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Our legacy patrimony

A coalition of heritage organisations has called for new measures to address the State’s intolerable failure to safeguard the country’s patrimony as guaranteed by the Constitution.

Our Legacy, a declaration signed recently by 22 organisations calls for a blanket presumption against the demolition of historic buildings in urban conservation areas, a binding list of scheduled properties and a public fund to allow the State to acquire key properties in exceptional circumstances.

It also rightly calls for the Superintendent of Cultural Heritage, an office that has been starved of resources ever since its inception, to be given more manpower and a stronger legislative framework to carry out its work and for protective planning mechanisms to be strengthened.

In launching this rallying cry to safeguard Malta’s patrimony, the president of the Chamber of Architects and Civil Engineers said: “This is not anti-development: there can be development that is in synergy with the past and our new development must be the heritage of the future. We’re not looking back; we’re looking forward.”

He stressed that the government must take stringent action to strengthen and protect the Constitution, which requires the State “to safeguard the landscape and the historical and artistic patrimony of the nation”.

The history of Malta’s environmental and spatial planning over the last 60 years is a dismal story of greed, exploitation, abuse, misgovernance and political ineptitude. Looking back in 20 or 30 years’ time, what substantive legacy will Prime Minister Joseph Muscat have left?

Will he be remembered only for the corruption allegations surrounding the Panama Papers? Or will his legacy also be marked by concrete, by architectural and cultural vandalism, the loss of Malta’s last vestiges of open countryside and further rapid degradation of the built and rural environment?

Dr Muscat is understandably determined to push ahead with further economic and social reforms, which create stronger growth and wealth for the country. But he seems blind to Malta’s earlier abysmal history in planning.

Unless his government – with its fallacious talk of “Dubai and Singapore”, encouragement of high-rise buildings and a “new rural policy” – belatedly acknowledges the rampant over-development which has occurred over many decades and seeks explicitly to reverse or to slow it down, it will continue to make things worse. What price economic and social progress then?

Malta’s biodiversity and countryside continue to face land development and over-exploitation. Freshwater resources are threatened by over-abstraction, pollution from nitrates, lack of rainwater harvesting and poor infrastructure. As Our Legacy has highlighted, Malta’s architectural heritage is under threat from demolition, ugly design and new and restored buildings that undermine street character.

It is right to call for special attention to be given to traditional skylines in terms of building heights. Likewise, it is absolutely correct in calling for a blanket presumption against the demolition of buildings and gardens or the addition of extra floors in urban conservation areas.

The cultural landscape is being threatened by the extent of the encroaching built-up area, taller buildings and urban fringes that obstruct views of historic centres. The limited coastline has been abused and badly planned.

In the words of Our Legacy, “rapid changes are irreversibly transforming the distinctive architectural character, streetscape and skyline of our towns and villages” for the worse. Enough is enough.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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