Winston Churchill once noted: “We shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us.” There is no doubt that the local construction industry is shaping our society from an economic, social and demographic point of view.

Its impact is real. According to Jobs­Plus, up to April 2023 there were 19,582 people registered with permits to work in the construction industry: 9,225 Maltese, 8,457 third country nationals and 1,900 from European Union countries. These figures do not include architects or people working in engineering and manufacturing for construction purposes, which add another 2,500 to 3,000 workers to this figure.

It is also interesting to note that, at present, there are around 5,000 enterprises involved in the sector, according to the European Construction Sector Observatory (ECSO). Moreover, as of 2020, the share of gross value added (GVA) stood at four per cent, with a total turnover of €1.4 billion.

This is the state of play of the local construction industry; a powerful domestic economic force and one of the Maltese islands’ most controversial economic sectors. It is controversial for a number of reasons, including the fact that 49 workers have died at construction sites between 2010 and 2022. These fatalities include the tragic case of Jean Paul Sofia, which exposed the government’s lack of proper enforcement of what many branded as the ‘self-regulated’ construction industry.

The government has failed and keeps on failing. Notwithstanding the much touted measures and reforms announced following the damning Sofia inquiry we sadly continue to hear of accidents and deaths of workers in the construction industry. This failure was confirmed by Labour MEP candidate Steve Ellul, who, in a recent interview, noted that every time a person tragically dies at work, it is a failure for us as a nation.

We fail because of government incompetence. Such incompetence has led to the resignation of the Building and Construction Authority’s CEO and exposed the government’s inability to take regulatory action. When such action is taken it is often too little too late. Such incompetence over the past decade has exposed the government’s inability to strike the right balance between environmental sustainability and development.

This is particularly evident in Gozo and has recently been highlighted in a study commissioned by the ERA; a study which, in essence, notes that Gozitans are struggling with the fast pace of development and construction. This has also been stressed in a study carried out by the University of Malta’s Faculty for Social Well-being, led by lead researcher Mary Grace Vella.

The study notes among other things that construction is rapidly changing the characteristics and urban and social fabric of Gozo’s localities. To quote Andrew Azzopardi (in a recent interview with Times of Malta), “we are just eating up the soul of Gozo”.

An ERA study notes that Gozitans are struggling with the fast pace of development and construction- Alex Borg

On the other hand, notwithstanding Finance Minister Clyde Caruana’s claim that we do not need to sustain the current rate of construction to prosper, it is a fact that development is a need, or better, a must. It is a need because, as Michael Stivala well noted, that is where the government gets the money to sustain health and education, infrastructure and all the other social schemes. It is a need because, as also noted by Stivala, “one in every five new apartments you see goes to the government in taxes”.

It is also a need because the construction industry works hand in hand with the main economic pillars of Malta’s economy. It is a need because the Gozitan social, demographic and economic characteristics have changed and evolved with new needs, with new requirements and with new realities.

Environmental sustainability and development can coexist. They are both needed. It is up to the government to strike the right balance. A balance which, to date, the government has, time and time again, failed to achieve through its lack of vision.

The government has failed because entities like Project Green have failed to live up to expectations. It has failed because authorities, including the OHSA and the Planning Authority, have failed.

The government has failed because unnecessary government red tape is driving property prices up.

The government has failed because there is a lack of strategy for the construction industry that specifically focuses on the insularity of Gozo; a strategy that should avoid what Azzopardi described as people investing in “drab, bland and tasteless architecture for speculative purposes”. The government has failed because there is no vision or strategy that seeks to protect Gozo’s heritage and common good.

This is the sad reality of a Gozo that this government is shaping; a reality hard to swallow for every Gozitan; a reality that needs to be addressed immediately to ensure the healthy and gradual development of our island, always keeping in mind its insular characteristics and environmental requirements.

We need action that is not limited to political stunts or pointless decisions but which is based on concrete measures reflecting the needs of both sides of the coin. Unless such action is taken, the island will continue to face a sad reality.

Alex Borg is Nationalist spokesperson on Gozo.

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