The PA is supposed to protect Malta’s cultural heritage… not destroy it

So the fact that it did – in defiance of all UNESCO’s concerns – only proves that neither the Superintendence, nor the PA itself, is even remotely interested in doing the one thing that it supposedly exists to do, in the first place…

I’d be lying if I said that I had ‘high expectations’ of Emmanuel Camilleri, when he was appointed as the new Planning Authority chairman in June 2022.

Not, mind you, because of anything Mr Camilleri himself had said or done, at any point before that date (truth be told: it was the first time I’d ever even heard his name mentioned, anywhere). But more because of the nature of the role itself: which – let’s face it – had only ever been entrusted, in the past, to the sort of people who would always favour ‘construction/development’, over ‘environmental/heritage protection’… with results that are now painfully visible, almost everywhere you look.

It's a bald statement, I know: but one which I could easily substantiate, by simply enumerating all the controversial permit approvals ever granted by the PA, over the past 30 or so years.

Naturally, I won’t bore you with a full list here. But let’s just say, for now, that almost every single time the Planning Authority has been ever called upon, to fulfil its remit of ‘ensuring sustainable development in Malta’, and ‘safeguarding the environment, to achieve a sustainable quality of life’ – as per its own Mission Statement, please note - it has somehow almost always managed to do the very opposite, instead.

In other words: the PA has consistently acted as though its remit was to ‘protect the right of developers and entrepreneurs, to make as much money as possible through the wholesale destruction of Malta’s natural and cultural heritage… and to Hell with all other considerations’.

Under those circumstances, it was unrealistic to expect that Emmanuel Camilleri would surprise us all, by becoming the first-ever PA chairman to actually do his job properly, for a change.

Nonetheless, I did have one small expectation (albeit not exactly very ‘high’) of the latest person to assume that role. Somewhat naively, I expected Mr Camilleri to at least be familiar with what his remit actually IS… before proceeding to defecate all over it, like every PA Board chairman has done before him.

But no. Judging by the latest PA board decision, to approve a 22-apartment block just 150 metres from one of Malta’s most cherished World Heritage Sites – Ggantija temples in Gozo – it seems that Camilleri didn’t even bother reading the job-description, before accepting his new appointment.

He seems entirely unaware, for instance, that one of his most fundamental responsibilities, as PA chairman, is to implement the Operational Guidelines of Malta’s numerous World Heritage Sites (including, but not limited to, Ggantija); and that those guidelines require – BY LAW – that a ‘Heritage Impact Assessment’ has to be conducted, before any development application can even be considered (still less, approved) in or around the site’s buffer zone.

Now: in case you’re unwilling to take my own word for all of the above (and to be fair, I wouldn’t blame you)… well, try taking his instead.

At last Thursday’s PA Board Meeting, Emmanuel Camilleri made three statements about the aforementioned Ggantija project. He “insisted that heritage impact assessments were not in the remit of the authority”; he “insisted that UNESCO had never communicated directly with the Planning Authority”; and lastly, he “pointed out that the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage had never withdrawn its consent for the development.”

And what do you know? It turns out that all three of those statements are at best ‘misleading’; at worst, downright ‘WRONG’.

But before proceeding: let’s take a look at the actual permit application itself, shall we? Starting with a small detail that many news reports seem to be overlooking, right now… i.e., that the proposed development is not (as often erroneously reported) ‘on the periphery of the World Heritage Site buffer zone’; but rather, ‘slap-bang in the middle of it’.

As the attached image – lifted from the PA’s own website – amply confirms, the entire footprint of this ‘22-apartment block’ lies squarely WITHIN the Ggantija Temples Buffer Zone: after changes were made to the original scheduling, back in 2015 (that’s eight years ago, folks…)

And as UNESCO itself also informs us, on its website: “For the purposes of effective protection of the nominated property, a buffer zone is an area surrounding the nominated property which has COMPLEMENTARY LEGAL AND/OR CUSTOMARY RESTRICTIONS [my emphasis] placed on its use and development to give an added layer of protection to the property.”

I need hardly add that one of these ‘legal restrictions’ is the undertaking of a Heritage Impact Assessment (HIA). So for the past eight years, the PA has been obliged by law to conduct an HIA, with regard to the Ggantija development project… and yet, unaccountably, never did.

