The Malta Independent 19 October 2019, Saturday

PA attempts to slice through fortification

Tara Cassar Tuesday, 17 September 2019, 09:50 Last update: about 2 months ago

How would you react if a regulatory authority applied to itself to slice through a Grade 1 scheduled historical fortification?

This is exactly what the Planning Authority did in April last year. The PA submitted an application for the demolition of the historical building housing the Enforcement Unit with the sole retention of its outer façade forming a loggia, and the redevelopment of the site with an additional recessed floor.

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The building being requested for demolition forms part of a complex of British-era buildings of architectural and historical heritage value. This complex (that today houses the Planning Authority) was built in the open space within the St Francis Ravelin that itself forms part of the Floriana fortifications that are protected as part of the Grand Harbour Fortifications Area of High Landscape Value.

The near total demolition of the British era building and its proposed redevelopment having an additional floor clad in steel and timber panelling was already contentious enough to raise opposition. However heritage NGOs were further alarmed by the Planning Authority’s intention to not only demolish most of the building from the British era but to furthermore excavate a tunnel through the Grade 1 Scheduled St Francis Bastion that surrounds the ravelin, in order to provide direct access from the redeveloped office block to the existing car park below.

For Grade 1 scheduled buildings, only interventions specifically intended for their scientific restoration and rehabilitation may be allowed. Creating an ‘incision’ through a fortification wall in order for employees to avoid having to walk around the building is by no means necessary for its restoration or rehabilitation.

The invasive proposal on a monument meant to be protected as a Grade 1 scheduled property was heavily criticized by NGOs who noted that approval of this application would open the floodgates for other such requests with this serving as a precedent to ‘grant permission to anyone to start hacking away at the bastions and to hollow them out from within to provide means of access and/or commercial facilities’.

To add insult to injury, the applicant (a PA representative) failed to correctly list the zoning under which the site fell, omitting to state that the development was proposed on a historical building within an Urban Conservation Area and a Grade 1 scheduled monument within a protected Area of High Landscape Value.

The Heritage Planning Unit (internal consultees to the PA on heritage issues) refrained from commenting on the impact of the case as they requested confirmation on the position of the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage before doing so. The Superintendence however failed to provide its consultation on the case within the statutory time period. Under current legislation a failure to respond within the designated period is construed as a ‘no objection’ to the development. 

Therefore, with no comments from the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage and no subsequent comments from Heritage Planning Unit, the application continued to be processed by the case officer and recommended for approval.

At the first hearing the Planning Commission (which is ultimately the Board that decides on whether an application is to be approved or refused) wisely agreed to refer the case to the Cultural Heritage watchdog for clearance. The application was sent back to the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage who, in July 2019, finally submitted an objection to the development.  .

At last week’s hearing the Planning Commission upheld the Superintendent’s recommendation and refused the application citing a number of grounds for refusal, amongst them, that the development failed to apply best practice through the proposed use of unrelated materials which detract from the historic setting of the building. Still, the demolition of all of the original internal fabric of the British building and the proposed excavation through the Grade 1 Scheduled fortification walls were however not listed as reasons for refusal.

Ultimately through the refusal of this application the integrity of the Grade 1 scheduled monument was preserved, though the fact that the application even got to this stage is quite bewildering. The general principle is that everyone has the right to apply and see what may come of it, but does that same right apply to the Authority that is actually responsible for overseeing the correct application of land-use policies and ensuring the protection of cultural heritage? Shouldn’t the PA have just known better than to apply for such a contentious development that goes directly against the best practice guidelines and policies which it issues itself?

Tara Cassar is an architect focusing on planning policies and environmental issues related to land-use, active with a number of local eNGOs.

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