The government’s pursuit of economic growth at all costs is supported by its approach of management by crisis. Regulators’ roles have been rendered ineffective because going for broke on economic targets has overshadowed other vital considerations such as environmental protection, sustainability and the duty of care to ordinary people.

The recent incidents involving the construction industry, where lives were put at great risk and families had to abandon their homes because a building site next door led to the collapse of their apartment, have not claimed any heads. Impunity for those who break the law is sadly an indelible hallmark of this administration.

The new building regulations that were drawn up in reaction to these incidents were well-intentioned but poorly planned and executed. The construction industry is one of the most prominent beneficiaries of the growth-at-all-costs strategy. The demand for more residential and commercial property boosted the industry but has had adverse effects in the form of galloping property price inflation and the lowering of already inadequate building standards that put at risk the health and safety of ordinary people.   

Government consultant Robert Musumeci, who was behind the drafting of the new building regulations, made an unconvincing attempt to justify why these new regulations were rushed through the enactment stage despite the reasonable objections of the Chamber of Architects and Civil Engineers. The new rules are disjointed and riddled with incoherence. They create a challenging environment for enforcement, even if the political will existed to make enforcement a priority.

The revised duties of the site technical officer appear reasonable, as is the requirement that such persons need to be competent and qualified to carry out their onerous duties. However, as the president of the chamber Simone Vella Lenicker has observed, in Malta there are 1,100 warranted architects and only half are dedicated to construction work. Yet there are 2,500 construction sites. Musumeci acknowledges that this poses a significant problem to the enforcement of these regulations. What is going to happen to the work-in-progress involving excavation, demolition or construction that impacts third parties? 

The burning question of enforcement has been skimmed over by Musumeci. He admitted that the Building Regulation Office entrusted with the onerous task of enforcing regulations only had a budget of €150,000. In an attempt to close the stable door after the horse has bolted, this office has now been merged with the Planning Authority. 

The role played by the Planning Authority in the build-up to this regulatory crisis has not been acknowledged by the government. Issuing a multitude of building permits when the regulatory infrastructure was so obviously unfit for purpose was at best imprudent and harmful to the well-being of society.  

Infrastructure Minister Ian Borg resorted to another PR exercise to address the concerns of the various stakeholders. He promised architects that exemptions may be granted on the regulations that define when a site technical officer is required. He reassured developers that the government does not consider them as criminals. He also informed people who live next to construction sites that they can express their concerns to site technical officers on site rather than by engaging a lawyer. 

A razzmatazz of public relations efforts is no way to address the failures of sound political and regulatory governance of an industry that is critically important for the country.

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