6 - 12 June, 2001

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Photo by Paul Balndford

Constructing a better future


BICC recently organised an important conference on health and safety for the construction industry. What were the key issues raised at this conference?
The conference on health and safety in the sector was aimed at a wide-ranging audience, including architects, engineers and those with a "hands-on" involvement in construction operations.
On a technical level, we discussed the guidelines we have issued for architects to follow on excavation and demolition works, while we also briefed those present on the European Union’s health and safety aspect, primarily its codes of practice.
The legal notice issued here last July means that we are very much adhering to EU law and embracing its context already, although there is no doubt that now, with the setting up of the Health and Safety Authority, our arena will be better co-ordinated.
But, there are some EU directives that are specific and are related directly to the construction industry, which will need to be implemented and will have an impact on the industry.
Perhaps one of the most important is the directive covering temporary or mobile sites.
The EU requires that a construction plan be drawn up for projects taking longer than a certain number of days, so that is something we will need to implement.
Other issues covered in the directives include the manual handling of loads and the use of personal equipment, which places obligations on both the employer and the employee.
BICC is trying to promote these new concepts to the industry and, in line with this, we are already undertaking on-site training and meeting workers, to help them make the necessary adjustments.
You have been chairman of BICC for two-and-a-half years now. What do you regard as your most important achievements?
We have made two steps forward, in tandem, which have given me considerable satisfaction.
Once of these was the setting up of a system for the registration of contractors. This concept was first discussed over 20 years ago, so, although it is only being introduced on a voluntary basis for now, its implementation can still be viewed as a major and important development.
We know that the government plans to make the system of registration obligatory for all contractors in the near future, but for now, the rule is that all those intending to undertake works related to government or public procurement have to be registered.
This allows committees or others evaluating tenders to make their evaluations on more in-depth information than has previously been available to them, such as details of the workforce, machinery available, health, safety and insurance policies of the company and its past projects.
It should also help us to move away from the idea that tenders are only awarded to the cheapest bidder.
BICC’s other important achievement has been the important role it has played in the drawing up of the new building regulations which should come into place this summer.
As a consultative council, we will be issuing the regulations, which we have worked on over a period of time, as guidelines.
But the government’s intention is also to make them law, which will obviously mean they can then be monitored and enforced.
The regulations update some old laws and also tackle other issues which need covering at a legislative level, such as health, safety and hygiene, energy conservation, structural integrity, site preparation and waste disposal.
The ultimate objective of the regulations is to have better, safer buildings, constructed in better, safer conditions.
And what do you still hope to achieve?
There are some ideas that we have begun working on, but still need to develop further.
One example of this is the concept of public/private partnership, which we fully support and believe could be expanded.
BICC has submitted a detailed analysis of possible public/private partnerships which we have identified and which the government can pursue.
There are a number of benefits for the government in working in partnership with the private sector. Apart from the fact that the principle generally relieves the burden from the government, there is a lot to be gained from the exchange of expertise, while it is also envisaged that projects will get off the ground quicker.
BICC has urged the government to set up a task group to look at ways of making it easier for interested parties to get public/private projects off the ground, especially those on a reduced scale. We believe it is important to ensure the right channels are in place for interested developers to set up these kind of partnerships and that the present system needs to be made less bureaucratic. There is no doubt that if the process is made easier, more projects will get off the ground.
BICC has also set up an educational research trust, which focuses primarily on research into the industry. We have published a number of documents covering topics such as restoration and general construction, which we hope will encourage architects and others who are interested to continue expanding their knowledge on the subject. The ongoing conferences we hold also help update architects on what’s going on in the industry.
BICC would also like to see the government take some steps to help boost the property market.
In the reports we have submitted, we have made particular reference to the rent laws, which we believe need revising as a priority. And we have also made it known that we believe it would be useful if the government and the opposition could reach a common policy on the property market.
How has BICC worked at developing relations with the PA?
It has been one of our objectives to forge better links with the Planning Authority and I believe we have made important steps forward in this respect.
Over the past two and a half years, we have taken steps to ensure a closer monitoring of the planning process and also submitted a number of reports in this respect, including one on the Planning Authority reform, both on a policy and structural level.
Since BICC has representation from the construction industry, it is inevitable that one complaint commonly voiced is the problem of bureaucracy at the PA and the length of time that permits take to be issued.
But the changes planned for the PA look to be tackling these problems, which is a welcome development.
The new legal notice allows works of a minor nature to be done without any delay, which should help minimise red tape, while also relieving resources, allowing people to concentrate their efforts where they’re needed.
Another important step forward which the new law is set to make is the right of architects to ask the PA to review and make a decision on an application within five days if it has not been decided upon after three months.
At the moment, although target dates are stipulated, no one seems to care about a lengthy lapse. But the new proposal will give architects much more ammunition to chase applications, leading to greater accountability and a more efficient system.
Another recommendation which we view positively is the proposal for more than one board to be set up to decide cases. This should speed up procedures considerably, while also relieving current caseloads.
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What are your views on the shortage of workers in the construction industry?
This is a well-known problem which we have tried to tackle by liasing closely with the Employment and Training Corporation, but admittedly, without much success so far.
BICC set up a number of courses, both short and long term, but the response wasn’t that high.
The ETC also interviewed people who were registering, but not that many proved suitable for construction work.
There are many reasons for the shortfall; obviously the nature of the work means it is physically demanding and the fact remains that job opportunities are diverse today, so people have a number of other options.
The issue of whether foreign workers should be brought over to make good the shortfall is one that is very delicate at BICC and not one on which we have a common stand.
BICC is made up of representatives from a number of entities and although in general we reach consensus on issues, this is not one of them.
With a number of major projects set to kick off, the problem is now becoming more urgent and with this in mind, BICC’s Board took a decision last week to extend talks on a ministerial level.
Since this issue may well divide the unions and the contractors, we will also be trying to mediate to help find a solution to everybody’s satisfaction.
And is the controversy surrounding building works in summer now solved?
Consensus on this issue has now been reached between BICC and the Tourism Ministry, although there were admittedly some problems initially on the contractors’ side.
Timeframes have been stipulated for building works, some of which are already in place. Basically, the government is streamlining and consolidating what is already there.
I think the key in this issue is striking a balance. Tourism is essential for the country, but, on the other hand, you can’t halt construction activity, especially when so much of it is related to tourism anyway. To progress in tourism, we need to create the infrastructure. What we need to do is to ensure that this infrastructure is created with minimal inconvenience.
The new guidelines I was mentioning will help in this respect, since they cover the issue of demolition works and site preparation, with specific reference to safeguarding third parties, with stipulations such as putting up fencing or boarding.
Luckily BICC’s board members, although diverse, recognise that striking a balance is in everyone’s interest, and this helped us to reach our conclusions.

The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07
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