The Planning Authority’s decision to reject outright the planning application affecting the fate of Giardino Zamitello should be welcomed.

There was a deep and justified fear that the proposed development of a 10-storey hotel on the site of the Zamitello Garden, abutting the Pieta seafront, would inevitably devalue the context and historic setting and status of the adjacent Villa Frere and destroy one of the last few remaining green lungs in this traffic-polluted area.

The project to destroy the neighbouring Giardino Zamitello had been recommended for refusal by the PA’s case officer on two key grounds: the height limitation policy for the area; and the negative impact on the surrounding historic environment in which Villa Frere plays the crucial part.

Giardino Zamitello and Villa Frere are joined at the hip historically, culturally and environmentally.

Despite this, there was always a risk that the PA might perversely have let the application pass since there has been a long record of the authority doing so in some beautiful historic gardens in Urban Conservation Areas, most prominently in Lija, Attard, Balzan, Sliema and St Julian’s.

As UCAs they were supposed to be protected, but with very few exceptions in the past this had not prevented the PA from permitting some appalling acts of development vandalism in historic gardens.

Giardino Zammitello in Pieta is a formal garden consisting of a series of walled enclosures originally laid down over 300 years ago and with further embellishment being carried out during the early 19th century in the high baroque, neo-classical idiom. The garden includes a tower that was probably used by Maltese insurgents during the French blockade. It is therefore a property of considerable aesthetic, environmental as well as historic significance.

More importantly perhaps, the Zamitello garden also shares a boundary with the Grade 1 heritage monument, Villa Frere, which was built by the British diplomat, Sir John Hookham Frere. In view of its cultural and historic importance, Villa Frere has been placed in the ownership of Heritage Malta.

Heritage Malta – now for the first time under the leadership of its own Minister for Culture and Heritage – had registered as an objector to the development of Giardino Zamitello, citing the historic importance of Villa Frere and the need to protect its historic surroundings and unique context. It rightly considered the application should be refused as the construction would “inevitably lead to the crippling of Villa Frere, which will be grossly overpowered by the new building height and have all vistas entirely blocked”. The context was as important as the gardens themselves.

The case for refusal was beyond argument. Indeed, the logic presented by this case should lead to Zamitello Garden being given protected status by the Planning Authority.

The promise of more closely protected green spaces in village and town cores has been made repeatedly over the years by successive administrations. That promise has just as frequently been dashed.

It may be that the arrival of the new Minister for Planning, Climate Change and the Environment, Aaron Farrugia, will lead to tighter regulation to protect historic gardens, and Malta’s and Gozo’s Urban Conservation Areas more generally, from construction development. The majority of the public must sincerely hope, at the very least, for more rigid enforcement in the future.

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