History was so kind to us but we are not reciprocating that kindness and rather than protecting and preserving what was bequeathed to us, we are letting it lie in ruins, destroying its long-term potential for some short-term gain.
Is this statement true? Are we a nation of short-sighted money grabbing troglodytes, who have no respect for our heritage? The answer is of course No. Nothing could be further from the truth. One can cite an endless list of examples that prove the contrary, projects that were spearheaded by government, local councils, NGOs or private individuals. Just look at the efforts that went into restoring St John’s Co-Cathedral, the protection of our Neolithic temples, the restoration of our fortifications, the ongoing restoration of forts St Angelo and St Elmo, the Citadel in Gozo and so on and so forth.
A sizeable chunk of the European Union regional funds we obtained post-membership were used to restore our heritage. Hats off also to the brilliant restoration projects undertaken by Din l-Art Helwa and Patrimonju. Palazzo Falson in Mdina and Our Lady of Victories Church in Valletta immediately come to mind.
Private individuals have not lagged behind. Nicholas de Piro and the de Traffords are doing a great job making sustainable use of two gems: Casa Rocca Piccola and Villa Bologna. There are numerous other unsung individuals who make painstaking efforts to maintain heritage houses that could be sold for large profit.
However, it is also true that, unfortunately, there are instances where we failed and are failing to protect historical gems.
Casa Guardamangia is a case in point and its historical importance is amplified by the fact that it was the residence of Queen Elizabeth II when she lived in Malta before her coronation in the 1950s. It is not alone. Many of our village and town cores have imposing properties that are sadly left to rot. Our planning system has not always helped the process over the years.
Finding a solution is not easy. The first complication comes with the issue of ownership. Many of these properties are privately owned. To compound matters they are generally not owned by one individual but by numerous co-owners frequently at odds dividing an inheritance estate. Legislative efforts have been made to facilitate the consolidation of fragmented ownership but the take-up is clearly not enough to resolve the issue. The upkeep of these properties is an additional problem. Just ask any owner what it costs to restore and maintain the wooden doors, apertures, louvers, balconies and flaking walls and tend to the gardens.
Do we, as a nation, have the right or even the duty to forcibly acquire such property in the public interest? Many would argue that the State should do so, and that public interest should override private interest. Our law was indeed amended a couple of years ago precisely to facilitate the expropriation of historical buildings in a fair manner.
Are we a nation of short-sighted money grabbing troglodytes, who have no respect for our heritage?
However, while this solution may appear simple and attractive, it has some flaws. Firstly, the central coffers are not that big and governments often have different priorities on where to spend public money. Secondly, public interest should never override private property rights except as a measure of last resort.
The sad reality is that we do not have the money to buy all these historical houses and, indeed, it would not be fair with the owners to do so even if we did. Yet we do not want to lose them. So what should we do?
We tend to find it easier to stick a scheduling or conservation order on the properties, restricting the kind of development that can take place and making it effectively impossible for the owners to sell the property at a price closer to that of properties nearby with no historical or heritage value. The onus of maintenance and upkeep remains on the owner without any assistance from the State. This unfortunately is a means of placating our national conscience at the expense of the owner.
At the very least, we should find ways of helping the owners maintain such properties and stop them from going into disrepair. One solution can be to grant tax relief to the owners. Such a solution has its limitations however, as not all owners have the means to incur such maintenance and restoration costs in the first place. Moreover not all owners pay enough tax to benefit from such a scheme. Therefore, a public fund to properly maintain some properties is in order.
Secondly, we should assist owners to find an alternative use for these properties that would not only save them from destruction but would also give them a new lease of life.
Under the previous administration we launched a scheme to help owners wishing to convert heritage properties into boutique hotels.
We had a very encouraging response with properties and the results can be seen today.
Properties can be converted and used for other purposes with the right incentives to help ease the conversion costs – anything from residential to commercial and office. We might also need to tweak our development policies to enable this kind of development. Of course, by tweaking I am not saying that we should allow total gutting and just leaving the facade. That would defeat the whole purpose. But we have to make these properties usable if we want them to be around in 100 years’ time.
Thirdly, we should consider something similar to the National Trust in the UK whereby historical houses are purchased by the Trust and maintained by it, with the acceptance of the owners who are given the right to keep living in such property while having it open to the general public.
I am confident that if we develop sensible and practical policies supported by the right forms of assistance, we can create a more sustainable activity for our construction industry. Such action will also help breathe new life into our village cores and stop the process of degradation and uglification that has long taken place.
Mario de Marco is the deputy leader of the Nationalist Party.