Times of Malta 12 August 2009, by Kurt Sansone –

The International Council of Monuments and Sites has lambasted the government for “ignoring” its obligations when it failed to address a number of issues raised by Unesco on Valletta’s world heritage status.

The organisation was reacting to the news that Unesco’s World Heritage Committee has asked the government to submit a state of conservation report on Valletta by February next year.

The Culture Ministry yesterday said that it was “committed to preserve the status of Valletta as a world heritage site”, insisting that all efforts would be made to allay the concerns raised by Unesco.

The World Heritage Committee met to discuss conservation matters regarding a number of world heritage sites at its meeting six weeks ago, among them Valletta’s.

It did not reach any conclusions on the capital city’s status but flagged a number of issues which it insisted have not yet been addressed clearly by government.

The committee raised concerns on building height limitations within the city and its environs, the lack of a properly defined buffer zone and sparse information on the proposed Renzo Piano projects for City Gate.

Following a complaint received from Malta about the construction of a 16-storey building on the Tigné peninsula, the committee concluded that information submitted by government was “insufficiently clear to allow an understanding of the impact” of the building on the streetscapes of Valletta.

The committee oversees the state of conservation of sites on the prestigious list and has the power to remove them if the property has “seriously deteriorated” or when the “necessary corrective measures are not taken within the time proposed”.

Ray Bondin, the president of the Malta branch of Icomos, insisted that his organisation had for years been warning about the possibility that Valletta may lose its world heritage status or be put on Unesco’s danger list if the government failed to live up to the obligations imposed by the World Heritage Convention.

Icomos is one of the heritage bodies that is consulted by Unesco in deciding on the state of world heritage sites.

Dr Bondin said that Malta had an obligation to declare clear boundaries for Valletta and its buffer zone, which it failed to do. He added that the government was also obliged to give explanations on policies for high-rise buildings for sites around Valletta and how the views towards the city were protected. Apart from this, Valletta’s streetscapes and skyline had to be protected.

A spokesman for the Culture Ministry said the government would be “studying” Unesco’s communication and the analysis will include the recommendations made by the UN body.

“The relevant authorities, including Heritage Malta, the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage and Mepa will be working together to reply and prepare the necessary briefs by February 2010,” the spokesman said.

As for the Renzo Piano project, the spokesman said the government had already communicated its intentions to Unesco and the organisation would be kept “updated with all developments”.

Meanwhile, heritage group Din l-Art Ħelwa also reacted to the issues raised by the Unesco committee insisting that it had objected to the high rise building in the Tigné project when it was first proposed.

The organisation reiterated its call for the suspension of permits for tall buildings until a national policy on high-rise constructions was drawn up.

It insisted that it would be a “terrible blow” if Valletta lost its world heritage status. “It would be a black mark of gross irresponsibility against both government and Mepa if this were to happen,” Din l-Art Ħelwa said.

Valletta Mayor Alexei Dingli described Unesco’s concerns as “genuine” insisting that the council would be following the matter to see that the issues were addressed by the government.

“Something like this does worry us. It is ironic that flats that cost a lot of money are enjoying splendid views of Valletta while the view from Valletta is not exactly a nice one. It is a one-sided affair. I understand that development cannot be stopped but we need to find the right balance,” Dr Dingli insisted.

Labour spokesman for cultural heritage Owen Bonnici also called on the Prime Minister to divulge all the information that was exchanged between the government and Unesco since 2007 when the first concerns were raised.

“The Prime Minister is obliged to do all that is possible so that Valletta’s privileged status is not lost,” Dr Bonnici said, insisting that government had remained mum when similar concerns were raised about the Ġgantija temples in Gozo.