Stefan-Zrinzo-Azzopardi

Construction has been the subject of much controversy over the last years, as the number of incidents leaving damages to third parties, injuries, and indeed deaths steadily increased.

In July, the Maltese Government finally passed into law a piece of legislation that has been promised since 2019, claiming that it will bring a semblance of order and responsibility to an industry long described as something of a lawless jungle.

A major bone of contention has been the regulation of demolition and excavation, due to their particularly dangerous nature and their potential to cause damage to adjacent sites and innocent bystanders, as seen in Mellieħa, Gwardamanġa, Pieta, Birkirkara and Kordin.

The person tasked with getting these long-delayed regulations over the hump and established in law is Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi, Minister for Planning and Public Works since March 2022.

Since the new rules requiring the licensing of contractors involved in these dangerous activities came into effect in July, there has been no shortage of criticism. The Malta Developers Association (MDA) and the Chamber of Architects both expressed their disappointment that a draft provision making licensing conditional on the presentation of a valid insurance policy was removed in the final bill.

Meanwhile, contractors involved in demolition and construction speaking to BusinessNow.mt on condition of anonymity seemed entirely in the dark as to the requirements and obligations of licences.

“We don’t know anything. Neither do architects, nor the MDA,” said one contractor. “We are just going to apply and wait and see.”

Another contractor said that his company was not even going to apply for the time being, since there is no clarity about what having a licence would actually mean.

“Does this mean that all the workers need to be licensed and become liable for any damages? Forget about it! Our workers do not want and will not accept that responsibility.”

So are these much-touted regulations just a big bag of nothing? Or will they cause an industry seen as a key economic pillar to sputter and come to a halt?

BusinessNow.mt caught up with Minister Zrinzo Azzopardi to get his side of the story and find out whether all the criticism is justified, or is simply the rumblings of an industry resistant to change.

No small task

He begins by arguing that although the Government has come under fire for postponing the publication of the new rules for years, the challenge it faced should not be underestimated.

“How do you get a very large, very active, and almost totally unregulated industry into a comprehensive legal framework? It takes time,” he says, recalling that even the bill setting up the Building Regulations Office – the forerunner to the current Building and Construction Authority (BCA) – took two years from first reading to enactment.

“When he introduced that bill in 2009, George Pullicino [the then-Minister responsible for the sector] had stated that talks had been underway since 2000. So we need to recognise the scale of the challenge here.”

He explains that the point of departure for the new regulation was the mason’s (or builder’s) licence, which was introduced way back in the 19th century, and which was essentially the only form of licensing prior to the new rules.

Now, there will be three distinct licences – for excavation, for demolition, and a general contractor’s licence that effectively replaces the old Mason’s Licence, which will however remain relevant as an accepted qualification when registering under the new regulations.

Minister Zrinzo Azzopardi singles out excavation as the activity which presented the biggest question mark: “Traditionally, demolition would be overseen by the licensed builder, but in the case of excavation, it was a total grey area.”

As has been frequently pointed out, until now, anyone could buy an excavator one day and go dig pits next to people’s homes the next.

“The activity was not properly covered because it used to be done with handheld power tools,” says Minister Zrinzo Azzopardi. “The introduction of dedicated heavy machinery, as we started building further underground, completely changed the situation.”

Will it be enforced?

Responding to questions about the next steps of the licensing process, he explains that as from 1st November 2023, unlicensed contractors will not be allowed to work anywhere in Malta and Gozo.

From November 2023, contractors must have a provisional licence to be able to work. This is part of the lead up to the full entry into force of entire legislative package on 1st January 2025, with additional obligations and requirements being made clear as 2025 approaches.

The Minister says that the total enforcement workforce at the regulator numbers around 20 people. Surely, a far cry from what is needed to adequately oversee thousands of construction sites?

“We have three things helping us in this case,” he says. “First, if a contractor is found working without a licence, or has it revoked for any reason, then they simply cannot work any longer, whereas currently, if a building site is shut down due to irregularities, the contractor involved can just go work on another site.

“Second, while the penalties are substantial (potentially running up to €50,000), the real deterrent is the inability to work. Contractors are bound by timelines or they might have a number of promise of sales agreements already entered into. Being left unable to finish these projects makes them liable to significant losses – which means it is in the interest of all contractors to make sure that they are in line with the law.

“And third, the introduction of a requirement to obtain clearance before starting work on a project, back in 2021, means that if a contractor is unlicensed, they will not be allowed to begin.

“So a measure of enforcement is built into the system, making it less dependent on physical inspections.”

Upskilling the industry

Presented with contractors’ questions about the interpretation of the law, and whther it means that all workers must be licensed, Minister Zrinzo Azzopardi makes it clear that “by 1st January 2025, every single person working on a contruction site must have some certification.”

He says that experienced workers without academic qualifications will be able to have their skills recognised through a regulated structure.

“We understand that this is a big change, but that is why we have allowed such a long timeframe – over a year – before these requirements take effect. Now, the industry must get itself organised, and yes, it must send every worker to get the necessary training.”

When a licence comes up for renewal, the BCA may also require that the licensee attends a refresher course: “We cannot have a situation where you obtain a license at 16 or 17 and are still working with it 30 years later, without any further training.”

MCAST as well as private education institutions already offer or are prepared to offer the required training, he says, with the Building Industry Consultative Council (BICC) – due to be integrated within the BCA – possibly stepping in and providing specialised training where a skills gap is identified.

“Much of this training has long existed, but it was not being taken up. Now, it will be an obligation, so we expect to see a surge in participation as the industry works to upskill its workers.”

What about insurance?

As for the controversy about insurance requirements, Minister Zrinzo Azzopardi admits that the legal provision in question was removed after talks with insurance stakeholders, who explained that such blanket insurance cover simply cannot be offered.

“We could not impose a requirement that is simply unobtainable on the market,” he says. “Now, the BCA has reached an agreement in principle with insurance representatives, although the exact setup still needs to be ironed out.”

The BCA is set to issue guidance on the matter in due course, he says.

“What people need to understand,” he continues, “ is that this legislation is not the final destination. Rather, it is a step – a major one – on this journey we are undertaking to improve standards across the industry.

“Our intention is to regulate effectively, not pull up the handbrake on construction. It’s a question of culture change, of relearning, and of achieving better quality in both the process and the end result.”

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