No more business ‘as usual’

Now is also time to demand more restrictions on noise, unlawful pressures to cede rights and more limits on the time during which construction is allowed

The fact that three buildings have partially collapsed in the past two months alone, has made it abundantly clear that all can no longer be ‘business as usual’ in Malta.

If people are not feeling safe in their homes, only a drastic action can restore some faith in the institutions that supposedly exist to protect the public. And government was forced to take the drastic measure to temporarily stop all excavation and demolition works across the island: an announcement made by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat on Thursday afternoon, at the start of an emergency meeting with stakeholders in the construction industry.

The meeting was called after a block of apartments collapsed last week in Mellieha, the second incident in as many months. However, the meeting was overshadowed by yet another collapse that same morning in Gwardamanga.

By taking decisive action, Muscat has clearly read the public mood correctly – albeit very late in the day.

That the PA has issued so many permits, and changed policies so as to permit more construction – without addressing the problems of cowboy contractors but also the third party nuisance they create – remains damning on our political system, past and current administrations.

It seems that the entire political class is married to business and construction, and has never even cared for any other aspect but to give carte blanche to the industry to keep on ‘making hay while it shines’: to quote Malta developers’ Association Sandro Chetcuti, who also once compared the two parties to ‘shopping centres for contractors’.

Here one notes the long leash of the construction industry, represented by its figurehead Chetcuti, who has long been associated with his proximity to the government as a trusted interlocutor for one of the industries upon which Muscat has built his strategy for economic growth.

As the FAA said, although the authorities are trying to shift the blame onto architects, our governments have ignored strong calls for the reform of building regulations since 2007, including from the Chamber of Architects. Politicians’ reluctance to take steps against abuse has been blatant, leaving neighbours of construction sites living in fear, wondering “who’s next?” In recent years, this Government has allowed developers to run riot, encouraged over-development and subsidised the MDA with NGO grants.

In all this, Malta’s politicians have shown gross irresponsibility to only take action when three buildings collapse in two months – the fact is that ultimate responsibility lies with Malta’s political class.

While still questioning the extent of disruption created by the sheer scale of development, one hopes that rule of law in ensuring basic safety is restored through a structured enforcement system – which puts the onus on the developer, not on neighbours who are forced to fork out money to hire architects to protect their own homes.

This is a social justice issue, as some people out there cannot afford to do this.

Now is also time to demand more restrictions on noise, unlawful pressures to cede rights and more limits on the time during which construction is allowed.

The move to require geological and geo-technical surveys for all excavation works is welcomed; however until immediate enforcement, suspension of permits, and punitive measures are made much more severe, the construction industry will continue to undermine residents’ safety, health, and Malta’s heritage.

FAA has also called for the introduction of tests of concrete durability, as many residential buildings currently under construction will face major problems in 30 to 40 years due to defective concrete, as highlighted in 2006 by the NGO Sustainable Built Environment Malta.

As the Chamber of Planners has also noted, this, once again, calls for proper holistic planning to be reinstated in the country. 15 years ago, a few years after the creation of the Planning Authority, there were a myriad of planning tools which were used in planning: such as Development Briefs, Action Plans, Subject Plans and others.

A cursory look at the Planning Authority website shows that apart from one or two cases, the most recent plans are dated almost a decade. The revised Local Plans, which were supposed to be published in 2014, are still on hold.

As planners have themselves noted, the lack of comprehensive planning and laissez-faire attitude may be good for the economy but is extremely unhealthy for the country in the medium to long term.

Meanwhile, the current spate of construction accidents may be just the tip of a massive iceberg, the impacts of which will start being more evident in the immediate future.

Unless proper and comprehensive planning is implemented immediately, it may be too late for our country.