12 January 2010, Times of Malta

Growing numbers of people are conscious of the attractions of the heritage that surrounds us and the positive value it adds to our living environment. This was evident recently in the spontaneous public outcry against the proposed digging up of picturesque old Balluta Square to create a new car park. There are many other examples.

Unfortunately, a number of our prime heritage sites are utterly neglected. It is an unbelievable shame that some of our most important historic monuments are derelict, such as Fort St Angelo and Fort St Elmo.

The government has its hands full and clearly does not cope with the quantity of sites under its care. Mepa’s heritage section and the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage work hard, but both are badly under-staffed and their work could be better coordinated. The cultural heritage committee, which advises the Mepa board, carries out disappointingly few site visits.

Heritage Malta is doing a good job but has huge responsibilities to carry out with its funds. The current structures and resources are not adequate and heritage is regrettably not a focus of the ongoing reform of Mepa.

In spite of this, awareness has grown steadily. In the past, there were many more examples of historic sites used for inappropriate activities, such as animal husbandry and damaging entertainment or storage facilities. This is now less prevalent, although not eradicated.

The restoration of Fort St Angelo is finally receiving some attention through work by Heritage Malta and a government application for EU funds. There have been plenty of other good initiatives over recent years, such as the Maritime museum, the Vittoriosa and Valletta waterfronts, the refurbishment of the Roman Villa, new projects in Valletta, such as St George’s Square and Victoria Gate, Villa Francia, Palazzo Falson and the ongoing restoration of the Mdina bastions, to name but a few. A conspicuous mistake is the over-sized visitor centre at Ħaġar Qim.

From a different angle, our built and natural heritage has been pushed up on the agenda by Parliamentary Secretary Jason Azzopardi, with his drive to salvage dilapidated public land and buildings, by evicting squatters and reclaiming stretches of coastline.

Dr Azzopardi has also drafted and pushed through recent amendments to legislation in order to enable the government to acquire for public purpose sites that are of historical or cultural significance and which have fallen into disrepair. Such sites would then be restored and opened to the public.

The amendments also link heritage to tourism, recognising the economic value heritage adds to the country. Heritage and tourism have long been allies and, in the previous legislature, an attempt was made to combine the two sectors in one ministry. Cultural heritage attracts visitors.

The interdependence of tourism and conservation is an everyday facet of heritage management, however, it is not enough for heritage to serve tourism, it must also work the other way round. Tourism plans must also take heritage concerns into account.

It is pointless conserving our heritage to attract visitors when new tourism developments might simultaneously threaten to ruin it and this includes our natural heritage, such as the landscape around Ħondoq ir-Rummien bay, which is endangered by plans for a major project there.

Ten years ago, the new Cultural Heritage Act had introduced another helpful legal tool to promote our heritage, that of guardianship deeds, which enable the voluntary sector and local councils to take charge of the restoration and management of cultural sites and open them to the public.

Many historic sites are best preserved when an appropriate use is found for them. Old properties that are forgotten and closed up can quickly fall into disrepair. In the national Budget, an interesting new scheme was announced to grant financial benefits for the restoration of scheduled properties. However, it is not yet clear what shape these benefits will take and whether they will be available to NGOs or other entities restoring Grade 1 properties.

The scheduling process at Mepa continues slowly but steadily, pressed forward by a couple of hard-working staff members. However, the legal framework is not adequate as it is difficult to save a house or garden if it is not scheduled or in a village core. So many houses have been demolished and turned into flats, completely changing the traditional streetscapes of Malta everywhere.

If these thousands of flats were well-designed they might be more acceptable but their developers largely seem to throw all notions of design or standards into the wind. They are not interested in saving energy or water. They forget all about spaces for gas supplies or air conditioners, which invariably end up on the tiny balcony hanging over the street, and they treat the roofs like a wasteland.

The beautiful limestone blocks of the old houses, becoming ever scarcer as our quarries hold a limited resource, simply get crushed and discarded instead of being re-used.

The questions of how or why we care about our heritage do not have simple answers. Heritage is not only about our past but it also concerns our present and our future. It plays a pivotal role in our identity, our economy, our culture and well-being.

To protect our heritage, it is not enough to protest. For it to be relevant, we must also seek ways for heritage to contribute to our everyday lives and interests in a tangible way and ensure that we have the right legal framework and resources to carry this out.

Dr Bianchi is vice-president of Din l-Art Ħelwa.