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They are not just townhouses in Zebbug

The demolition of the Zebbug townhouses is far worse than the towers that Joe Portelli has erected, and were sanctioned even though the PA disregarded the advice of its own Design Advisory Committee

saviour_balzan
Saviour Balzan
3 July 2017, 8:00am
We have been duped into believing that since there is ‘no’ development in ODZ land, everything is satisfactory and okay
We have been duped into believing that since there is ‘no’ development in ODZ land, everything is satisfactory and okay
I am glad I am getting hooked to audio-books. It kills the waiting time in traffic. But sometimes you just want to look out at the ugliness of urban Malta. I am in awe at the way we have painted a dark grey cloud of buildings and flats over our island.

Driving up from St Thomas Bay the other day I could not miss the high towers of an oil rig berthed in the Grand Harbour.  

Taking the route down from Naxxar to San Gwann the next day, the same towers jumped out over the ugly townscape of San Gwann for all to see. You get a feeling of just how minuscule Malta really is.

Malta is indeed very small, and when you think about it, we produce a lot of hot air and noise for such a claustrophobic piece. It is an incredible place when you think about it, in the sense that so much comes out of this little place. And that this piece of rock offers such a blend of unique communities and tribes and small cultural settings.

So it comes as no surprise that young people want to migrate and live abroad but that somehow many of them – not all – return. And that is why there has been such a reaction to preserving what we still have.

I guess the straw that should break the camel’s back is the demolition of two townhouses in Gozo’s Zebbug, through an application by the soft-spoken Joseph Portelli. 

The houses will make way for a hotel.  Portelli is the new ‘kid’ on the block and his development projects have taken over the island, from Gozo to Mellieha, to Swieqi and Paceville. He operates under the radar and his business partners are an open secret. He works in typical Gozitan fashion: fast, in stealth and with a big smile.

And Portelli has friends in high places and works together with other big boys. Nothing wrong in that but there is something curious in the growth curve of his construction frenzy. It is far too steep, just like the ones of certain Paceville boys who have opened bars, restaurants and hotels with a speed that calls for some scrutiny.

The Planning Authority should never have allowed the demolition of these buildings. According to Din l-Art Helwa, the case will set a precedent for the destruction of typical townhouses with stone balconies in village cores which are typical of the Gozo townhouses.

“Nothing can replace our heritage; the destruction of these two houses will set a very ugly precedent – if this were to go ahead we would sanction the end of historic village squares,” DLH said, adding that this was a serious challenge to conservation preservation of our history.

Architect Edward Said, son of Joe Said, owner of the Malta Independent and Lombard Bank, objected to the development and recalled that as a university student he had carried out extensive research on Gozitan stone balconies.

“The ones on the two houses to be demolished date to the early 20th century, possibly slightly older. The proportions of the balconies including their arches, parapets and corbels are both finely executed and typical examples of Gozitan vernacular architecture, particularly the one which has an exquisitely executed Marian anagram and Maltese crosses.”

The problem with all these objections is that the people who are making all the arguments have been discredited with the government. Yes, it is indeed unfortunate that individuals such as Petra Bianchi openly waged war with Labour and has done no favours to DLH, which she also represents, despite the many valid arguments of the NGO.

The problem with the environmental front represented by Din l-Art Helwa and Flimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar is that it tends to be represented by a particular segment of the middle and upper classes. They tend to find comfort away from the urbanised melee of the island in their princely homes and apartments, have no bones about being associated with the PN, but their calls to protect the environment and traditional village cores employ the wrong kind of strategy. And the fact that they cannot translate, in a way that normal Maltese-speaking folk can understand, how wrong it is that we are destroying an iconic square such as Zebbug’s, is the problem they face.

Politicians like Joseph Muscat take note of the ineffectiveness of these strategies. The fact that he has announced he will hang up his political boots in five years’ time only shows me he has every reason to make the environment the least of his priorities. That worries me. It is clear that Muscat has little empathy for green issues and actually views the green lobby as being anti-Labour.

What is really needed is for more groups like Kampanja Emergenza Ambjent, to represent real people who impress you with their honesty and detachment from tribal politics. Who are not identified with any party and are more likely to be wary of the Nationalist party too.

The demolition of the Zebbug townhouses is far worse than the towers that Joe Portelli has erected, and were sanctioned even though the PA disregarded the advice of its own Design Advisory Committee, which insisted that “the existing facade should be retained” and that sensitive additions should be made to the existing building fabric.

We have been duped into believing that since there is ‘no’ development in ODZ land, everything is satisfactory and okay. In reality the truth is that our towns and villages are being pillaged.

It is time to stand up.

There is nothing wrong in making money but we cannot simply destroy everything around us. 

The solution is to get real people to speak up, and to lobby their peers and their MPs and make the point that decisions that impact on their immediate environs do make a difference in their lives. It is time to stand up and make noise. 

***

It is clear that PN leader Simon Busuttil is hoping that the Egrant inquiry will prove his assertions or allegations are true. If that is the case, it is believed that he will stay on. At face value, there is all the evidence to prove that Egrant and the Michelle Muscat allegation could have been one big invention. But Busuttil is hanging on. The truth is that the long-awaited inquiry conclusions by Magistrate Aaron Bugeja, who surely now has taken more than enough time, could unleash a plethora of legal steps against those who are accused of having lied. The biggest legal retribution could hail from Pilatus Bank.

If there is a leadership contest that will excite us and set tongues wagging, it’s the PN leadership contest. Adrian Delia is already being targeted on social media for the fact that he had been a defence lawyer of Charles Attard iz-Zambi, who had pleaded guilty of having been an accomplice in the attempt on the life of Richard Cachia Caruana in 1994, when the latter was the right-hand man of Eddie Fenech Adami and Malta was back then free of corruption [sic]. One need not be a rocket scientist to understand why RCC’s good friend Daphne Caruana Galizia will haunt the Nationalists throughout this long hot summer, with a taste of her own medicine as it seems. 

saviour_balzan
Saviour Balzan is the founder and co-owner of MaltaToday. He has reported on Maltese poli...
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