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The people vs the PA

Marking a shift in the public mood about its high-handed actions, the Planning Authority is being taken to court over its decision to allow the former Sea Malta building in Marsa to be demolished under a procedure that was designed only to secure dangerous structures from collapsing, not to destroy them.

The building is not a historic site or monument. It was originally built in 1948 as a warehouse and recreational facility for the use of naval, army and air force personnel and their families. It later became the Sea Malta head office until 2006 and large parts of it were subsequently allowed to fall into disrepair.

But, as architectural experts described it, “the fine modernist building” was demolished last November with Enemalta, its last tenant, declaring it “was removing unsafe structures that were at risk of collapsing”. The Chamber of Architects and Civil Engineers, Din l-Art Ħelwa and Front Għal Ambjent Aħjar have filed a court application requesting that the approval of the demolition be declared null and void and that the court rules that the PA acted beyond its authority.

They also asked that remedial measures be taken to restore the site on grounds that, under the dangerous structure procedure, the planning watchdog was only allowed to authorise works limited to the minimum emergency action needed to remove the source of danger to the public until permission for a more lasting intervention could be obtained.

They contend that in complete violation of the law and “in defiance of a request by the Commissioner for Environment and Planning… sadly this building is now lost”.

Interestingly, the PA is already facing court action by Din l-Art Ħelwa over the demolition of a historic building, the 19th century Villa St Ignatius in St Julian’s. The cultural heritage NGO has claimed the PA had failed to take action when notified that an entire wing of the historic building was being demolished in breach of permit conditions and a related court order a few days before it was proposed for scheduling.

The court has already decided on this issue, ruling the demolition violated the court order over which contempt proceedings against the regulator, the developer and architect had been started.

There are two key aspects to these cases which give cause for hope that the tide of public opinion, already strong, may be turning further against the PA’s arrogant actions in a way not experienced before.

First, it is not too dramatic to state that this backlash, and other recent instances, represent a groundswell of feeling marking the rise of ‘the People against the PA’. People across all strata of society are concerned and angry at the actions of so many construction developers who – often, as in these cases, with the connivance of the PA – take actions that destroy buildings or landscapes they value.

Second, with better organisation, more funds, increased influence and reflecting public anger at the impact of rampant construction development on society’s quality of life, NGOs are now in a better position to act.

The government, which is politically responsible for the planning watchdog, has a duty to ensure it does not abuse its power. Otherwise, there will be electoral consequences.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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