The best way to protect an interesting or important old building is to include it in the list of scheduled properties. Just over 1,700 sites and monuments have been scheduled so far since the list was established in 1992, of which around 1,300 are architectural sites, and the rest are of archaeological or ecological interest.
The recent National Strategy for Cultural Heritage states that “the figure of scheduled sites should increase considerably (in excess of 30,000) if the scheduling process is to become fully effective.” So unless the pace is stepped up dramatically from this average of 113 per year, for us to reach 30,000 we can look forward to another 250 years of scheduling. In the meantime, what protection is being afforded to historic sites?
All the village cores of Malta are protected. Yet permission to demolish is granted to 14% of applications every year in these areas. In numerous cases only the facade is retained, with the original interior smashed down and replaced with new apartments.
Besides scheduling, the Planning Authority is only affording very limited protection to old buildings which lie outside the village and town cores. To date, we still have ancient farmhouses and other buildings dotted throughout Malta and Gozo. Unless they are scheduled, all those which fall within the building schemes can easily be demolished or ‘redeveloped’. Given the current climate of the building sector in Malta, the demolition of old attractive houses and gardens is rampant.
What can be done to rectify this dismal situation? Scheduling is the responsibility of the Integrated Heritage Management Team at the Malta Environment and Planning Authority. This team is deplorably under-resourced and serious efforts should be made to increase the capacity of this unit. Likewise, the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, which is the authority set up at law to be the regulator of our heritage, is grossly under-resourced and immediate steps should be taken to beef up the Superintendence.
Recent estimates indicate that over the last 6 years enough new development has been approved to last the country for the next 10 years. In view of the state of our housing supply, the rehabilitation of existing buildings should be actively encouraged instead of the creation of more new housing stock.
Apart from the possibility of scheduling buildings of special architectural merit, irrespective of their age, general development control guidelines should be drawn up to address all buildings over a certain age, which have not – or perhaps not yet – been included in the scheduling process. A new policy document should be created as a guideline for planning applications involving old buildings which do not lie within a Conservation Area.
Importantly, the conservation of old buildings should be actively promoted, and must not be regarded as a negative process. One possibility might be the offering of financial incentives to home-owners who are willing to restore and rehabilitate old properties, also bearing in mind the general benefits in terms of sustainability, as the energy and resources used in construction are better invested if a building is encouraged to be long-lasting.
Conservation can add significant prestige to the aspect of a locality, and the nation’s architectural heritage can be well adapted to new lifestyles. The Mepa guidance document ‘Conservation Philosophy and a new approach to Conservation Issues’ (1999) states that “investment and development activity needs to be channelled into rehabilitation and conversion rather than new building or redevelopment”. Unfortunately this is too frequently ignored.
Dr Petra Bianchi is Director of Din l-Art Helwa