Under-staffed heritage watchdog must scrutinise over 6,300 PA applications every year

Superintendence that monitors construction projects for heritage impact says it needs to double workforce

Archaeological remains uncovered during roadworks. The SCH’s annual report says it has to increase its staff from current 38 to 68
Archaeological remains uncovered during roadworks. The SCH’s annual report says it has to increase its staff from current 38 to 68

Malta’s watchdog on cultural heritage is still plagued by underfunding and staff shortages despite its increased workload in assessing and monitoring new construction projects.

According to the latest annual report presented by the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage (SCH), the organisation needs 68 employees but is staffed by 38, up from just 14 in 2016.

Over the past years the SCH has been weighed down by thousands of planning applications requiring its assessment and archaeological monitoring, which in some cases yielded notable finds.

In 2020 alone the Superintendence was consulted on 6,393 new planning applications.

The SCH’s annual report also denounced a “negative attitude towards cultural heritage” among certain sectors, namely those with “an interest in expanding profits through speculation at the cost of the cultural heritage, the natural heritage, safety and well being”.

The SCH’s budget reached €700,000 in 2019 and 2020, but required additional funds last year to meet €1.1 million in costs required for the employment of additional officers. Despite improved funding, the organisation is “still catching up with years of backlog of inadequate funding and capacity building.”

The report also refers to the fact that Malta is now the only country to have signed but not yet ratified the European Landscape Convention, which would oblige the country to protect cultural landscapes including neighbourhoods and to set up legal mechanisms for this aim. The Environment and Resources Authority is spearheading the ratification process. Discussions have so far focused on the resources required by the entities responsible “for the continuous reporting and monitoring” after ratification and on whether legal changes are required.

The SCH is also seeking a recognition of “underground cultural landscapes” which although not visible from the ground, also merit protection.

The SCH noted the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the appreciation of cultural heritage, saying that it was more valued as “a prime symbol of the feel-good factor” and that it featured prominently in the President’s billboards promoting post-COVID recovery and in government bulletins. It also refers to the impact of the pandemic on the character of open spaces in historical centres referring to the “bizarre beauty of Valletta’s empty streets”.