An authority established just two years ago to serve as the construction sector’s regulator had no oversight on the Corradino site that collapsed in December 2022, killing Jean Paul Sofia.
The Building and Construction Authority was totally in the dark about the Corradino Industrial Estate project because no third parties were impacted by works, its past and present top officials testified on Friday.
The top BCA officials were testifying before a three-person board of inquiry tasked with looking into the circumstances leading to the death of 20-year-old Sofia, who was buried alive when the partially constructed building he was in collapsed.
Five people are being separately charged with his involuntary murder.
Eighteen months later, another collapse would claim Sofia's life. But the BCA's officials said on Friday that the authority was powerless to prevent that.
Its current CEO, Jesmond Muscat, was emphatic when asked if he ever felt the authority bore any responsibility for that construction site tragedy.
“Never. Never,” he said.
That insistence echoed similar ones made by his predecessor at the helm of the BCA executive, Karl Azzopardi, who said it was a lesson to learn from the incident.
Commencement notices for construction projects are filed with the Planning Authority and there is no centralised system for all stakeholders to access. It is down to a project’s architect to alert the BCA if third parties could be impacted by works.
The regulator’s former chairperson, Maria Schembri Grima, acknowledged that the anomalous situation meant projects like the Corradino one fell through regulatory gaps and said she “wholly agreed” that sites which do not impact third parties should be subject to oversight.
She argued, however, that the responsibility for that should not fall on the BCA.
Throughout three-and-a-half hours of testimony, the Sofia public inquiry heard of a sector that remains significantly under-policed, with the regulator receiving thousands of reports but having just 17 inspectors assigned onsite duties across Malta and Gozo.
Testimony also shed light on the lack of clarity concerning regulatory roles within the construction sector.
When Schembri Grima was asked what a person who noted a construction irregularity should do, the question left her stumped.
“If it’s structural, it’s the chamber of architects. If it’s construction…”
She could not finish the sentence, prompting the inquiry chairperson, judge Joseph Zammit McKeon, to inquire whether the witness was alright.
“I’m thinking about the question,” she replied.
Earlier, Schembri Grima insisted she had no conflict of interest when chairing the construction regulator while maintaining a private architectural practice.
She had made it clear when accepting the role that she would be continuing her private work, she said, and other BCA board members also had private practices of her own.
Schembri Grima also washed her hands of responsibility for a demolition debacle that led to her resigning as BCA chair, saying the contractor responsible had not adhered to the project method statement.
'Sector sick for 40 years'
BCA CEO Muscat described the sector as one that has been “sick for 40 years” but insisted it could be cured. He insisted work was being done to improve the authority’s enforcement bite, and cited figures showing site inspections and fines are increasing.
But his admission that the authority’s most recent recruitment drive would lead to just four more inspectors being added to its staff contingent drew exasperated sighs from the board, which questioned just how the regulator could police such a large sector with so few inspectors.
The authority’s chairman, Saviour Camilleri, told the inquiry that the long-term plan is to have all construction site workers to be licenced. But introducing that requirement overnight would grind the sector to a halt, he argued.
Three building codes lie unused
Friday’s testimony also hinted at a measure of political reluctance to come down too strongly on the construction sector: the BCA has wrapped up work on national building codes that would standardise many construction practices, Azzopardi revealed, but those codes have yet to see the light of day.
Azzopardi’s tenure at the helm of the BCA also ended messily. When pressed by the inquiry board, he acknowledged that he was effectively forced out after failing to see eye-to-eye with the current minister responsible for the authority, Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi.
“It's the minister who appoints you, and the minister who removes you. Three months after the  election, I wanted to implement my plan,” Azzopardi testified. “I’m not one to sit pretty behind my desk.”
Azzopardi is now contesting his termination before an industrial tribunal.
The inquiry will continue on August 25. Anyone who wishes to contact the board of inquiry or testify under oath can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Applications to testify will close on August 31. Those interested should provide their name and surname, address, identity card number and object of proof to be presented to the inquiry.
As it happened
Next inquiry session on August 25
12.34pm The next hearing in the public inquiry will take place on August 25.
That's all for this live blog. Thank you for having joined us. We'll have a wrap-up of the day's key points of testimony available at the top of this article shortly.
Minutes and paperwork
12.23pm Muscat candidly admits the industry is a regulatory mess.“We don’t even know how many contractors are out there,” he says. “We don’t have that data. Come October, they will have to register with us.”
He is pushed to provide documentation related to earlier drafts of the plan to licence contractors, and says he will obtain them and present them at a later session.
That’s all from Muscat, who was the day’s final witness.
'Enforcement alone is not enough'
12.12pm The witness now presents audited accounts for the authority. He rattles off figures at lightning speed.
