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Taking up the baton

A court of appeal recently upheld a decision ordering the De Paule Band Club in Paola to vacate its premises by September following unauthorised structural alterations carried out without the owner’s consent. Following the judgement, concern spread among the thousands of volunteers running band clubs, especially those using leased premises.

The Minister for Culture and Local Government, Owen Bonnici, has claimed – without spelling out what solutions the government has in mind – that the band club would not lose its premises. He said he had had talks with a member of the Opposition about a possible solution.

“The talks are quite positive,” he said, “and we see that the government is in a position to provide a solution to this issue.”

Band clubs in Malta have a long and largely honourable tradition in the history of towns and villages. They play an important role in the life of local communities and are seen as a core part of Malta’s identity.

Band clubs are formally constituted associations with a large body of dues-paying members drawn from all social classes. The first band clubs in Malta were established over 160 years ago in order to organise the lay celebrations of the annual town or village festa and, importantly, to provide the music. The clubs have become an intrinsic part of Malta’s and Gozo’s civic and social life.

The clubs have a considerable impact on the life of the community as a whole. The important officers of a club are among the most influential people in the community. The voice of the president and the members of committee members, including the bandmaster, affects decisions of the entire town or village. 

The issue which has given rise to the government’s and, apparently, the Opposition’s concern does not only affect the Paola club, but also other clubs in similar situations. The solutions in prospect go beyond mere funding of the leases of band clubs, which in the minister’s view might be the least of their problems.

Dr Bonnici said he was seeking a long-term solution dealing with two key aspects: first, where band clubs were breaking the law by carrying out major alterations without the owner’s agreement; and secondly, on the issue of rents being allegedly too low compared to current market prices.

There can be no argument that Malta’s band clubs – together with many other aspects of Maltese life, such as fireworks, the skills of Maltese lace-making and silver filigree and others – are elements of Maltese custom, culture and identity which are a crucial part of our intangible heritage.  The preservation and encouragement of these elements, which might otherwise be at risk, are therefore vitally important objectives.

It is difficult to envisage how any solutions the minister has in mind can avoid the use of taxpayers’ money. This in turn raises a number of concerns. Is this a fair use of public funds? And if band clubs are worthy of such support, why not sports clubs, social clubs and numerous charitable and worthy bodies whose premises involve considerable cost?

Moreover, how is the legal position of the owner of such clubs to be safeguarded? And why should the band clubs themselves not contribute a share of any allocation of taxpayers’ money?

The minister’s optimistic words may be placing the government on a very slippery slope indeed.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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