But back to those three statements, which I shall now examine one by one:

“Heritage Impact Assessments are not in the remit of the Planning Authority”

Sorry, Mr Camilleri, but… yes, they are. The Development Planning Act of 2016 makes it abundantly clear that the designated entity responsible for ALL aspects of environmental/heritage protection, in this county, is in fact the Planning Authority.

Moreover – as noted by the Kamra Tal-Periti – “all development within the buffer zones of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Malta must be carried out in compliance with the relevant international conservation charters, such as the UNESCO World Heritage Convention and the ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) charters, including the Venice Charter, the Burra Charter, and the Nara Document on Authenticity.”

Both the UNESCO convention, and all those other international treaties – not to mention the PA’s own mission statement - clearly identify none other than Malta’s Planning Authority, as the regulatory body that is responsible for actually implementing such legal obligations.

So exactly how the PA chairman can so cavalierly deny that the implementation of those conventions (including ‘HIAs’) falls squarely within his own authority’s remit – when there quite frankly isn’t any other entity, on the entire island, that is legally empowered to implement them – is anyone’s guess, really.

2) ‘UNESCO had never communicated directly with the Planning Authority’

To be fair, this one’s more ‘misleading’, than ‘downright wrong’… but still, what the PA chairman is suggesting here, is directly at odds with the facts of the case as they unfolded.

Let me put that another way: it is perfectly true that ‘UNESCO had never communicated directly with the Planning Authority’… but then again, UNESCO was never MEANT to do that, in the first place.

Had the PA chairman bothered actually reading that job description of his, he would have realised that there is a protocol governing how such communications should take place. Very simply, the chain of command should work as follows:

    1) UNESCO communicates its concerns, not ‘directly to the PA’… but to its own ambassador here in Malta (who happens to be a Gozitan by the name of Joseph Vella Gauci).

    2) It is the responsibility of the local UNESCO office to forward those concerns to the PA… and naturally, it is the PA’s job to take all the necessary action, in accordance with UNESCO recommendations (being, as I said before, the only authority that actually CAN do that, to begin with).

But what actually happened, in this case? Here, I am indebted to journalist Victor Paul Borg (who saved me a heck of a lot of time, by doing most of the digging himself).

On October 15 of this year, Borg published excerpts from two letters sent by the director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre, Lazare Eloundou, to Joseph Vella Gauci.

This is an excerpt from the second [Note: and the word ‘reiterate’ should give you all a hint as to what the first letter had said, too.]

“I would like to reiterate that, again in accordance with the Operational Guidelines, an HIA should be carried out as a pre-requisite for development projects and activities that are planned for implementation within or around a World Heritage property, and that such assessments should serve to identify potential negative impacts on the Outstanding Universal Value of the property and to recommend mitigation measures against degradation or other negative impacts on the cultural heritage within the property or its wider setting.”

Doesn’t leave very much room for interpretation, does it? Contrary to the impression given by Camilleri last Thursday, UNESCO certainly DID convey its concerns to the PA, through all the proper channels… and in no uncertain terms, too!

It seems, however, that the local UNESCO embassy did not likewise fulfil its own obligations in the matter. And it was this dereliction of duty, that allowed the Planning Authority to simply ignore its own legal responsibilities … for all the world as if they just didn’t exist, at all!   

This brings me to Camilleri’s third statement – i.e., that the ‘Superintendence of Cultural Heritage never withdrew its consent for the project’ - which, once again, only succeeds in placing its finger squarely on the very crux of the problem.

Sorry, but… the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage should NEVER have given its consent, to what can only be described as an illegal project, which spectacularly fails to meet even the most basic ‘pre-requisites’ for development in a World Heritage Site buffer zone.

So the fact that it did – in defiance of all UNESCO’s concerns – only proves that neither the Superintendence, nor the PA itself, is even remotely interested in doing the one thing that it supposedly exists to do, in the first place…

… which, last I looked, was supposed to be: ‘PROTECTING Malta’s cultural heritage’; and NOT ‘facilitating its destruction’! (I mean, come on. It really isn’t that hard to understand…)