Dad, political sociologist, local councillor, drummer from Malta

Monday, September 25, 2017

The crash of bricks

Photo by Jonathan Borg
Last week a roof in Sliema crashed under the weight of bricks that were being transported to an adjacent building under construction. Luckily, a woman inside the room escaped with no injuries.
As is usually the case in such incidents, police are investigating and a magisterial inquiry is under way. Should such procedures suffice? I really don’t think so.
Indeed, some questions come to mind. How many health and safety inspections are carried out by officers from the Occupational Health and Safety Authority on such matters? Is it fair that companies with health and safety requirements face competition by companies that do not invest in protective clothing, safety pro-cedures and the like? Why is it that local councils have no legal authority as re-gards enforcement?
Following the incident in Sliema, a representative of the Chamber of Engineers publicly informed me that they are aware of certain issues regarding new legislation on the safe use of work equipment and that their council was following this up closely. The president of the Local Councils Association, Mario Fava, also publicly informed me that the association was looking into this matter.
One possible way forward in this regard would be to introduce safety wardens. They could work in the same way as traffic wardens, even though I believe that it would be better to have them under direct local council control rather than under the authority of a national government agency. Subsidiarity – the granting of authority at a level closest to citizens – is usually preferable to State centralisation, which is often subject to layers of bureaucracy.
But I would also suggest that one also looks at the bigger picture.  Malta is currently experiencing a construction boom, and it is important to understand its implications.
The most obvious implication relates to the hefty increase in urban, rural and ODZ development permits.
Development optimists would argue that the new scenario may encourage competition among contractors, who may raise standards to their clients’ needs. But it may also be the case that competition can lead to cutthroat practices, often involving foreign workers with inferior work conditions and lax health and safety procedures.
Collaboration between government authorities, local councils, developers’ representatives and experts is imperative to ensure that residents, pedestrians and workers are protected from building abuse and irregularities.
Some may also question whether Malta is too dependent on this economic model, whether the construction industry should be so politically influential and whether we are creating an artificial property bubble. I for one buy such questions, though I would add that the problem is more complex than we usually make it out to be.
One reason for this is that many citizens are directly or indirectly investing in property. Some may be renting property to others, others may be developing, and others may be involved in financial investments which in turn invest in property.
Indeed, many owners of financial assets are finding that it makes more sense to buy property and rent it out, given the poor return on savings and the risk of buying bonds or shares.
For the moment this is proving to be a good investment, as the demand for rented property is high due to the increase in the size of the population, mostly as a result of the large number of foreigners.
However, excessive dependency on foreigner tenants may be risky, especially if numbers slow down. If an increase in property supply exceeds demand, this may encourage speculative behaviour by home buyers and property investors fuelled by unrealistic home price estimates. Given that many developers and contractors are indebted to banks, there could be dire consequences if a bubble occurs and debts cannot be settled.
Thus it would be advisable to ensure proper governance both of construction as it takes place, but also of the property development industry in general. Given that many Maltese people are directly or indirectly involved in this sector, it is ever more important to ensure that the country’s economic model is diversified rather than being over-dependent on one sector. This is yet another area which requires evidence-based policymaking, sustainable governance and proper enforcement.

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