Fifty-two townhouses in one of the few remaining elegant parts of Sliema have been given heritage protection status. The houses, which are located in Stella Maris Street and Capua Street have been awarded Grade 2 or Grade 3 status by the Planning Authority, following consultation with the Superintendent of Cultural Heritage.

Built between the late 19th century and mid-20th century, the houses exhibit a combination of neo-classical and neo-baroque design. They form part of a row of similar buildings that have the same height, design, proportions, material, style and massing. Although alterations are allowed to Grade 2 or Grade 3 protected buildings, these must be in keeping with the character and architectural homogeneity of the properties.

Announcing the protection status, the Planning Authority underlined that although each house had its own individual merit, these properties have been protected for their collective value. The PA also highlighted that it has protected more than 125 properties in Sliema, with the majority awarded Grade 2 status and six at Grade 3.

While this surge of heritage protection awards in Sliema is most welcome, it undoubtedly also raises two fundamental ‘if only’ questions. First, why has this spate of protection come so many decades late when Sliema is already a shabby shell of the elegant seaside town it once was? To which the answer is ‘better late than never – but, if only.’

Secondly, why is the PA apparently applying different weights and measures? There are so many cases where similar standards of heritage protection should have been applied in, for example, Balzan, Lija, Attard and Rabat, but where this protection has been refused to the utter detriment of those places. In an extraordinary move which appears to contradict his position in Sliema, the Superintendent of Cultural Heritage has raised no objection to replacing two historic townhouses in Rabat with a ‘boutique hotel’.  There seems no rhyme nor reason.

Last year, Din l-Art ń¶elwa together with other heritage entities launched a declaration under the slogan ‘Wirtna – Our Legacy’ to highlight their concerns about the deleterious effects of an unbridled construction industry  on Malta’s built heritage.

The first of 10 practical demands to safeguard the legacy for future generations was: “That a single integrated public inventory of cultural assets that are scheduled, or identified for scheduling, be urgently compiled and maintained under the Cultural Heritage Act, not under the Development Planning Act, and that such inventory be binding on planning decisions.” Despite their attempt at cross-party action, including a meeting with the Prime Minister, the Wirtna declaration lies largely dormant and should be revived. 

The action on the Sliema townhouses may show that rather like the story of the prodigal son, one cannot help rejoicing that the Planning Authority wastrel may have repented and is on the straight and narrow. Perhaps a better analogy might be drawn with the advice given by parenting experts, who suggest that we should ‘catch a child doing good’ in order to promote good behaviour, rather than catch them misbehaving to punish the bad behaviour.

In that spirit, we must commend the Planning Authority for what they have done, albeit belatedly, in Sliema. We fervently encourage them to extend the hand of heritage protection more widely to the many other parts of architectural heritage in Malta and Gozo that should be spared from the threat of further construction development.