ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING 24 FEBRUARY 2021
ADDRESS BY EXECUTIVE PRESIDENT PROFESSOR ALEX TORPIANO
Good Evening. Welcome to this very particular AGM, held in a difficult pandemic situation. This past year was the 55th anniversary of the foundation of Din l-Art Helwa, but unfortunately we could only mark this occasion with an absence of social events, and with our sites closed for long periods over the year.
I would like to start by saluting the memory of Victor Rizzo, former treasurer of DLH. I did not know him myself, but I am told that he was a long-standing stalwart of DLH. I am also informed that his daughter, Pamela Hallen Rizzo, is here with us, virtually.
Last year, I talked about the 1960 “rape of (our) villages” as was reported in the UK Architectural Review, and the indignation about what was happening in our fledgling nation, which was, we then thought, indelibly changing our islands. In preparing this address, I re-read the Newsletter No. 1, published by DLH in 1967, with a Forward written by the founder of DLH, the late Judge Maurice Caruana Curran, as well as the text of a Lecture given by Sir Hugh Casson, at the Manoel Theatre. What struck me was the fact that 53 years ago, these great men, together with, as Judge Caruana Curran records, not so many others, were worried about “the passing away of Malta’s beauty”; and about the fact that Malta was “reeling under our own ruthless blows”. Sir Hugh Casson referred to the 1967 situation as “a real crisis”. There was however also a message of hope, in the sense that Judge Caruana Curran opined that “Malta is not all destroyed and there is still much to save, while Gozo is relatively unspoiled”.
If it was a crisis then, I do not know what to call it now. If Malta was reeling under heavy blows in 1967, it is now on the ground being kicked about by all and sundry. If Gozo was relatively unspoiled in 1967, well, it is really trying very hard to remedy this characteristic, at the moment.
I am, by nature, an optimistic person, and I still believe that we can come out of this “super crisis”, with scars that can heal, in the long run. But I am conscious of the fact that the context within which this is happening, this massive construction building machine, that Malta and Gozo have become, is really much more powerful, both politically, as well as in productive (and hence destructive) capacity, than in the 1960’s. Like Hugh Casson, as an architect, I make this assessment, knowing full well that architects have contributed to this machine – it is not just the “others”, who are to blame. And development is also what my profession depends on. However, as also pointed out by Judge Caruana Curran, DLH was never against development, but against development of the wrong kind.
The responsibility that architects carry, in this regard, must be shared by developers, in the sense that the latter have both lobbied strongly – using their financial resources and connections – to get the “right” policies approved, as well as exploited every single little loophole in the policies – loopholes that sometimes one might think were designed to be exploited – to build higher and bigger and grosser.
In my view, the greater responsibility must be carried by the authorities, and especially by the Planning Authority, (and, of course, by the politicians who have moulded it into what it is today); basically, the Authority seems to have forgotten its remit to protect our urban and natural heritage assets. This slide shows what was painted on the walls of the refurbished Planning Authority building, declaring the mission statement of the Authority. The key words, such as “Efficiency” and “Timeliness” betray the fact that the focus of the Authority is on getting permit applications processed quickly – to get on with the process of building! I will not comment about the “Integrity” and “Fairness” slogans, although it is clear that they do not refer to “Planning” processes, but to the processing of development applications – which is NOT planning. It is however worth dwelling on both the Vision “Making Malta and Gozo a more desirable place to live in”, and the Mission Statement “…provide a better quality of life for the community …”, in order to assess whether the Planning Authority is working.
With reference to development of the wrong kind, unfortunately, of this there is plenty in Malta and Gozo.
Given the context of this “remote” AGM, I decided that I would alleviate your boredom by using some images to illustrate my address. This decision proved to be a bit of a mistake, because when selecting what to show you, I just could not stop; and, at the same time, I just could not believe what we are doing to Malta and Gozo.
