The Malta Independent 22 July 2019, Monday

Ombudsman proposes ‘one-stop-shop’ comprising all government environmental entities, authorities

Wednesday, 19 June 2019, 14:18 Last update: about 2 months ago

A single governmental “one-stop-shop” should be created to receive every complaint about any environmental related matter, be it on the built environment or the un-built environment, the Commissioner for the Environment and Planning within the Ombudsman’s Office has proposed.

Reacting to the publication of the new draft Avoidance of Damage to Third Party Property Regulations, the Commissioner wrote that the average citizen is wasting a lot of time trying to find which government entity they should refer their complaint to, with serious consequences when the cases are of an urgent nature, and so such a one-stop-shop should be created to make it easier to submit such complaints.

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This one-stop-shop – called the Government Authorities, Departments and Entities Related to the Environment Networking Group - would have the power to immediately send the complaint to an enforcement officer; to keep the entities concerned informed about the complaint; to keep a centralised digital archive of all documents, possibly including structural documents prepared by the architect responsible and the results of the tests carried out, that are submitted to government entities; to receive commencement notices for every project; to serve as a collectors of fines; and to serve as a central point where government entities can discuss sticking points between themselves, the document published by the Ombudsman reads.

The commissioner recommends that apart from the existing commencement notice, a ‘prebuilding commencement notice’ which incorporates the signature of the contractor responsible for demolition and excavation along with those off the site manager, architect and developer should also be submitted.

Furthermore, the commissioner writes that the distance between works and dividing walls as prescribed by Article 439 of the Civil Code should be enforced and that projects which are still at prebuilding stage should be amended by the project architect to reflect this article. In the case that excavations have already begun the part of the dividing wall excavated within the distance prescribed by law should be reinforced by a concrete wall or a similar structure as ordered by the architect, the document reads.

Article 439 of the Civil Code stipulates that no excavations can take place within 76 centimetres of the dividing wall between on property and another.

The commissioner explained that more than the Architect, the Site Manager should be on site when important decisions and should within 12 hours submit the orders and plans in writing to the aforementioned one-stop-shop along with proof that the order has been passed to the contractor.

The commissioner also noted that this Act removes the obligation to cut a canal which was necessary to reduce vibrations on contiguous structures. 

“Despite the fact that one can reach agreement on the fact that such a trench can have negative consequence when it is dug with a trencher, there are advantages when this is done with a saw.”

“This hence should be done to a depth of a metre and a half around the perimeter of the site except for where it is certified to be out of reach of the machine or where there may be negative consequences to digging the trench”, the document reads.

The commissioner also suggested that the name of the act should be changed to ‘Regulations for Safety in demolition, excavation, and construction works’ so to reflect the fact that it serves to protect not just third party property but also persons and public areas such as roads.

In the case that owners notice cracks that are not hairline in nature, a detailed report penned by an architect should be sent to the project architect, site manager and one-stop-shop who, on their part, should immediately stop works until direction is given otherwise, the commissioner wrote. This should apply both in the building and prebuilding phase.

“If in this case, the works do not cease, the architect, site manager and contractor should be subject to drastic fines which increase on a day-by-day basis”, the commissioner added.

Furthermore, due to the urgency of certain situations, email notifications to the persons in charge should serve as a legal notice while criminal procedure should also be clarified for those who breach these measures and place the lives of others in danger, the report reads.

Looking at the actual law, the commissioner notes that Article 26(1) of the draft cannot be applied as at the date in which these regulations are enacted it cannot be established with certainty which projects would be ready in the space of a month from that date.

Article 26(1) in the draft bill states that construction works which have started and finished in the space of a calendar month from the date that this law is enacted do not fall under the disposition of this same law.

“It would be better if this article is changed to read that the rules do not apply to those projects which are in the phase wherein the penultimate ceiling has been completed, in which case the current regulations would apply”, the commissioner notes.

Turning to the cases of excavations which have started and need to be completed, the recommendations note that every such excavation should be registered through the submission of a prebuilding commencement notice; that the excavations which are in isolated zones and do not touch on other buildings can continue; that the state of any other excavation should be detailed through a report penned by the project architect and substantiated by pictures – for which measures stipulated in the new Act should stipulated.

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