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Guardian’s tunnel vision

Unveiled a year ago, the Santa Luċija project, comprising a new underpass and the widening of Vjal Santa Luċija, is meant to complement the major development of the multi-level junction being constructed in Marsa.

Three months ago, the Superintendent of Cultural Heritage drew the attention of Transport Malta that the development was in an area described as “archaeologically very sensitive”. He noted that the planning application required an archaeological survey along certain tracts of land, which had to be conducted under the expertise and leadership of the superintendence itself.

The Superintendent raised the issue again in July, calling on the transport watchdog, the developer, to contact him to expedite the survey. To the superintendent’s considerable surprise, he learnt in August that a geo-radar survey had been carried out, presumably on Transport Malta’s own initiative and bypassing the superintendence. The superintendent expressed “concern that exploration for potential archaeological remains required the prior authorisation of the superintendence in keeping with the Cultural Heritage Act”. He noted that although such requirement was communicated to Transport Malta the exploration proceeded regardless.

The surveyors did not have access to information on the nearest archaeological features, which, of course, would have facilitated the identification of any potential findings. The transport regulator even failed to furnish the superintendent with the survey results.

The superintendent declared he was not in a position to make any recommendations to the Planning Authority about safeguarding potential remains. He also expressed concern that one of the structures proposed for demolition close to the Santa Luċija roundabout might be of cultural value.

There can be little doubt that Transport Malta acted throughout in a high-handed and illegal way, breaching both the spirit and the letter of the Cultural Heritage Act. It may be surprising to learn, however, that despite the potentially serious cultural heritage breaches committed, the superintendent felt he could not object to the project as “it was part of a larger road network scheme which was of importance and urgency”.

This is a disappointing and lame approach by the new superintendent. His office is the keystone of the cultural heritage structure in Malta. It is the ultimate safeguard of Malta’s cultural heritage. His duty is to say no to development that threatens any aspect of Malta’s architectural identity and heritage.

His predecessor had come in for harsh criticism from the Democratic Party over a number of glaring examples of decisions that had badly affected the cultural heritage. It would be a huge pity if confidence in the new superintendent’s commitment to protect Malta’s cultural heritage were to be undermined so early in his tenure.

To salvage a modicum of his reputation, the superintendent has qualified his decision about the work around the Santa Luċija tunnel by making recommendations for monitoring and supervising the work in progress and reserving the right to ask for modifications of the plans if necessary.

Moreover, it would seem appropriate, given the importance of safeguarding the reputation of the superintendence as well as demonstrating its determination to protect heritage sites, for the Committee of Guarantee (which includes the Superintendent of Cultural Heritage) to conduct an urgent investigation into the circumstances that led to Transport Malta’s high-handed action and to make recommendations to the Minister for Culture for avoiding a repetition.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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