The Malta Independent 18 June 2024, Tuesday
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Contractors’ licences will act as ‘deterrent’, build a ‘compliance culture’ – Planning Minister

Marc Galdes Sunday, 19 March 2023, 07:30 Last update: about 2 years ago

The implementation of a licensing system for contractors is a preventive measure that aims to build a “compliance culture,” Planning Minister Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi said.

“The fact that you have a licence to lose, is in itself, an important deterrent,” he said in an interview with The Malta Independent on Sunday.

Zrinzo Azzopardi recognised the importance of enforcement within the construction sector. However, he pointed out how currently the enforcement taking place is through fines and stop notices, which is “reactive”. He said that he does not only want an authority that supervises and enforces, but an authority that also moves towards a compliance culture.


"Yes, enforcement is important; yes, it is important that someone enforces more through inspections. But in this field we what to implement a compliance culture.”

A “compliance culture,” he said, will be achieved by implementing structures that will guide contractors to work in the correct way.

The proposed regulations for the licensing of building contractors were presented and announced by Zrinzo Azzopardi last Monday. He also announced the start of the public consultation period which will go on for six weeks and end on 21 April.

This regulatory framework will be eased in and people can start applying for licences from 1 June, however, the final cut-off point will be 1 January 2025 when all contractors will require a licence to work.

This licensing system has been in the pipeline for four years, starting with Minister Ian Borg who promised it in 2019. Last November, Zrinzo Azzopardi had said that contractors in the construction industry will “soon” require a licence to operate in the industry.

Since then construction industry stakeholders have expressed their support for the planned legislation to license building contractors.

The Malta Independent on Sunday conducted an interview with Zrinzo Azzopardi to discuss further this licensing regime and how the government plans to improve the construction sector.

Recently both Prime Minister Robert Abela and Zrinzo Azzopardi separately said that the construction industry does not lack regulation. Considering the many instances of shoddy work being carried out by the so-called “cowboy contractors,” the minister was asked to expand on his claim.

Zrinzo Azzopardi said that a legal framework regulating this sector already exists and he pointed out how there were instances in the past where contractors answered for their serious malpractices.

If we had no law that regulates, you would definitely not be capable of having these types of procedures.”

He said that now the government has begun a discussion to take an additional step to regulate the sector further through the licensing of contractors.

“Let's put everything in context: Today the only licence that exists that has been with us for a number of years is the builders licence. This is a concept that was introduced towards the end of the 19th century. But since then there has been no licence for a person to become a contractor.”

He said that the fact that someone is applying for the licence means that you are leaving it in the hands of a public authority to grant permission to carry out work that fits certain standards.

To explain it better, he compared it to a driver’s licence. He said that someone could know how to drive, but if they do not have a licence then they will not be allowed to drive on the road. The same applies to the contractors’ licences, although someone might know how to carry out the work of a contractor, they would still need the Building and Construction Authority to grant them a licence to conduct their work.


Power to suspend or revoke a licence

Asked what the criteria were for a contractor to have their licence suspended or revoked, Zrinzo Azzopardi said: “there will be a board determining the way that work is carried out.”

He mentioned how there are currently methods of enforcement in place that already work, such as fines and stop notices.

With the option to revoke or suspend a licence, he said that this increases enforcement in a considerable way. Whereas before a stop notice would stop the work on one site, suspending or revoking a contractor’s licence will stop the work on any site that falls under that contractor.

He pointed out how the BCA was established in 2021 and has not been around for long, which is why they are focused on constantly strengthening this.

Asked whether contractors who have a history of malpractices will be granted a licence he said: “the fact that we are making this jump to implement this regulatory framework, from there we will have the power so that someone from the authority can enforce.”

Pressed to answer the original question, he said that he would not like to establish the way that the committee will be working.


‘Adequate’ health and safety knowledge

The wording of the draft construction industry licensing regulations says that one of the requirements an applicant needs to be granted a licence is “adequate knowledge of basic health and safety standards and regulations.”

Asked about why only “adequate” knowledge is required, Zrinzo Azzopardi said: “’Adequate’ was used in that framework to explain that whoever enters this sector will need to know the basics of what you need to know with regard to health and safety.

“This is a way to continue strengthening awareness in favour of health and safety. We must not forget, a legal framework for health and safety already exists and already specifies the obligations of everyone who works. It already explains the obligations of health and safety in the workplace, particularly in the field of construction.” He added that in no way do they want to “dilute” this legal framework that already exists.

“What we need to see is that those being granted a licence show the committee that they are aware of their responsibilities.”

Pressed by asking how the committee will assess the applicants’ knowledge of health and safety, he said that the committee will have the power to conduct interviews for all applicants.

