Tuesday 17 September 2019

When it all starts crumbling down… 

This article first appeared in Malta Today

I think this administration really needs to start recognizing the difference between partisan discourse simply aimed at tearing down anything and everything, no matter how trivial, in order to score political points …and genuine constructive criticism. 

It is a bit like when you take the decision to confront a family member or close friend who is in deep denial over a serious problem, and, together with a group of concerned relatives, you carry out an intervention.  You are doing it not because you harbour any ill-will towards the person but, on the contrary, to force them to open their eyes, take stock, and realise that they are spiralling towards self-destruction while taking others down with them.  At this point, only harsh, tough talk will do, and it is useless to mince words. 

That the Labour Government is in need of some kind of urgent intervention is clear to see any time there is an accident or tragedy. As soon as the news hits the headlines and the public voices legitimate, justified concerns, the authorities automatically go on the defense with a knee-jerk response.

The collapse of the Guardamangia block of apartments due to excavation works at a construction site next door, is a classic case in point.  “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,” the Prime Minister said, hours after the partial collapse of the three storey block. (The Times)

The President of the Malta Developers’ Association Sandro Chetcuti (you know, the other PM) was also quick on the draw: “We contacted the authorities to verify that the developer and his architect had done all he needed to do in terms of method statements, condition reports and so on. I can confirm that all the documentation had been filed,” he told Times of Malta. 

However, in their rush to make statements, they are both forgetting that, despite their protestations, we are experiencing a very different reality. We all have eyes in our head, and to be blunt, the only reason we do not have more accidents and tragedies is not because everyone is doing things by the book, and is regulation-compliant, but purely because we have been lucky. However, workers on construction sites have not been so lucky and I have lost count of the number of deaths and injuries this year alone – but they are ‘foreign’ and easily replaceable, so apparently, they don’t count. 

How can the Prime Minister go on camera and say that these events do not “characterize” the construction industry? I would say that the collapse of that building which has left three traumatized families homeless and bereft perfectly symbolises what is happening. It is all crumbling down because developers are cutting corners.  You simply cannot have so many major building projects under construction on practically every street corner in every area of the island being given permits so quickly to commence their works without shortcuts being taken.  It is a mad rush to the finish line to cash in while the going is good, and it is now taking its toll. The shortage of a skilled workforce to carry out the work on these sites has meant that (mostly) Third Country Nationals are being used as cheap labour, who are hardworking and accept deplorable conditions, but are not properly trained. This is apart from the continued danger to their own lives, because every time I pass a construction site, the lack of helmets and harnesses is still the norm.  

There is chaos, and potential danger, lurking at every building site, and for every family which is unfortunate enough to live next door. I suggest that the PM looks out the windows of his chauffeured car more often and takes a long, hard look at what people are having to endure in order to please Sandro and his ilk. 

Mr Chetcuti’s statement was particularly out of place because having all the documentation to start excavating is meaningless if a site is not constantly monitored.  It is only when one starts digging that problems often occur. It was also particularly callous for him to say “sometimes, accidents do happen”.  Oh, really?  If it were me who had lost everything I own due to  excavation works next door, and I heard him say something like that, I would not be responsible for my actions. 

The Times report stated that “Avoidance of Damage to Third Party Regulations (issued under the Building Regulation Act)  fall under the remit of the Building Regulations Office which requires the preparation of a method statement prepared by an architect in collaboration with the site manager and the contractor.  The method statement indicates the procedures to be adopted during the excavation, demolition and construction phases including any information which is relevant to safeguarding both the stability of the works being undertaken, as well as the stability of adjacent structures or terrain.”

Ah, the terrain. An important consideration that, and one which experts have long been drawing attention to. On Friday, geologist Dr Peter Gatt, was interviewed by TVM. “Dr Gatt said excavation and construction works require the geological evaluation of the foundations on which the new building is going to be built, but unfortunately, Malta remains the only country in the EU which does not enforce this procedure. He believes that the time has come for the authorities to appoint experts to evaluate the geological situation of a site before any construction work can start….He also told TVM that a building collapses as a result of two scenarios: when the nature of the rock itself is weak to begin with, or when the rock is strong but then cracks are revealed during the excavation process and a building eventually collapses.”

In the specific case of the G’Mangia building collapse, there are also two versions: the residents are saying that they had filed several complaints over the cracks which had started appearing in their walls once the digging started, but the Building Regulations Office has denied ever receiving any such reports. But does that mean that everyone is going to wash their hands and no one will be culpable simply because “no report was made”? 

The terrifying implications of what happened late Wednesday night as families were forced to flee their homes while their apartments crashed down like children’s Lego blocks should force the authorities to stop worrying so much about upsetting the building industry and focus on human life instead.  It is really a miracle that no one was injured or killed but such a close call does not mean we can simply keep going on like this or try to dismiss it because “accidents happen”.  In a statement, the Chamber of Architects said that it has been exhorting the Government to regulate the industry for many years,  “The ever-increasing complexity of today’s buildings, compounded by the current frenzy of the industry to turn around projects as quickly as possible, urgently requires an immediate and major overhaul of the country’s building and construction regulatory processes.  The Chamber also pointed out that while architects have professional warrants, contractors are not regulated at all. “This is especially worrying when it comes to demolition and excavation contractors. The absence of a registration system means that anyone with demolition or excavation plant can carry out such works, without any basic training, technical knowledge, or insurance cover.”  

The contractors, who have now been identified as SC Building Group, have reportedly provided the families with alternative accommodation, a move which has been with much cynicism by the general public with many wondering if this was just a ploy to take over the now empty plot of land.  The Housing Authority has promised the families financial assistance for their every day needs while the Pieta’ local council has also opened a bank account for those who wish to donate.  

While these offers of help are obviously welcome, it will take years for these families to re-build their lives, and much of what they have lost is irreplaceable. It is true that they were lucky to have escaped with their lives, but imagine the acute loss of precious family photos and other sentimental items which are gone forever, as well as the devastating realization that one has to start all over.  And all this, not through an act of God (which is unavoidable), but an act of Man, with the authorities acting as willing enablers.  

Man, who insists on excavating and digging and demolishing the land without a thought to others whose lives will be ruined, simply for profit. 

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