The Malta Independent 15 April 2021, Thursday

Building contractors’ registry and licensing regulation proposals on the horizon

Kevin Schembri Orland Sunday, 28 February 2021, 08:30 Last update: about 3 months ago

Construction regulation proposals that will require building contractors to be both licensed and registered could possibly see the light of day this year, Parliamentary Secretary for Construction Chris Agius indicated to Kevin Schembri Orland during an interview.

Currently, a voluntary registry is run by the Malta Developers’ Association, however Agius explained that a mandatory registry will be introduced. Both this mandatory registry as well as the licensing of contractors will be handled by the Building and Construction Authority and will not be outsourced, he said. The authority in question is soon expected to be set up, after the relevant Bill is approved by Parliament. 

ADVERTISEMENT

 

The government has proposed a number of reforms for the construction sector. The Chamber of Architects had complained about a lack of serious consultation with them. Have you spoken to them?

I was a bit amazed when I read their statement. I've been responsible for this sector since June 2017 and one of our manifesto's proposals was to create a regulator for the construction industry.

Right after the election, when I was made responsible for the sector, we began working on the implementation of this proposal.

Over the past two years I held several meetings with both the Chamber of Architects and Civil Engineers, as well as the Malta Developers Association and other experts from the sector, who all gave advice on the best way forward.

In 2018 we launched a public consultation on the formation of a new regulator. We received a lot of feedback. 

After this, we began discussing the formation of an agency (Building and Construction Agency) with different stakeholders, which would eventually transform into an authority (Building and Construction Authority), as well as regarding laws which govern the stakeholders, a national building code, and eventually the licensing of contractors.

Some say two years is a long time to discuss, however introducing something new which will overhaul the industry requires time. But then there is a limit. We presented the Bill regarding the formation of the Building and Construction Authority in Parliament in November 2020, and we began discussing it this year. When I delivered my opening speech on the Bill, the Chamber of Architects issued a press release saying that my delivery made mention and took note of their proposals.

So I do not agree with the statement that they were not involved in discussions. It could be they wanted more discussions to take place, but once you've pushed a bill forward there is a committee stage in Parliament, in which clauses are discussed. We are currently in this stage and there was disagreement on a particular clause which was sent back to the drawing board. Experts are meeting to discuss it and we will meet in committee next week. We hope that this law will see agreement across the board.

  

Is it true that LESA might handle certain aspects of enforcement?

It was mentioned as an example by our advisor Robert Musumeci. The Bill states that the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) will be able to outsource. At the moment we have 10 enforcement officers, up from two. These ten will be doubled in the coming months. I'm not saying that we will be using LESA wardens, but during the past summers for instance, enforcement on sites was handled by the Malta Tourism Authority, the Planning Authority and the Building and Regulation Office (BRO).

If a contractor does something illegal and refuses to listen to our enforcement officers, the enforcement officers might also take the police with them. That is another way one would use others who do not form part of the BCA to assist in the enforcement operations.

 

The concern is that, while the BRO officers had the technical expertise to know what they are doing, but LESA officers for example...

Maybe mentioning LESA wasn't the best example. But during summer, during the period when no excavation and demolition is allowed in tourism zones, the people who go on site are from the MTA, together with those from the current Building and Construction Agency and the Planning Authority.

 

So there would always be some expert?

Definitely. Let's say that we have condition reports which require verification, then the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) would be able to engage experts. It may outsource to architects to verify method statements. So that is why we are not closing doors for outsourcing.

 

So then, just to put everyone's minds at ease. When it comes to checking, inspecting construction sites, there will always be someone who understands the industry and has the necessary experience and qualifications to examine.

Definitely. All those personnel engaged in the inspectorate and enforcement section of the BCA will have all the necessary qualifications.
I cannot ever see people from LESA, who are more learned in traffic issues, being sent onto a construction site. I think it was a misunderstanding.

 

You mentioned the licensing of contractors, isn't there already a register?

The MDA had launched a contractors’ register which is voluntary. The BCA will eventually issue a regulation which obliges that all contractors be licensed and registered.

The licensing of contractors is another piece of legislation we have been working on, together with the Malta Developers Association, the Chamber of Architects and Civil Engineers and our experts. To licence contractors, you need to have everything in place. 

So the question becomes, how can you licence a contractor? How do you licence a person operating a bulldozer? Till today, you can buy a bulldozer or a jigger and just use it. We are working with the National Commission for Further and Higher Education to have everything in place.

 

Will it be a state issued licence?

Definitely. The BCA will handle licensing. 

 

So it won't be outsourced to the Malta Developers Association for example?

Definitely not.

 

Are you considering having a tiered structure of licensing? As an example, some contractors would be outfitted to handle excavation works while others wouldn't be?

