From profits to people

Authorities such as the PA and the Buildings Regulation Office have been starved of resources: making it all but impossible to maintain the sort of monitoring and enforcement infrastructure needed to minimise the risk of serious accidents

As the dust from the recent construction-related accidents slowly settles, the picture that emerges is one of a development sector that has been allowed to spiral out of control.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has finally 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.”

But this will be difficult to achieve, for a number of reasons. The Muscat administration has also green-lighted an unprecedented plethora of planning applications, largely through the electoral promise of ‘reducing bureaucracy’.

In practice, this has translated into a dilution of existing scrutiny, and undue haste to issue as many permits as possible.

All along, authorities such as the PA and the Buildings Regulation Office have been starved of resources: making it all but impossible to maintain the sort of monitoring and enforcement infrastructure needed to minimise the risk of serious accidents.

Moreover, the construction frenzy is viewed as a central plank of the present government’s economic growth strategy. As in the years immediately after 1987, Muscat’s answer to economic stagnation was to open the floodgates of construction. 

The decision to abruptly halt all excavation and demolition works must also be viewed in this context. Prolonged cessation of construction activity will come at a cost to the economy… this, in turn, explains the haste with which government emerged with new regulations for the sector: literally ‘over the weekend’.

Unsurprisingly, these new regulations have been met with scepticism. The Malta Chamber of Planners responded by pointing out that “legislation on its own will not resolve the problem that this rush to construct has created. The legislation defines the responsibilities and what procedure is required to be followed by the parties concerned to ensure safety to properties adjacent to construction sites.” 

What that statement also implies is that the ‘rush to construct’ – and not merely the fact that construction takes place – constitutes the core problem.

But just as there was a rush to build, so too has there been a rush to plaster over the cracks in the system with a new set of legislative changes. Clearly, there is economic pressure to re-crank the construction machine back into action as quickly as possible. This, in turn, illustrates how severely we have come to depend on this sector, to maintain our status as ‘the fastest growing Eurozone economy’. 

It is against this bleak backdrop, in which no political party can realistically offer much of a solution, that praise must go to NGOs like Moviment Graffitti, for becoming the face of the citizens’ fightback on Malta’s problem with construction.

Too many times, the sedate mantras from the political class trickle down to the wider population, forcing the belief that Malta’s economy needs to have a vibrant construction industry that is always on the go. 

But that kind of ‘philosophy’ often seems to negate people’s basic rights, their need to have a decent quality of life, to live in environments with clean air, without noise pollution, with safe urban areas, and with space for children.

Above all, it negates the most basic fundamental right of any citizen in a democracy: the right to live in safety, free from the fear of one’s roof collapsing onto one’s head.

It is here that the industry itself must also shoulder its responsibilities. The Malta Developers Association has gone into PR overdrive to limit the reputational damage: even going as far as to claim it is ‘part of the solution, not part of the problem’.

But the MDA has done little, beyond coming up with catchy slogans, to actually make good on that claim. Sandro Chetcuti’s famous quote about ‘making hay while the sun shines’ must surely be returning to haunt him. The MDA has openly lent its voice to the external pressures on local authorities to keep that permit-approval machine ticking over. 

It may not be the root cause of the problem… but it certainly is part of the problem, as its chairman’s own past pronouncements – in particular, the one about the two parties acting as ‘supermarkets’ for developers – make abundantly clear.

At the same time, however, scapegoating the MDA will not help to reach any solution at all. The problem runs much deeper than that.

Too many times, the psychological effects of Malta’s construction chaos are wilfully ignored for the sake of profit. Without the justified anger of the citizenry, the political and business classes will never be moved to curtail the abuses of their industries.

It is to the credit of Graffitti, and its consistent activism in favour of the environment, that last week’s protest became such an important community event that displayed the righteous umbrage of common mortals. 

More of this is needed – indeed, we need more unity from residents’ associations and environmental NGOs to present a coordinated programme of demands: non-negotiable principles and demands that serve to put people first, that serve to turn the bias away from profit and to people.