The recent spate of planning approvals, permitting the destruction of our natural and cultural heritage on the basis of “policy”, is all too symptomatic of a failed planning system.
The Planning Authority and its boards are there to do us – the citizens of Malta and Gozo – a service: a service of creating a vision of a better place to live in and enabling its realisation.
While the economy may be booming, the quality of our lives in our towns and villages is declining fast.
We are witnessing the destruction of our heritage in the very ‘Urban Conservation Areas’ that we all are meant to protect.
It is clearly evident that vernacular heritage in Gozo is not valued by some of the PA boards who give approvals for demolition of heritage.
In many of these examples, the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage recommended a refusal.
The Superintendence is our national agency, paid for with our taxes, which is a body of experts who determine whether a building constitutes part of our national heritage or not.
It is farcical that some of the PA boards proceed to completely ignore the advice of this consultation with the SCH, and, without any heritage credentials, pass judgment on whether the buildings in question have any value, often on the basis of blurred photos produced by the developer, since site visits are now rare.
It is also a complete distortion of our planning laws that these boards, in some cases consisting of two or three people taking votes, have the power to dismiss, or to fail to observe, the recommendations of the SCH.
We call on all our elected representatives in Parliament and the national authorities responsiblefor our planning and environmental policies to act
The SCH has statutory powers and is the principal agency that takes care of our built cultural heritage as mandated by the Cultural Heritage Act. The ‘loophole’ in the Development and Planning Act (2016) that allows the planning boards to ignore the advice of the SCH must be closed immediately if we are to protect our national heritage.
We also demand that the SCH remain steadfast in its resolve to preserve these buildings.
We appeal to the SCH not to give in to the pressure from developers in accepting the retention of the façade, which in no way preserves our built cultural heritage and makes a mockery out of the entire conservation practice.
The resistance to retention and rehabilitation of existing historic houses stems from the need to maximise on garage spaces and units, solely to maximize profit out of the site to the detriment of the rest of the community in the area.
This often results in developments which are completely out of scale with the rest of the neighbourhood, ruining gardens, vistas, skylines and streetscapes, not to mention the inability of such villages to absorb the increased traffic generated by such construction sites and garage spaces.
These developments go directly against the main thrust of the Strategic Plan for the Environment and Development which calls for protection of identity and distinctiveness of our towns and villages.
This inability to properly conserve and rehabilitate old properties, on behalf of developers and as fuelled by the PA in approving such applications, is also a disservice to those construction companies that have invested in human resources and equipment to do proper conservation work to restore and rehabilitate such buildings.
The success of Irrestawra Darek funding schemes is proof of the grassroots desire to restore and rehabilitate and not to demolish.
We, therefore, also ask the SCH to resist from giving clearance to token “façade restoration method statements” when the rest of the building, that the SCH case officers would have rightly indicated in the first instance, should be preserved.
We simply cannot afford to allow this destruction of our built cultural heritage to proceed any further. We call on all our elected representatives in Parliament – and the national authorities responsible for our planning and environmental policies – to act.
We call for immediate changes that are required to ensure that our built cultural heritage is not eradicated.
Specifically, we call on the Planning Authority to insist that its boards observe their true mandate and the overarching obligation of protecting the identity and distinctiveness of our towns and villages in both Malta and Gozo.
We need these changes now.
Alex Torpiano is executive president of Din l-Art Ħelwa; Giovanni Zammit is president of Wirt Għawdex.