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Good Friday in June

There was a lot of sanctimonious soul-searching and breast-beating after the Good Friday attacks on the Mnajdra temple. But since then the rape and pillage of our heritage has continued. The destruction of our heritage has recently received a fresh impetus from the most unexpected of quarters: Minister Louis Galea who is politically responsible for heritage protection and promotion.

It has now transpired that on Sunday, June 16, 2002 Minister Galea used Article 6 (c) of the Interpretation Act, Chapter 249, and recommended the processing of PA application No. 02286/01. This gave the go-ahead to destroy the existing façade of Villa de Fremaux in St Catherine Street, Zejtun. This scheduled Grade 2 building used to serve as a hospital during the French period in Malta just over 200 years ago.

Last Tuesday morning in Parliament I requested Minister Galea (PQ 38,379) to publish the written advice he had received from those responsible for heritage protection on the fate of Villa de Fremaux. I wanted to understand what made Minister Galea decide that he should sign the death warrant of the remaining façade of this scheduled building.

Last Tuesday morning Minister Galea refused to publish these reports and told me that according to established practice my request could not be met. Now that I have managed to get a copy of the reports I requested I can understand why Minister Galea is too ashamed to publish the documents about his decision to give a helping hand to destroy what remained of this scheduled building.

In his June 16 letter to the Director of Museums he writes: "The situation today is that following demolition 11 years ago, the site behind this free-standing and dangerous façade has been completely developed on the basis and according to PAPB and then Planning Authority permits. The question today is whether there could be any real heritage value in preserving what remains of the façade in the context of the new development and in the context of the vicinity and environment surrounding the site."

Minister over-ruled Director of Museums

Minister Louis Galea decided to overrule the Director of Museums' recommendation (April 29, 2002) "to the Planning Authority to refuse the application to reconstruct the façade". He made himself the final arbiter, discarded all the advice given to him to preserve the façade and proceeded to order its destruction.

"In my opinion the development that has been allowed to take place so far, the condition of what remains of the façade, the fact that the development is completely outside the village core, surrounded by a completely new urban area built on the outer side of the ring-road - all this does not really justify the proposed refusal. The façade without the rest of the villa in the context of the factors I have just referred to has little intrinsic value."

Three years earlier, on June 14, 1999 Minister Galea had written a letter granting approval to development on the site provided a number of conditions were adhered to, "namely that the existing façade was to be properly restored and integrated into the contemporary development. Measures were to be taken to shore up the existing façade ensuring it is not damaged further in the course of construction works." But three years later Minister Galea changed his mind and last June he decided to approve the destruction of the façade.

Similar graded buildings for the chop?

A report dated January 21 drawn up by Architect Victor Sladden, area team manager of the Malta Environment Planing Authority (MEPA) records carefully the stand taken by the relevant structures that refused to go along with Minister Galea's decision to demolish the façade: "04.07.02: Directorate recommended a refusal since the proposed development would change the external appearance of a Grade 2 building. The proposal would therefore detract from the historical value of this important building and so it does not conform to Structure Plan policy UCO 13 which seeks to preserve buildings of outstanding architectural or historical interest.

"27.08.02: DCC agreed with the Directorate's negative recommendation citing 'refused since building is a grade 2 building'.

"20.11.02: Advice sought from the Integrated Heritage Management Unit with MEPA. In their report the unit advised against the demolition of the façade, recommending the proposal approved in PA 5111/95 and attaching a number of conditions."

"It is clear that only Minister Galea was in favour of demolishing the façade. His decision sets a very dangerous precedent and threatens every building of outstanding architectural or historical interest that happens to be in a situation similar to the façade of Villa de Fremaux. All these buildings now qualify for Minister Galea's chop.

Among the likely candidates stands (so far) the façade of building at Il-Pjazzetta in Sliema overlooking Ghar id-Dud known as the 'Clinic'. lt is scheduled as a Grade 2 building and therefore total demolition of this building is unacceptable and runs counter to Structure Plan policy UCO7 and UCO9. But there is not much hope for this façade if the relevant authorities proceed with the same logic that Culture Minister Louis Galea followed to demolish what remained of Villa de Fremaux.

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