The Malta Independent 25 May 2020, Monday

Indepth: There are lives at stake: Contractors should be regulated too, KTP president insists

INDEPTH online Sunday, 15 March 2020, 07:45 Last update: about 3 months ago

The Chamber of Architects and Civil Engineers  has long insisted for changes to be made to the Periti Act so that it can have more tools to safeguard the profession and society, Simone Vella Lenicker, the president of the Chamber of Architects and Civil Engineers, said on Indepth.

Interviewed by The Malta Independent Deputy Editor-in-Chief Neil Camilleri, Vella Lenicker spoke about the changes the Chamber wants to see within the construction industry, especially after the unfortunate building collapse in Ħamrun earlier this month that resulted in the death Miriam Pace.

The president of the Malta Developers Association, Sandro Chetcuti, declined to take part in the programme.

"Every player within the industry is responsible for the situation we find ourselves in nowadays, not only with the death of a resident, but also all those workers who have died on-site in other cases," Vella Lenicker said.

She believes that this is not a time to simply point fingers, but rather a time to ensure that everyone from all sides of the industry, including the government, starts taking action and help the industry move forward. "This industry is one of the most important for our country and yet it is the least regulated one."


Chamber of Architects' perspective on the 2019 regulations

Vella Lenicker explained that the regulations the Infrastructure Ministry had introduced last year were a reaction to the number of collapses that took place after each other. These regulations included the introduction of a Site Technical Officer (STO) and the requirement for a method for the works.

At the time, a moratorium was put in place on the entire construction industry, and the regulations were released in a rash manner, without having been studied enough.

"These regulations confused the responsibilities of those who are involved in such projects which, up until then, were based on the Civil Law," she said, while pointing out that the architect and the contractor are the only ones responsible for the work being done. The developer also shares a bit of responsibility as they also have legal obligations to abide by.

She added that, apart from this legal notice, the government had plans to introduce other precautions by the end of the year, but they never got implemented; one of them being the licensing and classification of contractors. 

"We (the Chamber) use the example of a person needing a food handling license for cooking a burger, yet, no training or qualifications to demolish a building. We are dealing with lives here, not just the residents who live near the construction sites but also the workers themselves, so, it is not acceptable that anyone can become a contractor," Vella Lenicker said.

Since the architect and the contractor shoulder the responsibility together, it is unfair for one profession to be regulated while the other is not.

Asked what an architect should do in cases where the architect is following regulations but the contractor is not, Vella Lenicker said the Chamber had released a directive which states that no compromise can be reached because people's lives are being put at risk.

"We believe that, from our end, this directive is being endorsed to the point that some architects end up resigning from projects due to disagreements with the contractors involved. We have almost become policemen as we have to ensure that contractors follow the steps we recommend."

She said that everyone needs to pull their weight in order to guarantee that regulations are abided by. However, the toughest challenge the industry faces is that there is a lack of officials available to make any enforcements necessary and the Building and Construction Agency is not getting enough financial aid and resources.

Asked about the disciplinary measures that the chamber has in place against members who are found to be guilty of wrongdoing, she said that the Chamber of Architects is always working to ascertain that members of this profession work in a proficient manner.

However, the procedures the chamber has to follow are established by the Periti Act.

She explained that, at the moment, the process is as follows; "once a report is given in or the chamber decides to investigate a specific case, a process of inquiry and testifying takes place. Afterwards, the chamber can make a recommendation to the minister for the warrant of the architect in question to be revoked and this can be appealed for by the Court of Appeal. The warrant cannot be revoked by the Chamber itself as it is given and taken away by the state."

If the architect is found guilty of involuntary murder and is sentenced for more than 2 years in prison, that is an automatic reason for the warrant to be taken away from them. If the sentence is less than 2 years or if the architect is released, the Chamber can still investigate issues of negligence or disruption of the Civil Code.

Vella Lenicker believes that "while these regulations, to a certain extent, might have sufficed until now, the Chamber has insisted on making changes to the Periti Act so that it can have more tools to safeguard the profession and ensure security for society."


The effects of the 2019 regulations and what needs to be improved

Vella Lenicker believes that the new regulations saw a number of sites increasing their safety measures for both residents and workers. However, she thinks that there is certain "bullishness" within the sector.

"There are regulations, but one also has to consider the 'points of best practice'. Just because something is not written in the law it does not mean that you shouldn't do it," she said. "We have to be professional and make it a point to take the required measures, even if they are not listed in the law."

She emphasised that the construction industry is a complex sector, so, there cannot be a regulation for every situation that can occur on-site - "there cannot be a template per se."

An example of a regulation that could not be regulated by a template is the method statement - the form that describes the process that contractors should follow during construction.

When the legal notice was released last year, there was a formula that architects could not go beyond which limited the information architects could provide to contractors.

Vella Lenicker explained that they had discussed this limitation with the authorities, who accepted their notion for architects to attach other detailed annexes with their method statement where needed.

Despite this amendment, there were still method statements that lacked detail as in the case of the Ħamrun building collapse. The Malta Independent asked if this comes as a result of there not being enough architects to keep up with the demand that the new regulations have caused.

Vella Lenicker noted that the chamber had raised concern on there not being enough architects to act as a Site Technical Officer.

However, it did not agree the government's decision to widen the spectrum of people who can act as the STO by having anyone who graduated in any engineering course be eligible for the position.

"What would someone who graduated in computer science know about excavation and demolition?"

Asked if this increase in manpower might have contributed to higher property pricing, Vella Lenicker said that it is hard to say exactly.

"There were other issues that came up, like the increase in rent prices and political insecurity, which caused a reduction in demand for property. Having said this, from what we have encountered, developers faced higher costs and they needed to recover those funds from somewhere."

Last Wednesday, the Chamber was planned to meet the government and voice a number of proposals for changes to be made to the 2019 regulations. Unfortunately, the meeting was cancelled due to an urgent Coronavirus press conference but The Malta Independent asked Vella Lenicker on what these proposals entailed.

"The proposals we were going to put forward are not any different from the things that the government committed to doing last August," she explained.

One of the proposals is for the establishment of a new authority that encompasses all entities and laws that have to do with the construction industry, which will have enough strength and resources to regulate the construction sector.

It is also insisting on a debate on the Periti Act, which should have been carried out by last October.

"I hope that this is carried out soon so that people understand that we take our job seriously."

Finally, the Chamber is asking for the legal notice of 2019 to be amended so that the issues that cause confusion in the sector are addressed and regulated if needed.

Asked if construction work needs to stop until there is this reform, Vella Lenicker remarked that this is a political decision that will have an effect on a number of sectors, not just construction.

"It is an alarming situation that we have gotten to a place where someone has died and if more cases take place, we might need to make this decision.  I believe that, as a Chamber, we have to be active and constructive by providing a phasing plan for our proposals that spans over 3 years, and if everyone takes it seriously, this industry can be stabilised."




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