Construction sector reforms have failed

The one thing we clearly cannot do is rely on the country's regulatory apparatuse to do its job

The sudden, partial collapse of a three-storey Gwardamanga apartment block, and underlying government driving testing office, has highlighted in the most visceral of ways, the dangers faced by third parties having to live cheek-by-jowl with Malta's construction overdrive.

In one respect, it is a blessing that a major tragedy was averted. Had this incident occurred at a different hour, not only would families inside the apartment block have been killed or grievously injured; but also young people taking their driving tests inside the Transport Malta ground floor level would have been buried under the rubble. Who would have picked up the bill for such a loss of life?

There was no form of statement from the Malta Developers Association throughout the day that Malta witnessed the devastation of this incident. The Prime Minister played down the ramifications of this accident, preferring to tell the public that it was not reflective of the entire construction sector: “When you take into consideration how much construction work is under way, we cannot use these events to characterise everything from this accident, as this would not be fair to those who abide by the rules.”

It is perhaps true that one incident cannot be treated as a yardstick for all construction projects. But Muscat’s choice of words was otherwise unfortunate. Incidents such as this do tell us a lot about the construction industry. 

Other government reactions also included a joint statement by three ministers – Home Affairs Minister Michael Farrugia, Infrastructure Minister Ian Borg and Social Solidarity Minister Michael Falzon – which seemed to offer a knee-jerk defence of regulatory authorities such as the Building Regulation Office (BRO). As with recent, similar reactions to traffic accidents on (or near) roads under construction, the government’s response indicates an automatic willingness to jump to the construction sector’s defence. It is disturbing, for instance, that there is already talk of ‘funds’ – beyond private, charitable collections – to compensate the victims who lost their homes… when there still has to be a judicial process to determine culpability. 

The Prime Minister’s own words also point towards the underlying source of the problem: “When you take into consideration how much construction work is underway…”

This government has pursued an undisguised policy to encourage and incentivise as much construction as possible – far more than the country’s environment or infrastructure can sustain – to the extent that the president of the Malta developers’ Association had famously urged his members to ‘make hay while the sun shines’.

Accidents like this happen also in part due to the sheer haste of Malta’s construction mania. Implicit in Sandro Chetcuti’s statement is the idea that the ‘sun’ may one day stop ‘shining’ – i.e., this bonanza of hastily-issued building permits might one day cease. This may explain the zeal, among developers, to build as much as they can, while they still can. It also flings the doors wide open to the sort of planning ‘errors’ that could prove catastrophic.

For this kind of large-scale collapse, though sensational, is but the tip of an ice-berg. What about the accidents and deaths on construction sites; the blatant disregard of laws and law-enforcement; noise pollution from construction, the deliberate uglification of towns and villages by those who seek to make a quick buck from land speculation; the incursion inside ODZ land and green areas, the encroachment on our kerbsides, parking spaces, and public spaces; the lack of attention given to ordinary residents who find no proper police attention to the problems they face from construction sites and similar grievances...?

The Gwardamanga incident must be viewed as part of a broader context, whereby buildings – like cars, in the context of road-planning – are given more importance than people.

Can the Prime Minister pay attention to the social problems this mad scramble for economic growth is bringing about? Will Muscat at least concede that his government’s reforms of the Planning Authority – including the establishment of BRO – have so far failed? 

For the reforms have failed; and not just because of the random collapse of an individual building. The entire reform was viewed from the outset as a cog in the machine of economic ‘progress’. Everything, even the most basic concerns for health and safety, have been sacrificed in the transaction; we are building for the sake of building, not for the sake of people.

How much longer must we bear witness to the resulting aesthetic destruction of Malta? Can the Opposition leader wake up and decide whether the Nationalist Party is going to stand for a proper opposition to this kind of deleterious ‘anarchy’?

We need a solution. And that solution is clearly not going to come from either party, as a result of any election. A solution can only come in the form of a popular movement that demands legal changes for the elimination of loopholes, and for rule-based action rather than just vague wish-lists; or for abrogative referenda that can dead-leg the systems that are precipitating the problems we are experiencing today.

The one thing we clearly cannot do, however, is rely on the country’s regulatory apparatus to do its job. A more abject failure than that is hard to even imagine.