The expert groups meeting together with stakeholders are thinking along those lines, having say a one star to five-star system, or perhaps different tiers, or highlighting who is an expert at doing what. 

 

Regarding the contractors' register which you said the MDA runs...

It is currently not obligatory. When it will be obligatory, it will be the BCA that will control it.

 

So it won't be outsourced once it is made mandatory?

Definitely not.

 

The BCA will come out with new laws and regulations once it is set up. If a contractor will be found to constantly break the rules, will there be a way for contractors to lose their licence or be struck off the registry?

Definitely, aside from the possibility of taking other action. The contractor may be fined, maybe they would be blacklisted if the law continues to be broken. I'm thinking aloud and we are still in the process of putting these in place, but you cannot treat people who don't abide by the law equally to those who do abide by the law. 

 

So the licenses will be tied to the mandatory registry?

Definitely. We are currently working on the formation of the BCA and in Parliament we are discussing what its responsibilities will be. Eventually this law will allow the BCA to issue its rules and regulations. 

Among these will be a law on the stakeholder's obligations - which will be issued in the coming months. Another will be the National Building Code, which will be updated every so often. On this Code, we will start off with those points relating to excavation, demolition and structural integrity and move on from there. Eventually there would be a section on noise among others, so the document will grow.

 

With regards to timeframes for the mandatory registry and licencing, are we looking at a five-year wait?

No, definitely not. I believe that the Building and Construction Authority Act will be enacted in the first quarter of this year. We are looking to launch the public consultation for the National Building Code and the stakeholder's obligations in the next couple of months. I hope we will have these by summer.

If the expert group comes with a good proposal, then we will have the contractor's registry proposal later this year. Licensing will be part and parcel with this. 

We should also consider giving people time to get in line. As an example, last year we enacted the licensing law for real estate operators, but because none of those currently working in the sector had one as it did not exist, we gave them a grace period of one year to get a licence. 

We cannot stop the sector. We cannot say that those who do not have a licence, which up till this day does not exist to drive a crane for instance, should immediately stop without us providing the necessary tools for them to get the licence. That wouldn't be fair on anyone.

 

The Miriam Pace tragedy shook the country into taking action. But the industry was essentially left to its own devices for many years. Why did it take so long, why did it take such a tragedy for things to start moving?

I tend to agree with what you've said. We had an incident back in 2004 on a construction site, where third party property fell due to works and two people lost their lives. Then the Miriam Pace tragedy happened a year ago. It is true that nothing was done for many years, but in 2017 we promised that we would set up a regulator for the industry, because it grew exponentially over the past seven years and we wanted to control it. 

We began consulting about this back in 2017 and one must accept that this sector was 'uncontrolled' for many years. We didn't want to create an earthquake in the industry or stop it from operating, but we wanted to control it. This is why we took all this time to discuss, hear suggestions from people within the sector. The Prime Minister also took the decision to launch an inquiry following Miriam Pace's death, and this report was also used by our experts who are working on the upcoming laws, so that what was decided in that report will be reflected in the laws being enacted.

It took quite a long time but thankfully, now, we are very close to having new laws in place. We hope and are sure that the industry will react well to the suggestions and, eventually, we will have less accidents and neighbours of construction sites will have more peace of mind.

 

Can you say that punishments for breaches, once the new laws and regulations are implemented, will be effective and that fines will not just be there for show. Can you guarantee that fines actually issued will be for substantial amounts?

I believe in self-regulation. You cannot have an enforcement officer on every site. But not all contractors are good ones, and there would be the odd one out who would do whatever they want. Those need constant enforcement and I believe that, now that we have launched a freephone our officials will have a lot of work to do. But besides issuing fines, I think the law will provide harsher penalties for those who are repeat offenders. 

 

There has been a lot of concern over the years with regard to the closeness of people within the construction industry to the government. How do you respond to this?

Over the past years we witnessed an economic boom in many sectors, one of which is the construction sector. As a government we are close to all industries - the manufacturing sector, tourism, the aviation industry... the government needs to work closely with all those creating wealth, employment opportunities and working for the future of the country. I find nothing wrong in holding discussions with these people.

 

I'm referring to favouritism, or even being close to the extent where the government would favour developers over residents.

This law will be a step forward where we will give more rights to people who are affected by construction sites. Last week we launched a new 24/7 freephone for people affected by construction, we will be doubling the number of enforcement officers, we issued another scheme for people affected by neighbouring construction sites, we will be regulating contractors, we will be clear on the responsibility of stakeholders... this is a chain that will eventually ensure that all parties will be doing their part. After all, I don’t think it’s fair that people who are meant to be living in the quiet of their home cannot even open a window due to a construction site next door.

We should, in the coming months and years, look at all difficulties people face.

 

 

  • don't miss