POLICIES TO PROTECT HERITAGE AND ENVIRONMENT MUST BE TIGHTENED URGENTLY, SAYS DIN L-ART ĦELWA
During the recent Annual General Meeting held by Din l-Art Ħelwa at its offices in Valletta, members of the heritage and environmental organisation were unanimous in their resolutions urging the Government and the Planning Authority to tighten policies in order to protect Malta’s fast dwindling built heritage and its countryside. Their concerns focussed on the need of a master plan for Tall Buildings, the government’s failure to publish Local Plans, the slow rate of Scheduling of historic and traditional buildings and streetscapes, and the unscrupulous abuse of the 2014 Rural Guidelines. Four hard hitting resolutions regarding these concerns were unanimously voiced and approved.
Din l-Art Ħelwa and its members demanded that Government and Planners revise the policy on tall buildings and to establish a master plan for the whole country which tightens up the loopholes allowed by the Floor Area Ratio Policy. Areas established in this policy must be re-evaluated together, and assessed by means of serious visual studies and planning aids, and not case by case as is happening when individual projects are under review. In the absence of specific building regulations for tall buildings, and the infrastructure to support them, Din l-Art Ħelwa calls for a re-opening of the discussion on this topic in order that this big step which is to change the country’s built and visual environment for good, will be a step in the right direction, and not a step in the dark that will affect the quality of peoples’ lives permanently.
Din l-Art Ħelwa Members also highlighted their concern regarding the Government’s failure to produce Local Plans. Athough these have been under review since the approval of the Strategic Plan for the Environment and Development document, these have not yet come to light. Din l-Art Ħelwa urges the Parliamentary Secretary responsible for Planning, the Hon Chris Agius, to make this a priority, as the fast rate of development currently experienced should be regulated only through these Local Plans.
Government and the Planning Authority were also urged to step up the pace in the scheduling of buildings, to ensure that protection is given to Malta’s fast disappearing traditional and historic architecture, which is being swallowed up by development. Din l-Art Ħelwa demands that demolitions are halted immediately, especially in Urban Conservation Areas, where utmost protection should be given, and often, not even facades are being retained. This is taking place also in Gozo, where not only villages are under attack, but also the medieval cluster houses in Rabat, Victoria, which are unique to the island. When such character is lost, it will be gone forever.
Din l-Art Ħelwa and its members also urgently ask Government to revise the 2014 Rural Policy so that its policies are stringently limited to guidelines for the genuine re-generation of the countryside. Din l-Art Ħelwa strongly believes this Policy, as revised in 2014 to relax building regulations in Out of Development Zones is being used as an excuse to promote new building, replace existing structures, increase existing footprints and to sanction past illegalities. Din l-Art Ħelwa also urges Government to protect the traditionally built rural structures of a certain age that lend the countryside in Malta and Gozo its unique character. These should be adapted to modern use and preserved, and not demolished on the pretext of dilapidation.
Furthermore, the Government must establish the National Water Management Plan, as per its electoral commitment, so as to protect our water table, the islands’ most precious resource which is presently being ravaged by over-extraction and nitrate pollution.
In her address to members, Din l-Art Ħelwa President, Maria Grazia Cassar, talked about the many achievements of the organisation during the last year which focussed on the restoration of Torri ta l-Ahrax, or the White Tower, the conclusion of the project for the Wied iz-Zurrieq Tower and the facades of the Church of Our Lady of Victory, as well as the upkeep of the many other heritage sites in the care of the organisation through major fund raising efforts and events. She also encouraged volunteers and council members and praised them for their incredible energy and team spirit and said that despite the challenges encountered this year, it was evident that there was no end to the vitality required to keep up the mission of the organisation in its drive to protect heritage and the environment.
She reiterated the sadness that has been expressed unanimously by members, evident through their resolutions, at the way the very fabric of our Maltese architecture, our way of life, is being transformed. Mentioning the various appeals made to save vernacular houses, she expressed her dismay at the outright refusal by the Planning Authorities of the scheduling of the historic St Ignatius Villa and stated that Din l-Art Ħelwa has asked the Courts to investigate the procedure by which the developers were not stopped in the demolition of a whole floor of this property when there was no permit to do so.
‘’We feel that the safeguards in place to protect cultural heritage are being undermined by this drive to re-develop at all costs, and that the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage hasn’t got enough resources and ultimately enough strength to take the necessary steps to stop this. These concerns are echoed by other heritage bodies and NGOs, and more collaboration is envisaged for the future to address these issues’’ stated Ms Cassar.
Ms Cassar described how soon after the election of June 2017, a delegation from Din l-Art Ħelwa paid a courtesy visit to the Prime Minister Joseph Muscat during which three points were put forward to him about which the organisation felt very strongly; the first being the unbridled demolition of our traditional architecture, and the resulting defacement of our urban settlements, the second was the need to re-think and re-discuss the issues of tall buildings before further permits, provide us with nasty surprises, such as that of the United Garage building in Gzira which has obliterated many magnificent sightlines of Valletta forever and again stressed the need for a Master Plan for Tall Buildings for the whole of Malta.
The third request was the need for more nature parks. The Mwadar Nature Reserve was approved earlier on in 2017, even if somewhat reduced in size, due to the land allocated to the American University of Malta. ‘The time is ripe’, continued Ms Cassar, for a serious consideration of more territory to be protected as nature reserves across the island. This would indeed be a great legacy of any Government’. She stated it was her fervent wish that this plea will not fall on deaf ears. While expressing her satisfaction that a serious budget has at last been allocated to the Majjistral Nature Park for its necessary upkeep and rehabilitation, she also expressed her hope that reason and good sense will prevail in containing the hunting hours, which have in the meantime, been extended.
Maria Grazia Cassar took the opportunity to again express her serious concerns, echoed by Din l-Art Ħelwa members, for the terrible short-sightedness witnessed during the recent approvals of projects such as the development of The Cloisters and others, such as the demolition of one of the oldest houses in St Julians, and the Villino Zammit development, which are being made in the name of tourism. Din l-Art Ħelwa appeals to the authorities, who are championing good restoration and have made great leaps in the quality of the tourism product, to stop this devastation and destruction before it is too late. ‘It is ironical’ continued Ms Cassar ‘that we are letting this happen in the year when we are celebrating Valletta as European Capital of Culture, and 2018 as the European Year of Cultural Heritage.’ The recent Din l-Art Ħelwa Architectural Heritage Award winning projects, such as the re-use and adaptation of the Maċina, the regeneration of the Binja Laparelli and the conversion of simple rural buildings such as that of the Old Coach House in Zebbug, showed that with sensitive and clever interventions, Malta’s character and its historic and traditional built heritage could be indeed enhanced and not destroyed.
A banner produced by Council Member George Camilleri was a reminder of what DLH stands for, stated Ms Cassar, when bringing the meeting to a close: Volunteering, Culture, Restoration, Campaigning, Preservation, History, Tradition and Values. These were instilled in the Organisation by its Founder President, the late Judge Maurice Caruana Curran, whose 100th Anniversary of his birth Din l-Art Ħelwa will be celebrating later this year. To this end a Liber Amicorum is being organized to commemorate the late Judge, which, through the written contributions from many eminent personalities, friends and colleagues, will honour his versatile, long and productive career and his legacy to the island which has been Din l-Art Ħelwa.