The Irrestawra Darek funds scheme introduced by the Planning Authority is an excellent scheme to restore the façades of traditional old buildings. The scheme was met with approval at Din l-Art Ħelwa since it helps home owners financially to restore their façades. It improves streetscapes and  promotes the growing restoration industry.

However, there is one overarching, positive outcome, that of conserving our built heritage and our national identity for future generations.

I recently saw three beautiful scheduled buildings, all forming an intrinsic part of our cultural heritage which would benefit from the Irrestawra Darek funds. However, the owners were more concerned by what was happening in the vicinity since all are threatened by applications for the building of apartments which will replace the surrounding two-storey houses and gardens.

Another instance of development cashing in on our heritage.

One example is Villa Barbaro in Tarxien. This historic building predates in part the Great Siege and its physiognomy is very similar to that of Girgenti Palace. It is one of the oldest buildings on the island, still in use as a family home. It is situated in a simple street bordering the urban conservation area and faces simple two-storey buildings whose owners wish to demolish their homes and build four storeys and penthouses.

There are countless examples of people’s homes now facing concrete blocks of flats.

Triq Ħal-Mula in Żebbuġ comes to mind, where the people of an entire street in an urban conservation area woke up to find massive development upon their garden walls.

The same is happening with the historic core and scheduled buildings of Guardamangia and the outrageous application for 114 apartments in Triq Santa Monica.

What is the point of a beautiful historic building if it is then dwarfed by massive development or of a beautiful historic citrus grove if it is overlooked by four storeys (or more) of concrete balconies? What is the point of beautiful historic streetscapes, reproduced on tourism brochures,  soon to be ruined by insensitive development? What about the principles of ‘buffer zones’ and ‘transition zones’?

In 2015, the Planning Authority  em-ployed experts to rewrite the Policy and Design Guidelines. Both this document and the Strategic Plan for Environment and Development (SPED) talk about context, streetscape and suitable distances from scheduled buildings and urban conservation areas. However, as we are seeing, such predominant principles are being ignored.

The first paragraph of the Design and Policy Guidelines Vision Document states the following:

“The attainment of urban and architectural design quality is an integral objective of DC15. Our urban environment cannot afford to have a low-quality built fabric – a fabric that produced bland, repetitive blocks that are discordant with the older components of the street and, in the worst cases, kill the spirit of our streets due to the negative impact that is created in visual, social and environmental terms.”

We desperately need a change in tack and re-centring of the Planning Authority to take stock of the threats that our heritage is facing.

The introduction of new floor-to-ceiling heights in the Policy and Design Guidelines allows three-storey areas to become five storeys, thus fuelling demolition. This “re-definition” of floor heights, deftly snuck in as an appendix to the Policy and Design Guidelines, is the main reason why our streetscapes are being demolished and rebuilt. The dwarfing of historic buildings, chapels and urban conservation areas is already happening.

The Planning Authority needs to actively protect our heritage. The 2008 case of Torri Gourgion, Lija, where the scheduling of the street was rendered after public outcry, is an excellent example of how the historic tower needed the context to protect its own historic architectural value.

Buffer zones were an intrinsic part of the Structure Plan but there is no mention of them in SPED. Unesco in 2008 formulated policies that request buffer zones around sites of historical and natural importance.

If Malta is to consider itself a European country with heritage at the core of its identity, then we need to protect this heritage, as do other European countries. We need to not only pay lip service but strengthen our planning and legislative framework respecting recommendations of Unesco and others.

We need a Planning Authority which not only introduces Irrestawra Darek funds but protects our heritage from destruction.

Din l-Art Ħelwa urges the Planning Authority and the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage to introduce concentric buffer zones around historic buildings, their gardens and Urban Conservation Areas so that such  areas are conserved in their entirety, including the context within which we appreciate them.

We need this now, before we ruin our heritage sites any further.

We need to urgently revise the Policy and Design Guidelines and the SPED to indeed have ‘change which is compatible with the historical continuum’.

10 April 2019