The Planning Authority’s executive council has “hurriedly” revoked a protective buffer behind Tarxien’s scheduled Villa Barbaro and its gardens, which are among the oldest in Malta.

The PA had trumpeted the buffer zone only a year ago but its reversal now leaves the villa’s historic gardens under the threat of being overshadowed by six-storey buildings.

It beggars belief that the authority responsible for scheduling our built heritage could cynically condemn to visual ruination a Grade 1 garden- Tony Cremona Barbaro

The buffer on the opposite side of Church Street, around 33 metres away from the gardens, had been declared just last year, setting a 13.5-metre height limitation.

Now, after the PA’s latest decision, the owner of the 16th century, pre-Great Siege palazzo fears the gardens will be engulfed by a 17.5-metre-high development, the maximum height permissible.

'Utterly shameful decision'

Marquis Tony Cremona Barbaro has been battling to protect the context of his Grade 1 scheduled property for 12 “long and bitter” years.

He said he will appeal the executive council’s “bizarre and utterly shameful” decision for which, he claimed, no reasons were given.

According to the minutes of the executive council decision, available online, the request for 'Reconsideration from Scheduling of the Buffer Zone of Villa Barbaro' was made by 11 residents, with properties more than 100 metres away from the 500-year-old villa.

A photomontage by the villa owner’s architect taken from the parterre and showing the 1620 stone pavilion towered over.A photomontage by the villa owner’s architect taken from the parterre and showing the 1620 stone pavilion towered over.

The outgoing executive chairman, exercising his casting vote, declared he was never in favour of the extension of the buffer zone on Church Street. The request to remove it was upheld on grounds that the development proposed would respect the context of the gardens and because he felt there was already enough protection.

The “hurried” vote, taken with only four members of the seven, resulted in a tie.

But its own unanimous decision a year earlier was overturned by the chairman’s casting vote, Cremona Barbaro recounted about the “irregular circumstances”.

Heritage body had recommended buffer zone retention

“Unbelievably, the decision was also taken despite both the PA’s Heritage Planning Unit and the Superintendent of Cultural Heritage recommending the retention of the buffer zone during the November meeting,” Cremona Barbaro stressed.

He maintained that the decision should have been deferred, “instead of proceeding to rush the few members to a decision on such a crucial heritage matter”.

Notified through the Malta Government Gazette, Cremona Barbaro said this “simply replaced – and erased – the buffer map declared in October 2021 with another”. It seemed like a “harmless correction” rather than the “crucial deletion” that it was.

“One of the country’s oldest and most historic gardens is condemned to be buried under a bastion of six-floor future development with a vote of just two members,” Cremona Barbaro charged.

“It beggars belief that the authority responsible for scheduling our built heritage could cynically condemn to visual ruination a Grade 1 garden by stripping it of its protective buffer zone, contrary also to the recommendation of its commissioned expert, whose photomontages had led it to designate this in the first place.”

While the owners of Church Street properties argued they had a right to their maximum financial benefit, Cremona Barbaro countered that “the PA had the right to limit any development where context and the protection of the built heritage required and this without any obligation to pay compensation”.

Accusing the PA of having “gone rogue”, he said it had now “hit rock bottom”.

He questioned whether the properties in the now revoked buffer zone were no longer at the same threatening distance from the garden as they were a year ago.

“The only change is the outraged protestations of the property owners in the buffer, for whom four-floor development is simply not lucrative enough.”

Cremona Barbaro also questioned the point of a protective buffer zone if it was so easy to overturn. And he asked how the PA could still overrule the advice of the heritage watchdog in matters involving protective scheduling.

“Clearly, the time has come for the authority to be stripped of this role,” he insisted, saying that its involvement in issuing development permits was not compatible with heritage protection, as amply borne out by its miserable record.

'Bluffer zone'

The villa was originally scheduled by the PA in 1996 for its historical, architectural and aesthetic values.

In 2009 and 2020, the scheduled area was enlarged to include the gardens and a buffer zone.

Two years ago, the PA declared what Cremona Barbaro described as a “fake” buffer of five floors, eight metres away from the villa.

He had appealed the 15.4m height limitation on Zejtun Road, which was then lowered and extended to other areas by the PA last year following a request for consideration.

However, Cremona Barbaro had slammed as propaganda the PA protection, aimed at ensuring that “the spatial context of one of Malta’s oldest standing country houses is not compromised”.

He called it a “bluffer zone”.

He had argued it would still translate into four floors opposite a two-storey heritage monument in a predominantly two-storey streetscape context.

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