Some eight years ago, a local council asked me to take a look at a massive site within the Cottonera area. A private contractor, or so I was told, had set his eyes on the site and intended demolishing the “dilapidated” (a liberal term, frequently applied by developers) site to build modern accommodation. Moreover, as “everybody knows”, Cottonera and Vittoriosa were bombed into oblivion during World War II, or so the story (today we would call it fake news) goes.
Visiting the site, together with a group of council members and NGO representatives from the area, it immediately transpired that the rather non-assuming one-storey building and long street facade were actually a very well-preserved structure, dating possibly from the 1660s. The artistic tastes were simple, typical of the period. The war damage was concentrated to a small area, which the British admirably restored to match the rest of the facade.
The whole quartiere (enclosed by four streets) was made up of a major ‘palace’ structure and a number of humble abodes. All of them were disguised by the simple continuous facade that went all around. The structure was located immediately behind the protective Santa Margherita Lines.
Traces of older rock-hewn structural features were observed, dating from the Phoenician and Roman periods. Other archaeological elements could be seen too.
As one would remember, on their arrival, the Knights did notice that most of the ‘houses’ in Vittoriosa and its outskirts were no more than rubble huts with ‘straw’ roofing (għarix, għerejjex). These structures would not have necessitated the cutting of rock channels and other rock-hewn features, as observed on site. This ‘African town/village’ was swept away in 1530, when a massive ‘hurricane’ hit the islands.
The same storm caused the Knights’ fleet to founder within the harbour; it was anchored behind St Angelo. Immediately afterwards, the Knights started a rebuilding project within the town and its surrounding territories, sticking to European standards.
The site was located at Hanover Hill, enclosed by Triq l-Irlandiżi, Triq Sant’ Elena, Triq Hanover and Triq Taylor, divided by Telgħa Hanover. Work seemed to be put on halt at the time.
Imagine my surprise and consternation when, a short while ago, demolition of a site at Hanover Hill was aired on TV, proclaiming that this would be the first part of a social housing project by the government.
This was the very same site I had visited some years earlier.
It is not easy to keep track of all the development in progress but where did this project crop up from?
It is only a few weeks since a major promise regarding social housing was made, making use of millions of euros acquired from the sale of Maltese passports. How did the situation reach the stage of demolition and building in such a short while? If the original development was (I may be mistaken) a private contractor, how come it became a government project?
Since when do buildings from the 17th century constitute slum status and demolishing them becomes acceptable? There seem to be many more questions regarding this project.
Since when do buildings from the 17th century constitute slum status and demolishing them becomes acceptable?
Another issue is the haste with which these projects are presented, given the go-ahead and put into effect. Why all the haste and pressure? Projects, especially European funded, need to be founded on sound and well-prepared arguments and design.
Previous projects in Malta took up to five even seven years of consultation involving a wide social spectrum: local councils, NGOs, local communities, etc. The Transport Malta Coast Road project involved hours of discussion and plan modifications. Major alterations were made after consulting with locals, especially worried Burmarrad farmers. Every possible alternative was evaluated and decisions were made at the opportune time.
So why the haste and incredibly short deadlines for the projects at hand? The risk that serious mistakes are made becomes very probable, costing the country millions of euros in reparation and changes.
It is not the first time that after lengthy Planning Authority proceedings are won by either NGOs, the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, local councils, personal objectors or local communities that very same project is morphed into something new.
The re-appeal may not draw much attention and, though the original objections must surely remain valid that is not always the case. Lack of fresh representation or objections may be interpreted as though the objectors are no longer interested in the matter. So the project is given the green light. Child’s play.
NGOs are constantly frowned upon as irresponsible ‘conservative-minded’ idiots rather than concerned citizens who have every right to put forward objections and alternative solutions.
In the meantime, losses, relating to the cultural, architectural, ecological and archaeological heritage, are proving to be irremediable and irreversible.
Fr Eugene Tuema is a researcher, writer and amateur archaeologist.
This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece
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