Muscat says the BCA got the go-ahead to issue a call for more inspectors in March. But that call will lead to just four more inspectors joining its ranks.
“It’s never enough,” the BCA CEO says when asked if he believes the enforcement team is large enough.
He says that the authority needs to also emphasise education and cannot just rely on enforcement, and complains that the media has not picked up on its work.
Phone numbers on site notices
12.05pm Muscat says that the BCA is alerted to commencement notices by project architects, not the PA. There is no centralised system.
He is asked whether the BCA could start including contact numbers on site notices. “No problem,” he replies.
Thousands of reports
11.59am Earlier, Muscat said that the BCA has 17 inspectors on the ground. Compare that to the number of reports it receives: over 6,000 applications in year one, over 10,000 in year two, and over 7,000 this year.
Industry 'has been sick for 40 years'
11.54am Muscat is asked about the state of the construction industry.
“It’s been sick for 40 years,” he says.
“And it has yet to die,” Zammit McKeon drily adds. Muscat says the patient can be cured – the illness is not terminal.
BCA discussed Corradino on August 3
11.52am The BCA board also discussed the Corradino tragedy during a meeting on August 3, Muscat divulges. The board asks why. “Because of this inquiry,” he says.
Was BCA responsible for Corradino building? 'Never'
11.49am Muscat says that he went to the Corradino site on the day of the collapse but “kept at a certain distance”.
He says he did not draw up a report but reported the incident to the board. He does not have minutes of that board meeting with him.
Did he ever deem the BCA responsible for that building?
“Never,” Muscat says, repeating it for emphasis. “Never”. He then reiterates what previous witnesses have said – that the BCA is only responsible for oversight of construction sites impacting third parties.
21-person inspectorate, 17 inspectors
11.44am Muscat worked at the Planning Authority for almost 20 years. He was made BCA CEO in June of 2022, replacing Karl Azzopardi.
He tells the board that the authority currently has 21 inspectors, though four of them do not visit sites directly. So there are 17 inspectors on the ground.
Where are the inspectors?
11.40am Deguara’s questions focus on BCA enforcement.
Camilleri says inspectors are receiving tailor-made training. Deguara wants to know why isn’t more being done to increase the number of inspectors.
“Yes, I ask,” Camilleri says. “I assure you that work is being done.”
Deguara: “If I understood correctly, the budgets were allocated, but they must be used. Are we to wait on and on? Excuse me, but I cannot understand. Who will hire more personnel?”
Camilleri says the CEO is better placed to answer that. And what perfect timing – the next witness is the BCA CEO, Jesmond Muscat.
Contacting the BCA
11.35am Cassar wants to know how the public can contact the BCA. The website only lists two office numbers. Camilleri says the office lines are manned until 9pm.
Cassar suggests that contact numbers should also be included on site notices, not just on the BCA website.
Cassar also asks about noise pollution standards [Earlier in the session, he noted that legal provisions concerning sound pollution are extremely vague, especially compared to similar laws overseas]. There should be a threshold as to hours when works can be done, he tells Camilleri.
The great unlicenced industry
11.27am Requiring all workers at construction sites to have licences right away “would bring the industry to a halt”, Camilleri concedes. But the plan is to get to that stage in the future, he says.
"Eventually, all workers will have to be qualified. If someone is laying bricks, he will need to be skilled to do so. Inspectors will check on that."
If inspectors find irregularities onsite, contractors will be fined and their licence may be revoked. That would impact all the contractor’s other projects too, Camilleri says.
For masons, aside from requiring them to obtain a licence, the BCA is also proposing refresher courses for existing ones. “You cannot get a licence 20 years ago and never get any updates,” he says.
BCA has 'about 21 inspectors'
11.23am Camilleri says currently work at the BCA is focused on the licencing of contractors and masons, as well as Energy Performance Certificates. He notes that contractors will need to have a licence to operate by the end of 2024.
Until then, control will be managed through “inspections”, which have been increased.
Camilleri says he does not know exactly how many inspectors the BCA currently has (“I’m not in the executive,” he says) but believes it is around 21.
BCA chair Saviour Camilleri testifies
11.15am The next witness of today’s session is Saviour Camilleri – the BCA’s current chairman. He is retired and previously managed construction sites, worked as a draughtsman and surveyor.
Camilleri says he is aware that his predecessor [Maria Schembri Grima] resigned due to “an incident about rocks falling on the street” but says it was not discussed at board level.
Determining third party impact
11.13am State Advocate lawyer Anthony Borg asks the witness who decides whether regulation 26 [concerning third party impact] applies.
The witness says that there are effective zones. If the works are outside those zones, then no third parties are impacted.
That’s all from this witness.
Corradino project began before BCA
11.11am Does the chamber of architects have the power to investigate while works are ongoing? “Yes,” she replies.
