Friday 19 July 2019

Strong leadership, management by crisis or a dictatorship?

This column first appeared in Malta Today

I think it is a sign of just how badly we have been let down by the lack of general enforcement that Muscat’s drastic decision to suspend all ongoing excavation works was met with such a huge sigh of relief and approval.

I was among those who thought that he took the right decision. After all, how long can we keep on logging on to social media or news portals on a daily basis to be met by the news that another block of apartments has collapsed? Or that a worker has fallen off a construction site? Or, that everything from metal bars to sacks of cement from construction sites are falling on parked cars. How long can we keep thanking our lucky stars and saying “phew! it could have been worse” because no one was injured or killed in their beds? In fact, just how long can we keep relying on sheer luck before it finally all runs out and a tragedy on a massive scale takes place?

I believe Muscat took the the right decision because three collapsed apartment blocks in a space of a few weeks can not be chalked up to “bad luck” and because if he had done nothing, it would have looked even worse. On Thursday, on hearing the news that the wall of yet another apartment block in G’Mangia had caved in, the shocked public expected some form of tangible action to ally their fears and anxieties. At that point in time, simply telling us that talks were being held with the stakeholders in the construction industry and that “something would be done” was just not enough. It may have been just a sop to keep us happy, but it worked to defuse the escalating alarm and anger which could be tangibly felt as people looked anxiously at the excavation sites near them and wondered if they would be the next ones to end up on the news.

On the other hand, I am fully aware that this is all political optics – many were quick to point out that the summer break imposed by the Planning Authority when excavation and digging must stop in tourist areas starts on 15 June anyway. One cannot ignore the fact that from a PR point of view, it looked good for Muscat to be doing something and he came off looking like a hero. However, there is also an element of management by crisis about it, especially since the onus is on him that we have reached this point in the first place. After all, who allowed the Planning Authority and all related governing bodies to be neutered in this way, if not this Labour Government? I noticed a lot of people were busy pointing indignantly at the contractors, but frankly, if you have been given a free hand to do as you please, because the Government keeps insisting that the economy “cannot be put on pause”, then you are going to take it. When you have MDA President Sandro Chetcuti enjoying such a cosy relationship with the country’s leadership, then no boats are going to be rocked (although your home might very well be rocked to its foundations and collapse).

Legal experts have also pointed to another problem with Muscat’s decision to unilaterally suspend permits for excavation: that things do not work like that in a democracy and that it smacks uncomfortably of a dictatorship. One also has to factor in that this ban is unfair to those contractors/developers who have done everything by the book and are not breaking the law. This is, of course, a very valid point especially in the light of the fact that one has to question who brought us to the brink of construction anarchy in the first place. It certainly wasn’t me. Shortly after his announcement, the official ban then came from the Building Regulations Office (BRO) which quoted chapter and verse from the Legal Notice covering construction sites – so perhaps this was the Prime Minister’s way of circumventing further accusations of acting like a dictator. The crux of the matter, however, cannot be ignored – did people start having to lose their homes and narrowly escape with life and limbs intact for the law to be applied?

A cursory look at the BRO website will see a whole slew of regulations which on paper seem to be binding. The Legal Notice states: “These regulations came into force on the 1st May, 2013. The objective of these regulations is to ensure that before any demolition, excavation and, or construction works are taken in hand, methodologies that are technically sound are prepared by a Perit (architect), in collaboration with the site manager and the contractor, to minimise the risk of damages to third party property or injury to persons that may result through the proposed works.”

There is a whole section covering frequently asked questions, as well as a pdf of the actual Legal Notice, the full 20 pages, which was passed by Parliament. This includes clearly-definined obligations, as well as deadlines and fines for not adhering to the law.

The fact that, six years down the line, all these regulations notwithstanding, it has to be the Prime Minister himself to come down like a tonne of bricks means (to state the obvious) that the BRO is not functioning as it should. I could not find the name of the person in charge at the BRO, but really, he or she should have resigned. The day after the temporary ban, excavation was still taking place in various areas. MaltaToday reported that “jiggers, jackhammers, and excavators are labouring under the sun on Friday, a day after the suspension was announced. Excavation and demolition works were seen in Sliema, St Julian’s, Marsascala, and Birkirkara among other localities. It’s not clear whether those that were still functioning were exempt from the suspension. Muscat said yesterday that in instances were an architect declares that stopping work could be more dangerous than allowing it to proceed, these would be exempt from the suspension.”

Judging from reports, there must be quite a few exemptions, which makes a mockery out of the whole temporary ban. In fact, by Friday the public mood had once again turned to cynicism that anything would really be done to stop the flagrant way in which the regulations are being constantly breached. Irate residents were phoning BRO and the Police but no one was picking up, pointing to yet another problem: a lack of resources to cope with what must be hundreds and hundreds of construction sites.

What is the most upsetting, frustrating and completely unfair to the common citizen however is this: your next door neighbour could sell their home to a developer who immediately starts tearing down the house and excavating, while it falls on you, the innocent bystander, to incur costs to ensure that your own property is not damaged or put at risk by those who are unscrupulous. Here is just one example of what happens when you are unfortunate enough to end up living next to a construction site, as recounted to me by an acquaintance:

“Two houses are being torn down adjacent to my home. Thier architects came and did reports and said all is fine. Then one day at 7am I was told that they had decided they want to tear down their back garden wall which is my garden wall because they said it was dangerous. I had to get two architects myself plus a lawyer which cost me 500 Euro. My lawyer wrote to them that the wall is fine and that they had to keep 2.5 feet distance. Both my architects said my wall is fine and if they have a problem with it they can make a support, and told them how it could be done, which they could have easily planned themselves. So I spent that money for nothing and to recoup my 500 Euros I will have to go to Court. However if you do not get professional advice they damage your property and hold you responsible as well.”

I have heard other stories of elderly people being harassed and intimidated in order to sell, because their house is the only one left on a particular street. Some have died because of the stress, as happened with one woman whose solar panels proved to be useless when a huge block of new apartments completely hid the sun. While Muscat keeps insisting the economy cannot be put on pause, the quality of life of so many people has come to a standstill because of hellish construction works next door.

On Monday, a five day consultation period will begin to introduce new regulations surrounding the construction industry. Muscat is proposing a hefty increase in the fines and more responsibilities placed on architects and site managers . Again, all of this sounds very pro-active and good on paper. It still does not solve the problem of what is essentially too much unnecessary construction, permits which are dished out too easily, and not enough human resources to oversee that the law is being observed. So you will have to forgive a sceptical public when we say: we will believe that enforcement will suddenly be properly applied to this rogue industry when we see it.

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