to ensure insurance cover for third party damages.

But these reforms coincided with a slowdown which reduced pressure on neighbourhoods in subsequent years. By 2012 the number of permits issued by the PA had fallen to 3,000.

On Saturday 8 June, a building collapsed in Mellieha
On Saturday 8 June, a building collapsed in Mellieha

While construction regulation came mostly as an afterthought, the policy changes enacted by PN-led governments between 2005 and 2007 and by Labour between 2014 and 2016 were nothing but a premeditated attempt to increase activity in this sector to boost economic growth.

The policy changes were enacted in the full knowledge that the country lacked an enforcement system to impose regulations, and thus tackle that kind of abuse which leads to the collapse of buildings.

In short: buildings had to collapse and people had to lose their home for the government to wake up and take some form of action.

The reality is that all planning policies devised in the last 12 years were aimed at facilitating more construction, to the extent that in 2016 the PA imposed a €500 fine on itself whenever it fails to process applications in a 100-day period.

After the tragedy, the regulator steps in

So far both PN-led and Labour-led administrations have considered safety aspects as an afterthought, periodically introducing timid measures like the obligation to appoint site managers in 2007 and the announcement of a new authority aimed at centralising regulation, in 2018.

The reform announced this week after three incidents in the space of a few weeks falls short of a complete revamp of existing legislation, but builds on reforms introduced by Pullicino in 2007 and 2009. The proposed regulations go one step forward in establishing a chain of responsibilities with the site manager having to be physically present on site when decisions effecting third parties are made.

Yet some of the new roles remain unclear. For example the new regulations state that the site manager should either be the architect or a “competent person who enjoys the architect’s full trust.”

Geotechnical Design Reports will be made mandatory for any project involving any excavation and harsher fines are envisaged for contraveners. Yet the country still lacks a national geological service which can map the country’s geological features, and thus address geological issues on a more holistic level. It also remains unclear whether there will be standard criteria guiding the formulation of these studies.

And while the latest regulations oblige developers to upload a ‘method statement’ on how excavations will be conducted and made available to third parties, concerned neighbours will still have to dig in their pockets to hire experts to assess these reports, thus leaving poorer residents more vulnerable than richer ones.

For what is the use of method statements when you are unable to assess their implications?

On Thursday a second building collapsing in Gwardamanga
On Thursday a second building collapsing in Gwardamanga

The major difference made by the latest changes is that if an accident happens, responsibilities may be more clearly established, thus putting more pressure on architects and site managers to behave responsibly. But it remains doubtful whether the laws can be enforced in view of the large number of permits being issued.

Too many permits?

It is Muscat who now comes closer at identifying the roots of the problem: the “gap” between the number of developments approved and the capacity of the institutions to govern the industry.

The question emerging from Muscat’s own reasoning is: are we approving too many permits for any enforcement system to work? If that is the case, can we consider a system through which only a manageable amount of permits can be executed in particular areas to ensure that enforcement is manageable?

In this way permits issued by the PA will only be made executable when this is deemed fit by the regulatory authorities, thus also minimising the inconvenience for residents and the pressure on the infrastructure.

This may be easier said than done. But giving the regulator greater power in determining the amount of concurrent works which can be carried out in any particular area during a particular timespan may go a long way in restoring a sense of normality to neighbourhoods.

Muscat’s political quandary

Ultimately one great obstacle to reforming this sector lies in its power to influence decision making, to the extent that under this administration, lobbyists have assumed public posts and policies have been drafted by architects who are close to the construction lobby.

While it remains doubtful how far Muscat can go in taming a monster which he has been feeding for the past six years, by stopping demolition and excavation works for two weeks Muscat has confirmed his ability to understand and respond to the public mood.

His decision has also emboldened Labour supporters to speak up on this issue. The question now is: will Muscat (or his successor) gradually try to weaken the grip of the construction industry on his party or in the party irremediably compromised?

This action was reminiscent of Muscat’s decision after the hunting referendum to stop the hunting season after series of “flagrant” illegalities which included the shooting of a kestrel in a school.

Both were to some extent public relations stunts which addressed the perception of Muscat’s labour being too close to two powerful lobbies (hunters and developers). The post referendum clampdown did not eliminate hunting illegalities but contributed to a sense of realisation among hunters that it could not be back to business as usual.

Yet when it comes to tackling the construction industry, the stakes are much higher both in terms of public risk and in terms of political collateral for the party in government. For under Muscat Labour has actively nurtured this sector despite strong resentment from its own grass roots and even party grandees.

This may explain the scepticism of former Labour leader and MEP Alfred Sant who described Muscat’s decision to as “too little, too late”.

Writing in the Malta Independent, Sant expressed doubts on “whether the freeze that has been decreed on the demolition of existing buildings will solve the crisis in the construction sector”.

He does not mince his words when referring to the construction industry as one “which continues to plough forward at full blast, where all are in it for themselves, often in abusive mode”, adding that “the authorities have already made it clear they do not have enough resources, in quantity and quality, to cope with developments”.

The root of the problem according to the Labour grandee is that “there are too many vested interests pressing for the demolition of existing buildings to be replaced in quick time by higher constructions”.

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