And does it have resources? “I cannot answer that.”
The Corradino project that killed Sofia predated the BCA that she chaired, so any commencement notice for it would have been issued before the authority was established, she says.
Who do you call?
11.08am Comodini Cachia asks what a person who believes construction is not being undertaken soundly should do.
The witness begins. “If it’s structural, it’s the chamber of architects. If it’s construction…”
The witness trails off. She’s stumped.
What does the BCA do?
11.03am Comodini Cachia notes what appears to be a glaring gap in the oversight process: safety is solely the OHSA’s remit, the BCA is only involved if third parties are impacted.
Schembri Grima is asked for more detail about the BCA’s specific role. “It ensures that the correct methodology for excavation and construction is followed,” the witness says. “Then it’s up to the Perit. The BCA vets that legal requirements are applied.”
She goes on. “The BCA won’t go into the design of piles, but only that piles are applied. It’s for the perit to check the design, the material and structure of those piles.”
10.55am Therese Comodini Cachia takes over questioning, and wants to know more about the "media spin” about the project that led to Schembri Grima resigning.
Comodini Cachia cites a Times of Malta article. Schembri Grima acknowledges the article laid out the correct facts, but says other media articles implied she was involved in the project’s demolition.
Schembri Grima says she quit Birkirkara project
10.45am Schembri Grima is asked more questions about the Birkirkara project that led to her resignation as BCA chair.
She says she visited the site often and that no works were scheduled for the Saturday when the demolition disaster occurred.
“After that, it was either me or him [the contractor]. I resigned from the project.”
Inquiry member Cassar notes that the contractor was let off with a €5,000 fine.
Being informed of works
10.32am Works cannot begin until a commencement notice is cleared by the authority, Schembri Grima explains.
It is illegal to start works before that clearance is given.
How is that enforced? There’s an “immediate” stop notice, she says.
The commencement notice is sent to the PA, she explains. If no third parties are involved, the BCA is out. If a building is not structurally sound, that’s not a BCA issue – it’s down to the various players in the project.
Learning of Sofia collapse
10.25am Schembri Grima says she cannot recall whether she learnt of the Sofia collapse through a phone call, or through the media
She says the BCA CEO, Jesmond Muscat, went onsite and spoke to her. She doesn’t recall what he told her.
“He told me there was a collapsed building in Kordin.”
The witness is asked what the BCA has done differently since then. She emphasises that the BCA’s remit is to ensure that neighbours are safe and that buildings are sustainable.
If a building does not touch any neighbouring properties, the BCA is not involved. The authority is still told of the commencement notice, to check whether there really is no third party involved.
KPIs and business plans
10.23am Zammit McKeon wants to know what Schembri Grima did to beef up the BCA’s inspectorate, given the country’s “frightening culture of lack of enforcement”.
Schembri Grima replies, but doesn't answer the question.
Her achievement was in developing a “strategic plan, a business plan, and KPIs,” she says. There is a need to classify contractors, she says, to distinguish between contractors of different sizes.
“BCA was still in its early phases. But it was working and there was the will to work,” she says.
Zammit McKeon notes that she did not answer the question.
“Please don’t come here with a prepared script,” he says. “It’s useless speaking about codes unless they are enforced.”
Work on building codes
10.18am Schembri Grima says that in her last board meeting as BCA chair, she asked the CEO [Muscat] to wrap up work on creating national building codes. There was also ongoing work to set up a depository where information could be logged.
No input into CEO choice
10.15am Schembri Grima says she did not know about Azzopardi’s discussions with the minister and only learnt of his constructive dismissal case from the media.
Nor was she involved in the choice of Azzopardi’s successor as CEO. “It’s the minister’s choice,” she says. [Azzopardi was succeeded by Jesmond Muscat].
'I made it clear I would not give up my private practice'
10.11am Schembri Grima lists some of the projects she works on: hotels in Paceville, the Park Lane project.
Inquiry chair Zammit McKeon asks her whether she didn’t see any..
“Conflict? No,” Schembri Grima cuts him off. She blames “the media” for having created an unfair image of her.
“When I was approached about the post, I made it clear that I would not leave my private practice,” she says, adding that other BCA board members also had private practices.
[Reminder: Schembri Grima was getting private work as an architect while chairing the regulator responsible for overseeing those projects. She was forced out of her BCA post after one of those projects involved dangerous demolition works that led to chunks of concrete falling onto a Birkirkara street]
Schembri Grima says that others responsible for work on that Birkirkara project had not followed method statements.
She resigned as BCA chair because there was "so much media spin that the authority was going to suffer," she says.
Maria Schembri Grima testifies
10.02am Karl Azzopardi is done testifying. The next witness is architect Maria Schembri Grima, who served as the BCA's first chairperson.
