Just as Valletta’s stint as European Capital of Culture has drawn to a close and Valletta 18 chairman Jason Micallef had his fair share of preening and boasting about the success of the activities held, well-meaning observers have already given the city another title: ‘capital of anarchy’.

Their grounds for coming up with such an uncomplimentary description is that an increasing number of businesses seems to have taken the government’s cue and do as they please. They must be telling themselves they are no different to the widening group of select people acting as if they were untouchables.

This explains why a bar owner or a restaurateur does not think twice before extending his business onto the road in front of his establishment or installing a canopy over the outdoor extension, without bothering to first get approval. The exercise is actually quite simple: first, lay out just a couple of tables and chairs outside and then gradually extend the outdoor business until it becomes a fully-fledged restaurant on its own, complete with canopy, heaters and counters.

Errant businesses are, in time, duly warned by the authorities but, since enforcement is weak, the illegal operation goes on, probably until it takes so long for the rules to be enforced that the illegality is finally sanctioned, if not in its entirety, in a reduced format. This is now happening in so many places that the practice seems to have become the rule rather than the exception.

There is nothing wrong in having outdoor restaurants. If they are situated at the right places and are of an acceptable standard, that is, not done haphazardly, they add life and colour to a locality. Practically all European cities have inner restaurant cores where the locals and tourists can enjoy time out in pleasant surroundings.

What is objectionable is when things get out of control, as so often happens in this country. Strait Street, and its environs, Malta’s notorious red-light district of the past, have been given a new life. While the new outdoor eating environment that has been created there is acceptable, it would not necessarily be so in other places. For instance, an outdoor café opposite Palazzo Ferreria, in Republic Street, has now been allowed to expand – with or without a permit – far too much.

Why would the authorities continue to allow an illegal tent structure on the roof of a restaurant overlooking St George’s Square? This contravention is included in a list of breaches identified by the Planning Authority over the past two years.

The list carries nine cases of breaches of the law, a figure that may be considered small in number but, considering the size of Valletta, any illegal structure that is out of place ought to be checked immediately and the necessary action taken. In any case, according to people living in Valletta, the list is just the tip of the iceberg.

A great deal has been done to regenerate Valletta, most of which is pleasant and in good taste. There are many sore thumbs too. People generally like going to “il-Belt” and they even have a special affection for it. However, its charm will be lost if businesses are allowed to build illegal structures that are out of harmony with the city’s fabric.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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