He mentioned how awareness is another way to improve health and safety in the workplace. “Although the OHSA has been around for 20 years, I believe there is not enough awareness and we need to do a lot more.”

“Health and safety should not only be enforced because an official is present, or because you received a fine, or because a stop notice was issued but it should also be enforced because there is awareness regarding the responsibility that they carry.”

Therefore, he said that when someone is being evaluated to receive a licence, they need to show that they understand the responsibility that they carry, which in the writing is referred to as “adequate knowledge.”


Transparency within the BCA

Former chairperson Maria Schembri Grima resigned from her position after it emerged that she was the architect for a site in Birkirkara which was carrying out dangerous demolition works. Also, questions about biases were raised as she was the architect for a number of large developers, such as Michael Stivala and Joseph Portelli. In her stead, Saviour Camilleri is new the chairperson of the BCA.

To ensure transparency the Nationalist Party (PN) asked the government to nominate Camilleri for parliamentary scrutiny.

Asked whether Camilleri should be nominated for parliamentary scrutiny to ensure that the BCA will carry out its work correctly without any biases, Zrinzo Azzopardi said that the board of the BCA actually includes a member who was nominated by the PN.

“Although the law does not ask that a member be appointed by the leader of the Opposition, a decision was taken by the government to let Dr Bonello, a member of the board, be appointed by me but nominated by the leader of the Opposition.”

He said that this displayed a transparent aspect to the authority.

However, when pressed to give an answer to the question, he said that “this is a discussion which could happen, but at this stage, we should not say that there is a lack of transparency.”


No public inquiry into the death of Jean Paul Sofia

The minister was asked about the government’s reluctance to appoint a public inquiry into the death of a young man on a construction site.

20-year-old Jean Paul Sofia died last December when a building under construction collapsed, with the man's body being found by Civil Protection Department personnel many hours after the collapse.

Since then, the PN and the parents of Sofia have been asking for a public inquiry into Sofia’s death as this will place the sector under scrutiny and propose recommendations to improve it and prevent events like this from taking place. Currently, a magisterial inquiry is taking place but both the PN and Sofia’s parents have expressed that this is not enough.

Asked why the government was against a public inquiry which would reveal recommendations that could help improve this sector, Zrinzo Azzopardi listed a number of incentives that the government is currently doing to strengthen the sector.

“There is a need to implement a structure of skills cards which show the skills of the worker, because for the sector to move forward, besides compliance with laws and regulations, we need to make sure that we have a workforce that is better trained and up to date, so that they can show that they have the training required.”

“Even if his training is coming from experience, we need to see how to translate the experience that they have through formal certification, which can be done through skill cards. This is a discussion that will take place soon, in fact, we have a legal notice prepared to introduce this.”

Pressed to answer the question, he continued by saying that as Minister he is determined to continue taking action.

He then went on to mention how there needs to be a clearer understanding of building code, to make sure that contractors keep to this standard.

When asked to clarify that the government does not plan to use a public inquiry into Sofia’s death to improve the sector, he said: “I believe that that are these decisions that are being taken and I believe that we need to have the courage and the determination to carry out what is required from us.”


Planning system overhaul


In an interview, the president of the Chamber of Architects and Civil Engineers (Kamra tal-Periti – KTP) Andre Pizzuto criticised the planning system for reviewing applications on a case-by-case basis and judging applications through quantitative assessments.

He suggested that instead development planning should involve the “coordination of different departments” to draw up a “master plan” which addresses the area as a whole.

Asked whether a complete overhaul of the planning system is on the government's agenda, Zrinzo Azzopardi mentioned Strategic Plan for the Environment and Development (SPED).

SPED was announced by former Planning Minister Aaron Farrugia and plans to review the local plans which were established in 2006.

“This is a process that is taking quite a lot of time. What is the scope of this document? We need to identify as a country, what development is needed and we need to discuss better in a scientific way, the type of development we want to reach.”

He acknowledged that a lot of development has taken place, not only over the past ten years, and also that this development is linked to the economic growth Malta has experienced.

“Even the way development happens in our country, we need to ask important questions.

So that firstly, we understand what is needed. Secondly, we identify the type of development that we need.”

He added that this also needs to incorporate sustainable development. He mentioned the importance to have a discussion about energy-efficient buildings, which can be used to reduce energy consumption and reach EU carbon-neutral targets.

“The vision should be one, we have an open, responsible and mature discussion to understand the needs of this country and how the needs of today and tomorrow will be addressed in this framework.”

Asked to give an update on SPED which was last mentioned in 2021, he said that currently, the Planning Authority is waiting for the studies it asked for from SPED to conclude.

He said that he looks forward to seeing these studies concluded so that these can be discussed and reported on better in the future.

Pressed to give a tentative date, he explained how these are “extensive studies” which does not only look at development but also the industry as a whole.

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