A lesson from the Corradino tragedy
9.59am Azzopardi notes that he was no longer at the BCA when the Corradino building collapsed, killing Sofia. He notes, however, that given that no third party was involved in the works, there was no requirement for the BCA to be notified. It’s a lesson to learn for the future, he says.
Three building codes, lying unused
9.55am Azzopardi confirms that work on three separate building codes is done and dusted, and has been for some time. But none of those codes have been implemented yet.
Azzopardi's disagreements with minister
9.51am Inquiry member Charles Deguara asks Azzopardi for specifics about the number of inspections and court cases during his time as CEO, but the witness says he does not know the figures offhand.
He is asked, again, about his clash with the minister. Was it about a lack of resources?
“I don’t think so. There was disagreement with my leadership,” he replies. Therese Comodini Cachia, representing the Sofia family, pushes on this point. Was there a decision to move slowly once Zrinzo Azzopardi became minister?
Azzopardi:“I was impatient. Three months after the election, I wanted to implement my plan. I’m not one to sit pretty behind my desk.”
Azzopardi learnt of Corradino case through media
9.45am Zammit McKeon asks the witness about the Corradino collapse that killed Jean Paul Sofia. Azzopardi says that he got to know of the incident through the media.
Insurance for contractors
9.42am Azzopardi is asked about insurance for contractors [an issue that has made headlines in the past weeks]. He says he believes insurance is paramount but he believes contractors should have specific policies tailored to each particular project they have.
Challenge of training inspectors
9.39am Inquiry member and architect Mario Cassar asks Azzopardi how the BCA could hope to oversee thousands of sites with just 11 inspectors. Azzopardi says the plan was to increase that number and to train them adequately – training was always the stumbling block when it came to recruitment, he says.
Cassar asks why building codes were not introduced along with a licencing regime for contractors. Azzopardi says the idea was to introduce things gradually, to allow the industry to adapt.
Azzopardi: 'It was a constructive dismissal'
9.32am Azzopardi is asked why his tenure at the BCA ended in mid-2022.
“There was a change of ministers after the election, and when we met it became clear that my plan was not agreed upon in principle,” he said. “There was a meeting and there was “an agreement to disagree.”
The minister in question is the current one, Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi.
Azzopardi says he asked the minister if he could continue to engage more people, but he felt that proposal "was not welcome".
"It was clear he was not agreeing with my leadership," he says. Pressed further, Azzopardi says it was a "constructive dismissal" and concedes that the case is currently before the Industrial Tribunal, awaiting a decision.
Conflicts of interest?
9.27am Azzopardi is asked whether, as CEO, he looked into possible conflicts of interest. [The BCA chair during Azzopardi's tenure, Maria Schembri Grima, was also a practicing architect while chairing the construction regulator. Schembri Grima was forced out earlier this year].
Azzopardi says he did not know the chair previously and was not aware of her private work, or who she did private work for.
'Not less' than 300 staff members
9.23am Azzopardi says the BCA was projected to have a headcount of “not less than 300”, including corporate, legal and administrative staff, but not counting consultants and specialised personnel.
Hiring slowed down in 2022 due to the general election, he says. By the time Azzopardi left the BCA (in June 2022), the BCA had 70 staff members, with "some nine to 11 inspectors".
Half the budget requested
9.20am Azzopardi is asked what budget they had to work with. He says he asked for €18 million and got €9 million.
That was still a hefty increase from the BCA(gency) budget of €1.8 million.
'We had meetings'
9.12am Inquiry chair Joseph Zammit McKeon wants to know if the BCA spoke to the Planning Authority, to tell it 'We're trying to bring some order to the industry, don't keep dishing out permits'.
Azzopardi replies: "We had meetings with the PA, and held informal workshops." The BCA was detached from the PA when it came to construction, he adds.
Azzopardi says the intention was to raise standards within the industry, using models like Singapore's to do so. He cites various plans: from introducing a national building code to licencing contractors, introducing mandatory skill cards for construction workers and Energy Performance Certificate requirements.
Setting up the BCA
9.04am Before there was the Building and Construction Authority, there was the Building and Construction Agency (yes, really).
The agency was set up in 2019 as a precursor to the BCA as we know it today, which was introduced two years later.
The day's first witness is Karl Azzopardi, the current-day BCA's first CEO who also served as CEO of Malta Industrial Parks, a precursor to INDIS Malta. Azzopardi was part of the working group that worked to transition the BCA(gency) to the BCA(thority). He walks the inquiry through the various steps in that process.
9am Good morning and welcome to this live blog. It's the second time in as many days that the public inquiry is in session.
If you missed Thursday's session, you can catch up on the detail here.