So here goes:
One of the two important roles of DLH is that of campaigning against this type of development, raising awareness, filing objections, lodging appeals, and even going to court on specific issues. The Heritage and Environment Protection sub-Committee, you have seen before, is composed of a mix of periti on part-time employment, and volunteers, and is helped by a number of lawyers who contribute their services pro bono – for which we are really grateful. In the annual report submitted by the sub-Committee –I will show you some examples of the work involved – it is recorded that over 2020, DLH submitted 361 objections, 27 appeals to the Planning Tribunal, contributed to, or formed part, of 8 actions in Court, made 2 requests for revocation of permits, submitted reports to the Ombudsman, responded to about 6 public consultation requests, and submitted requests for scheduling. Some of the objectionable developments are flagged to the committee by worried citizens, residents, other eNGOS, or are reported in the media. But most come out of a time-consuming process of going through hundreds of applications (ca. 8000 in 2020), as published weekly, and selecting those which appear contentious, and then analysing them for potential damaging impact, and for potential breaches of planning regulations, subsequently writing up objections, often appearing in front of the Planning Commission and Planning Board, or at appeals stage, in front of the Environment and Planning Appeals Tribunal.
Contentious examples (and here I will be quoting freely from the report) include small so-called agricultural stores in Natura 2000 sites; 11 or even 13-storey developments in narrow streets in the urban centres of Gzira and Sliema; five-storey developments replacing tradition 2-storey houses in Hamrun, Sta.Venera, Fleur-de-Lys, Paola, Zabbar, Birzebbuga, and, increasingly, in Gozo; requests to replace vernacular dwellings in remote ODZ areas with villas, pseudo-agritourism projects, multi-storey care facilities, and warehouses, with potentially large consequential impact on the landscape; conversions of palazzos heritage houses into hotels, comprising building additional floors above the historic properties, or developing their formal gardens. Sometimes, it feels as if people have gone mad!
It is an immense task, one which requires perseverance, and faith, (and also one that costs us money, in spite of all the pro bono help that we get); and the successes are difficult to gauge. This slide gives you an idea of the financial and human resources effort this entails. The contribution that DLH makes to the country, in these terms, is tremendous. Even when an application to which we have objected gets refused, it is difficult to gauge whether this was because of our objections, or whether it would have been refused anyway. In the case of the appeal lodged with the Qala Local Council, against the approval of a villa and swimming pool in the area of Hal Muxi, Qala, DLH was pivotal in stopping the development, since it, together with the Qala Local Council, was the only registered objector to the proposal.
As you can imagine, Court action is very demanding, on financial as well as human resources. Often in conjunction with other eNGOs, we have filed judicial protests against the ex-Jerma Hotel Site Development Brief, against the infamous transfer of Mizieb and l-Ahrax to FKNK, against the demolition of the ex-Sea Malta building, done blatantly against written PA policies, and against the way the Gozo-Malta Tunnel project is being pushed forward without proper unbiased, and published, studies.
As we continue this work, we need to step up our campaign to revoke Annex 2 in DC2015, at least in certain key areas, because of the damaging impact that this Annex is having on Malta and Gozo, especially Gozo. We have to continue to campaign, so that, perhaps, some people in authority come to their senses.
The other major aspect of our work is that of undertaking restoration projects, for iconic heritage assets that have been abandoned. As the Secretary General has pointed out, 2020 has been rather a year of frustration, as far as this is concerned, and not merely because of Covid. We have been trying for years to get guardianship of the medieval Chapel of San Cir in Rabat, which is falling to bits; we have been through most of the hurdles, Planning Authority permission, SCH sanctioning, approval by the Minister responsible for Culture, and by the Committee of Guarantee. For months, now, we have been waiting for the go-ahead from the Minister responsible for Lands. Another one frustration is the Australian Bungalow project, also years in the making, and with sponsors waiting to step in to help, and also, finally, reaching the desk of the Minister responsible for Lands for his approval. It takes so much time and energy and money. And we are not always successful.
