By Maria Grazia Cassar
“……hija l-fehma ta’ dan it- Tribunal li tali rapporti jaqghu taht it-tifsira ta’ dokument pubbliku li huwa fl-interess pubbliku li l-pubbliku jkollu access ghalih tenut kont li l-materja ta’ konservazzjoni hija materija ta’ interess pubbliku.”
This is part of the sentence, dated 12th February 2019, by the Appeal Tribunal for Information and Data Protection, wherein Din l-Art Ħelwa was given the right to access the report commissioned by the planning authority which led to the decision not to schedule St Ignatius Villa. The Environment and Planning Review Tribunal has since, also granted Din l-Art Ħelwa the right to appeal the refusal for scheduling. The Court is also investigating the Planning Authority for contempt of court.
Apart from this very significant victory in our ongoing efforts to save St Ignatius Villa from demoltion, and here I would like to thank our lawyer Dr Franco Vassallo, I think that the sentence embodies one of the fundamental reasons why Din l-Art Ħelwa exists…”that the matter of conservation is a matter of public interest”. Indeed, we feel that it is not only a matter of casual “interest”, but, decreed in this way it is “in the public interest”, that is, of visceral importance to the well being of society.
This is why our organisation has objected to so many planning applications which proposed the destruction rather than the conservation of our heritage. …… It isnt simply a preference for one type of building over another, or a matter of style, nostalgia or resistance to change….it is a desperate attempt to save our nation’s soul. Din l-Art Ħelwa firmly believes that Malta’s architectural legacy, be it the grandest of palaces, or the humblest of vernacular dwellings, must be protected because it is “in the public interest”.
At the Malta International Airport, the hoarding boards of the new development going on there, are covered by photos of doorway upon doorway from all over Malta’s streets. The irony of this allusion to our fast disappearing characteristic streetscapes (and the one of the row of houses put up in the tunnel to the carpark is especially poignant) is so glaring, that it beggars belief. Are we ready to use such images to beautify what would otherwise be monotous hoarding boards, presenting them as the first or last thing that visitors to our country will see, and yet watch the real thing go down like dominos? Is our heritage going to be relegated to photos on hoarding boards, or coffee table books, or for use in advertising material for tourism? We must wake up to the reality that if the current rate of demolition is sustained, there will indeed be no streetscapes to photograph.
The same can be said of the natural environment. The constant eating away at Outside Development Zones and the threat to many pristine agricultural areas and aquifers by mega developments and unjustified infrustructural projects is indicative of a climate of great insensitivity to our environment. There are many battles looming ahead; the Gozo Tunnel and Land Reclamation to mention just two, which will surely have a big effect on people’s lives. Din l-Art Ħelwa will, with the next President at its helm, be at the forefront, as it has been, and the support of the Council and its Members will be crucial in this.
It is indeed through the support from its Members, both financial and moral, that Din l-Art Ħelwa has been successful in the appeal against the Townsquare highrise development. We felt vindicated that DLH’s claims that the tower would be seen over the Valletta skyline were legitimate, and in fact, the height of the new project has been considerably scaled down, in order not to be seen from the other side of the Grand Harbour. We thank our lawyers Dr Malcolm and Dr Catherine Mifsud for their assistance in achieving this victory…It was unfortunate that the Mriehel appeal was not upheld, in spite of similar valid arguments.
Din l-Art Ħelwa is appealing the approval of the ITS-DB Tower project, where there were over 4,000 objectors, and yet the authorities did not listen to the people and granted the permit. The outcome of our joint appeal with the three local Councils: Swieqi, Pembroke and St Julians, and other NGOs, will be decided next week. Whatever the result, it is encouraging to see that people are taking the future of their neighbourhoods very seriously, and forming grass root groups to take action against building development in their locality which will have a negative impact on their health and environment. We have seen this with Pembroke, Swieqi, Gzira and Zejtun Residents, and now Xemxija. They demand to be listened to and expect a modicum of transparency and fairness in decisions which affect their life.
Another very important milestone was the coming together of 22 heritage entities to make a Declaration which was presented outside Parliament on the 18th April 2018. We named it “WIRTNA – OUR LEGACY’, and called on the authorities to put a stop to the destruction of Malta’s heritage buildings and cultural landscape, and made several tangible suggestions on ways to protect it. It is a real satisfaction to know that there are so many entities that share the same concerns and love of our partimony which is ideed under serious threat, as is this beautiful baroque garden in Pieta’.
The historical sites which Din l-Art Ħelwa has restored in the past, and which are managed and opened to the public by dedicated teams of volunteers are the greatest testimony of the organisation’s mission to protect and preserve our heritage for future generations. This in itself is an immense achievement, with over 92,000 visitors recorded this year, and on the increase! Our latest project, the White Tower of Armier is at a very advanced stage, and will be an interesting educational visitor attraction with the possibility of overnight accommodation for groups. The regeneration of the landscape around Ta’ Xutu Tower at Wied iz-Zurrieq is well underway, and will significantly enhance the beautifully restored Tower. The ERDF project for the restoration of The Red Tower has started, and should be ready by early Summer, when the turn of Dwejra tower and Santa Maria Gun Battery on Comino will follow. The restoration of the façade of Our Lady of Victory Church is also gaining momentum, and the last two Mattia Preti Lunettes at Sarria will be completed soon. This will bring the lengthy project of the restoration of all 7 Mattia Preti paintings at Sarria to a close. And last but not least, we must mention the restoration of the Notarial Volume of 1947 containing the George Cross Grant, which was done in collaboration with the Notarial Archives Foundation, and which we inaugurated only last week.
It is wonderful to see what has been achieved through the sheer hard work and dedication of the volunteers both on Council and at the sites, who do everything from fund-raising and organising events to thinking up and co-ordinating the various projects. There have been many more activities and projects, such as the new membership system, the live transmission facility, the renewed website and others which are too many to mention individually.
This is the beauty of Din l-Art Ħelwa, as envisioned by its Founder President, Judge Maurice Caruana Curran. 2018 was the 100th Anniversary of his birth and the publication of the Liber Amicorum in his honour was a worthy ending to a most exciting year.
I wish to thank all the members of Council who have supported me during my term of office as Executive President, and contributed so much. Thank you Philip, Martin, Simone, Lucio, Joe, Stanley, Josie, Joanna, Martin, Petra, Cettina, Cathy, Ann, George, Joseph Phillip, Alex, Kenneth, Lizzie, Tony, and Pat, Carolyn, Joe, and Ian. I wish to thank the Wardens and the wonderful volunteers whom I have had the priviledge to get to know and collaborate with. The volunteers who regularly help out at the office – Joe Busietta, Prof George Camilleri, Alfed Camilleri, Joe Chetcuti, Rina Mamo and Karen Galea. The office staff; Rosanne Zerafa and Anne Marie Navarro, who have been of invaluable support, as well as Annie and Joe Tabone, and John Gafa’. It was great to work with you all.
It was an honour to have been entrusted with this role and I now pass on the baton to the next President, who will have my full support and I wish the new Council every success in taking Din l-Art Ħelwa’s mission forward in the coming years.