Protection of Dingli chapel shelved for eight years

Dingli medieval chapel only granted highest level of protection after direct action by Graffitti to stop roadworks and warnings from historians on fate of Santa Duminka chapel

Planners and residents fear the Infrastructure Malta works – which fall under the purview of minister Ian Borg, a former Dingli mayor – could open the floodgates for more development in the area. Photo: James Bianchi/Mediatoday
Planners and residents fear the Infrastructure Malta works – which fall under the purview of minister Ian Borg, a former Dingli mayor – could open the floodgates for more development in the area. Photo: James Bianchi/Mediatoday

A medieval chapel in Dingli which was amongst the first 10 parishes to be documented as early as 1436, has been on the waiting list of buildings awaiting legal protection for the past eight years.

But no decision was taken until direct action by Graffitti activists against roadworks by Infrastructure Malta in its vicinity.

A report by a Planning Authority case officer for a minor extension of a building immediately next to the Late Medieval Church of Santa Duminka, reveals that the building had been proposed for scheduling just months before the 2013 election, in November 2012.

But no action was taken for the past eight years to protect the chapel, with the scheduling placed on the backburner, and facilitating plans for a schemed road to link two alleyways: Daħla tas-Sienja and Sqaq il-MUSEUM.

Planners and residents fear the Infrastructure Malta works – which fall under the purview of minister Ian Borg, a former Dingli mayor – could open the floodgates for more development in the area.

Indeed in 2017, the PA had approved a terraced house just 40m away from the chapel, outside the development zones, despite objections from the Environment and Resources Authority. The ERA had warned “of an undesirable precedent for similar future development in the area, which cumulatively would lead to significant urban sprawl out of the scheme boundary, with consequential overall change in the appearance of the surroundings and wider site.” A similar proposal had been previously rejected in 2011.

It was only after Graffitti activists took direct action to stop works on the new road that the PA and the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage moved to schedule the chapel after an eight-year delay. The chapel was protected at Grade 1 level, following a submission by the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage to the PA’s executive council.

The move prompted concern that had Graffitti’s action not highlighted the historical value of the chapel and its surroundings, no action would have been taken to grant it formal protection.

The IM roadworks themselves, announced in the government gazette on 7 September, do not require a permit. But it remains unclear how the newly scheduled chapel and its context – with  300-year-old carob trees now earmarked for destruction – will be protected. When buildings are granted Grade 1 protection, the authorities are also bound to respect their context.

The chapel’s scheduling further exposed a farcical situation in IM can commence work on schemed roads without even applying for a permit, which otherwise would have required the PA to consult the heritage authorities. According to new rules recently announced by environment minister Aaron Farrugia, the context of scheduled buildings has also to be respected.

The Church’s environment commission has called for an urgent review “to curb the exemptions” granted to Infrastructure Malta that allow it not to have to apply for full development permissions for certain projects, which allow it to exclude projects from public scrutiny and consultation, or the review of other competent authorities.

The church’s commission described Infrastructure Malta as “a threat to farmers’ livelihoods and the natural and cultural heritage”.

Art historian Keith Buhagiar warned that the roadworks will jeopardize the structural integrity of the remains of the Late Medieval Church of Santa Duminka which dates to around the fifteenth century and served as Dingli’s former parish church. “The Santa Duminka remains as well as any adjoining tracts of countryside are areas of high archaeological sensitivity and should be preserved at all cost.”

He warned that the new projected road would circle the Santa Duminka church site on two sides, probably causing irreparable harm in the process, which may result in the structural collapse of the already fragile church, remains.

The works were stopped for a second time by Graffitti activists on Wednesday, after the ERA issued a nature permit for the destruction of 300-year old carob trees in the immediate vicinity of the church.

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