Cultural heritage Cinderella
Changes in planning laws and a boom in the construction industry have stretched the resources of the Superintendent for Cultural Heritage to the limit as planning consultation requests have risen ninefold in the last three years. The Superintendence, whose task is the protection of the country’s cultural heritage, making it the most important player in the cultural heritage field, issued 1,099 consultations in 2015. By the end of 2018, these stood at 9,773.
This trend has been highlighted in the Superintendent’s annual report, which drew stark attention to the difficulties being encountered by the watchdog to fulfil its duties while shackled by limited resources. The report also notes that, following an operations review carried out at new Superintendent, Joseph Magro Conti’s insistence on taking over in March last year, it was concluded that day-to-day operations on planning consultations and archaeological monitoring “did not work as smoothly as they should”.
It was pointed out that the workload resulting from 200 weekly cases was being shouldered by just four officers who, under the law, had no more than 30 days within which to give their reaction to each case. These limited resources meant that other tasks, such as participation in EU projects and ‘public outreach’, were being neglected.
In addition to these manpower constraints, the Superintendent’s annual review also drew attention to the totally inadequate premises it occupied in a traditional, old Valletta house as well as the inadequacy of its ICT infrastructure and the lack of any official cars to carry out on-site inspections.
It beggars belief that, after more than 16 years since the inception of the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, its staff should be occupying inadequate offices and do not have the modern means to fulfil its roles adequately. The increased workload and inadequate facilities have inevitably placed a severe strain on staff.
On a positive note, however, the report states that by the end of last year 16 additional officers had been recruited and a further five were seconded on loan from the Planning Authority. Moreover, two vehicles for on site inspections had also been purchased. A number of office sites for the Superintendence to move to were also under consideration, though any move was unlikely to occur for another two or three years.
As to the review of thousands of planning applications each year - with every one requiring a response within 30 days, all technical documents submitted being fully assessed and inspections and on-site meetings with Authority officials, architects and developers being conducted – this demanding system is being streamlined for greater efficiency. Planning consultation requests are now being filtered to give early feedback on minor developments, which have minimal impact on cultural heritage, while more demanding applications are being flagged at an earlier stage.
The Superintendence of Cultural Heritage is a key part of the cultural heritage structure in Malta, which, since it came into effect in 2002, has been the Cinderella of the cultural heritage structure: under-resourced and underrated. Although the Superintendent’s annual report shows there has been some improvement in the allocation of resources, it clearly still has some way to go.
The responsibilities of the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage are fundamental to the safeguarding of Malta’s rich cultural heritage. To fulfil its important role, the Superintendence must build sufficient capacity to fulfil its roles effectively.
This is a Times of Malta print editorial