In the case of Vendome Redoubt, in Marsaxlokk, another asset we had been preparing for, for years, we were foiled when Heritage Malta stepped in claiming a right of first refusal, to submit its own interest in the site. That would have been fine for us, had the restoration of the place actually commenced. Unfortunately this is not the case, and the damage continues. A similar story is that of the Old Pixkerija building, particularly the part that dates back to the time of the Knights of St.John, already badly amputated when the road below the Lower Barrakka was opened, and suffering abandon ever since.
Nevertheless, I want to conclude my address by sharing our “Consolations”, the things that give us hope, and encourage us to continue. First of all, I would like to highlight the work that our Warden, Paolo Ferrelli, does in the Garden of Rest in Floriana – these are images of the voluntary work that he manages to energise, using volunteers, students from MCAST, students from the Junior College, Minor Offenders (working with the Probation Office), and Erasmus Plus students.
Secondly, I would like to highlight our first Regional branch, the Din l-Art Helwa Mellieha group, inaugurated recently with tree-planting at the Park Majjistral – which DLH co-manages – and the energy this group brings with it, with their campaigns for cleaning, tree-planting, and other initiatives in favour of their region.
And finally of course, the jewels in our crown. T-Torri l-Ahmar, a restoration project recently completed, thanks to the financial support of the MTA; Wignacourt Tower; the Chapel of Our Lady of Victory, here shown in preparation of the first wedding after the shutdown provoked by Covid; Comino Tower, and St.Maria Battery; t-Torri l-Abjad at Armier, with the recently completed works on the Ditch, a restoration project sponsored by HSBC, and, for the ditch, again MTA; and finally these two, unbelievably beautiful, pictures, by Daniel Cilia, of Comino Tower, and the Delimara lighthouse, where we have also recently completed some restoration works, with funds from Gal Xlokk. At least, these pictures will make us feel better, and fill us with resolve to continue the battle, because, as Sir Hugh Casson put it, “the battle is never over”.
I would like to end by thanking people, many people. First of all, the members on the Executive Committee, and on Council, starting from Simone Mizzi, Secretary General, always the internal motor of the organisation, Martin Scicluna, Treasurer, particularly for guiding us through a difficult past year, and instrumental in raising funds, Martin Galea, for his continued commitment particularly on Park Majjistral, but also with INTO, the international organisation linking National Trusts, Maria Grazia Cassar, ex-President, for her continuing work on campaigns such as the Gozo-Malta Tunnel, as well as the restoration of t-Torri l-Ahmar, and, recently concluded, the organisation of the Architectural Heritage Awards, Stanley Farrugia Randon, particularly for driving restoration of t-Torri l-Abjad, and coordinating maintenance works in all our sites, Petra Caruana Dingli, particularly for her work in rejuvenating our journal Vigilo, Joanna Spiteri Staines, for her commitment to HEP, Joseph Philip Farrugia, particularly for his work on the Australian Bungalow Project, Luciano Mule Stagno, particularly for his work related to our social media, Joseph Attard, our man in Comino, Josie Ellul Mercer, who gets the restoration and maintenance works done, and many others – not least George Camilleri, who is our website guru, and who coordinated the logistics of the registrations of this AGM. I have already mentioned, and would like to again, thank, our HEP team, including Patricia Camilleri, on behalf of the Archaeological Society of Malta, Tara Cassar, Tracey Sammut, Isaac Buttigieg, and Yasmin Clarke, besides Joanna and Petra. I would like to thank the professionals who offer us their services pro bono, periti Nadia Martinelli, and Edward Said, and lawyers Claire Bonello, Franco Vassallo, and Joseph Camilleri. I would like to thank all our wardens, for persevering in a difficult year, and who were eagerly getting back to their beloved sites, in October 2020, when we thought the pandemic was all over. And our handyman/woman. Our many corporate sponsors, and people who donated generously when we sent out an appeal at the peak of Covid, because our normal sources of income from visitors were drying up. I want to finally thank the people who (wo)man our office, Anne Marie Navarro, and especially Rosanne Zerafa, for their efficiency, and, during the past year, for holding the fort with sacrifice, and reduced income.
It is truly a big team effort, and I am honoured to be their President. Thank you all, and thank you, participants of this AGM, for your continuing belief in the mission.