The Malta Independent 25 May 2024, Saturday
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TMID Editorial: Missing the wood for the trees

Saturday, 20 April 2024, 10:12 Last update: about 2 months ago

Undoubtedly the news piece of the past week, at least locally, was a planning application filed by the Paola Parish Church in order to set up a cafeteria on top of its portico.

The application, first reported last week, sought permission for an interpretation centre in the two belfry towers of the Christ the King Basilica, a gift shop, and a Class 4D outlet together with an observation deck on the roof of the church’s portico.

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A Class 4D outlet is a food and drink establishment where cooking is allowed, and is generally ascribed to a restaurant.

The news was, perhaps unsurprisingly, greeted with shock and incredulity.  The Paola parish later replied saying that there would be no restaurant but the outlet would be a cafeteria, and the planning application was then amended to seek a permit for this type of outlet – a Class 4C establishment, rather than 4D.

Social media was awash with reactions – some with tongue in cheek, some with genuine outrage, some comparing the application to the Biblical story of Jesus in the temple, and others not really seeing what the fuss was all about.

Sympathy increased when the Paola parish priest Marc Andre Camilleri explained the plans in more detail and said that the cafeteria and associated museum would help in funding urgent restoration works which the church – which is one of the biggest in the country – needs.

Indeed, in a country where it has become the norm for public spaces such as squares (including, ironically, the one in Paola a stone’s throw away from the church) and pavements have been gobbled up by tables and chairs, the outrage in this case felt over the top.

As long as any cafeteria done on the portico is done with sense and respect for the Church, and what is to be done is not visible from the square and does not spoil the look of the Church, then it’s certainly preferable to a similar initiative on the church parvis or on the pavements adjacent to it.

It is within this context that the Prime Minister’s opposition to the development, saying Maltese churches shouldn't’ be “ruined” by such applications, was ironic. 

He is right of course that Maltese churches definitely shouldn’t be ruined by intrusive developments – which this does not appear to be – but one wonders why the same statement cannot be said of the country’s public areas or even its capital city.

For months – or even years now – people have had to live with a situation which is getting progressively worse: squares, streets, pavements continue to become an obstacle course of tables and chairs enabled by a government and authorities seemingly absolutely unwilling to lift a finger to do anything about it.

Just this month, the Office of the Ombudsman slammed the Planning Authority for actually encouraging those who have taken up public space – especially those which have done so with no permit whatsoever… which is quite a few – to continue to do so without consequence.

“The Planning Authority acted in this case as an encouragement for contravenors to do as they please since the Planning Authority will not only take no action but it will also help them in avoiding such action,” the Ombudsman’s office said after it investigated complaints about how the PA handled illegally placed tables and chairs in Mellieha.

Yet, the Prime Minister appears to have neither condemnation nor problem with this.    

Likewise, if the outrage reserved for the Paola parish’s plans were now transferred onto those who are actually robbing the public of their urban spaces, then the country’s urban quality of life will only improve.  As things stand one can barely walk on some pavements without being assaulted by tables and chairs, or by waiters brandishing restaurant menus, each invariably almost the same as the next.  That’s the real shame here.

It should be said that much of the outrage that there was could have been avoided had the Paola parish itself been more transparent about its intentions from the get go.  Claims that the media somehow misled the public are far from the mark: the parish did first apply for a restaurant – black on white – and only changed its application later.

The fact remains though, that by focusing on the Paola church’s cafeteria and not the spaces that have already been robbed off the public, we are missing the wood for the trees.

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