The temperature is rising at the Planning Authority. This week activists protested against the government policy to allow what appears to be an endless stream of new, large petrol stations in the countryside. This policy was introduced in 2015 and its disastrous consequences are now becoming tangible. The public objected loudly at a planning board meeting, calling on the authority to stop granting permits for fuel stations until this destructive policy is reviewed as promised. The meeting was suspended and they were made to leave, with scuffles ensuing near the gate.
I predict that wave after wave of similar outrage will rise to the surface especially once people begin to see the visible consequences of an entire series of dubious planning policies and legal changes implemented in around 2015. Their results are eating away at the countryside and steadily changing the face of urban Malta beyond recognition.
A few weeks ago, the planning board called the police to remove a member of the public who was protesting against a new hotel at Kalanka in Delimara, outside the development zone. Public concerns were ignored, yet again, and the permit was granted anyway. People do absorb change and move with the times, but the ongoing amount and pace of change is unprecedented. The combination of relentless demolition, soaring building heights, widespread construction affecting the countryside and landscapes, and a massive loss of heritage buildings and streetscapes, is overwhelming.
People may still ask what heritage is, and why we should protect it at all. Heritage focuses on those elements of the past which are valued by society, and which people think should be ‘inherited’ by future generations. The word has only really been used commonly since the mid-20th century. The notion of inheritance is also reflected in the Maltese words for heritage, patrimonju and wirt. Malta’s archaeological heritage is not only significant to our own national history, but to Mediterranean prehistory as a whole. Yet our planning system can ignore it to enable more speculation, granting permits to more warehouses, residences, petrol stations and unnecessary buildings which could be located elsewhere.
Compared to the study of history, which strives to be objective and scientific, initially the word ‘heritage’ was derided as dilettante – a slanted, superficial view of history packaged for tourists and children. But today heritage groups and interests have moved on, taking a more rigorous and professional approach to both content and presentation. Importantly, people interested in this sector do not only work to preserve valued elements of the past but also try to make them more accessible to the community. Heritage was also initially viewed as elitist, since its early interests focused on prestigious properties, monuments and artworks. But the notion of heritage has expanded to embrace endless topics, including industrial, rural and working-class heritage, as well as landscape, religious and intangible heritage. Heritage is no longer an elitist idea, and every town, village and community takes pride in what it considers to be meaningful elements of its past.
The writing and teaching of history can be polemical at times. But heritage is always politicised, because here people immediately attach cultural values and meanings. It also competes for the allocation of public funds. Heritage focuses on common ownership of the past, but it is driven by social value systems and is selective.
Many important buildings need conservation and restoration, but not everything is appraised equally. Just consider the mixed views on the current fundraising drive for St Paul’s Anglican Pro-Cathedral, which has structural problems. This church is a major landmark of Valletta and one of the most defining features of our capital city’s skyline, yet I have actually heard people debate whether it is part of Maltese heritage.
Or consider the different approaches which the planning authority has taken to Villa St Ignatius in Balluta. Albert Ganado recently wrote a history of it in this newspaper. It began as a large country estate, then became a Protestant college and later a Jesuit college. The authority scheduled the front part of the building constructed by the Jesuits in the 1880s. But it is willing to allow the older parts of the complex to be demolished, which date to the 1820s and which were the original estate and Protestant college, and are architecturally and historically equally interesting. Go figure. Value is attached to the past, but selectively.
While some people mourn the loss of our Maltese heritage, others could not care less, and unfortunately this includes too many of our planning officers in leading positions, and members of the boards who influence the direction in which our urban and rural spaces are heading. Our planning system tacitly accepts that individual short-term profit is prioritised over the longer-term and wider needs of the community.
The growing interest in heritage shows that people feel strongly about common landscapes and property. There are regular outcries when the government persists in ignoring these sentiments, and shortsightedly permits the destruction of things that society treasures, including the countryside. Our planning system panders to speculation, and ignores the values, meanings and emotions which people attach to their cultural history.