The legal notice on third party properties drawn up by government adviser Robert Musumeci has generated a fair amount of controversy. He sat down with Vanessa Macdonald to explain the rationale.

Isn’t the law a knee-jerk reaction? Entities have been asking for laws to be revised for years.

There was a process under way to consolidate the building codes, and meetings were already being held. After the third collapse, we got the 2013 legal notice on third party properties…

Why did you wait till the third building collapse? Why didn’t you do something after the first?

We were already reviewing the law but then we accelerated the process to do – in one week – what had to be done. This stop-gap measure is not meant to be the final document but the government wanted to tackle the issues that emerged from the 2013 legal notice.

The main issue was the method statement, which was not previously clearly defined as it is now. It is now much more onerous – I think too onerous and maybe should be toned down if it emerges that some clauses are not necessary. A site manager was required by law (in terms of third party rights) to ensure that the method statement – which is by its very nature very complicated – was followed.

And now you have gone to the other extreme and said it could only be an architect…

The government is already on record as saying that at any point in time the minister could consider other competences, and engineers could be included.

There are thousands of construction projects under way at the moment. Are there enough architects and engineers to do this, or will we effectively end up with less on-site surveillance? Will it actually make things safer?

Not all projects require a site technical officer (STO). The schedule in the legal notice makes it very clear where they are required: when there is excavation, demolition or construction that impacts third parties.

The site manager was there to look after the developer/owner’s interest. That was changed and the contractor now appoints the STO. Yet, they are the ones most likely to take shortcuts. Isn’t there a conflict of interest?

The STO will be a warranted person and their first loyalty is to the warrant. And the contractor is already bound by other health and safety regulations to have a set-up, to have well-trained workers, certified lifting equipment, a risk assessment in place and so on. I see this as a way to make contractors more aware of their obligations.

Just as there are lawyers and notaries who are bad apples in spite of their warrant, there could be architects who might succumb to pressure from the person who is appointing them…

There are bad apples in all sectors in every level in society. You need to draft the law on the assumption that all warrant-holders are acting in good faith. There are fora where if there is negligence or, worse, voluntary commission, then procedures will be put in motion. An STO is now obliged by law to halt works if the method statement is not being followed, it is very clear.

If an STO closes their eyes to something, the implications are much more serious, which is why we put in much harsher deterrents. An omission would previously have carried a €500 fine, now increased to €10,000.

If works persist in spite of an enforcement notice, the fine has shot up from €1,200 to €50,000. You have to see the law in a wider dimension. But I reiterate that the Kamra tal-Periti [Chamber of Architects] is right on this point: contractors should be aware of their obligations from the Health and Safety Act and they must have a competent person on site to monitor what is going on.

The abrupt introduction of this legal notice caused havoc, bringing everything to a halt. Was it necessary?

We could have had a repeat of what happened a few weeks ago, and who would then take responsibility for delays? It had to be seen in the context of public safety. Is any other conclusion possible?

And what about the tremendous increase in costs? Are they justified?

It is – theoretically – possible that some of the method statements already done were not sufficient to ensure safety. So they now need to be standardised. And architects need to submit them to the Planning Authority, rather than to the Building Regulation Office.

The BRO was supposed by law to publish them on its site but never did so.

Indeed, there was no traceability. Now the method statement has to follow the rules and must be published so that all stakeholders have access to it and have two weeks in which to object. This is a new concept.

I can’t say this will guarantee that there are no accidents in the future but I think it is a step in the right direction. You cannot eliminate risks but you have to minimise them.

What happens to the current site managers? Are they all out of a job, unless they happen to be architects or engineers?

Be careful to distinguish between STOs dealing with complex method statements and project managers. The latter are there to make sure that works are delivered on time… They are not affected by this law.

Lecturer Ruben Paul Borg had said in a recent Times Talk edition that concrete buildings should be assessed as concrete has a lifespan of 35-40 years.

In fact, the schedules actually say that a range of tests must be done before construction commences, reflecting what he said. This assessment is now an obligation.

Any project is only as strong as its weakest link. Masons have to be licensed. The list has finally been published. There is no ID card given. And do you know that there are people on that list who are dead?

Very good point. Before I could authorise the start of works, as an architect I had to certify that it would be overseen by a licensed mason, who had to sign the commencement notice. It would be my obligation to ensure that they have a valid licence.

The Kamra tal-Periti rightly insisted on the list being made public… in reality, I agree with many of its arguments and they are definitely acting in good faith, even if we remain at odds over some points.

I want to make it clear that I salute the current president who is a very dedicated, decent and competent woman.

I agree that some of the details on that list need to be improved. There are even people on that list who got licensed some time ago but did not renew it. Infrastructure Minister Ian Borg already decided to look into this.

It is good to see that awareness is improving and that something good will come out of this.

Again, a law is only as good as its enforcement. The people in Ħamrun had flagged problems weeks before but the BRO did not react. The BRO’s budget of €150,000 is considerably less than that for carnival…

The government is on record saying that by the end of the year a new authority would be in place to take things forward. At the moment, the BRO’s enforcement directorate has merged with that of the Planning Authority, which is much stronger and more visible.

So you believe that neighbours can now sleep easier?

For the first time, they are at the centre of the law. Method statements are now admittedly costlier – but that is because they must be more comprehensive. And third parties have two weeks in which to check them and to object, and the BRO has to weigh their arguments.