Updated | Housing works destroy historic tunnel

Social housing project works suspended after digging destroys historic tunnel

The large site in Bormla where social housing units, an underground car park, open spaces and a childcare centre will be built. The historic tunnel is marked by the red circle
The large site in Bormla where social housing units, an underground car park, open spaces and a childcare centre will be built. The historic tunnel is marked by the red circle

Updated at 11pm with statement from housing parliamentary secretariat

Works on a social housing project in Bormla have been “temporarily suspended” after excavations partially destroyed a historic tunnel that had to be preserved.

The matter was flagged by residents after they noticed that the tunnel, which dates back to the period of the Knights, at one end of the building site was partially demolished.

After MaltaToday raised the issue with the Planning Authority last week, a spokesperson has now confirmed that works on the project are suspended.

“The applicant temporarily suspended works. They are in discussions with the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage on the matter,” the spokesperson said.

Questions sent to the superintendence remained unanswered by the time of writing.

The tunnel was below a building, which according to approved permits had to be retained and restored.

MaltaToday is informed that the building was dismantled and stones numbered for re-erection at a later stage, however, the land below the building was dug up like the rest of the site, partially destroying the tunnel. Excavation works should not have extended to the zone.

Concerns about the tunnel and historical buildings on the site were first raised in 2016 by John Vella, curator at the Bir Mula Heritage Museum.

A close up of the tunnel which was partially destroyed by excavation works that were not supposed to touch that part of the site
A close up of the tunnel which was partially destroyed by excavation works that were not supposed to touch that part of the site

It was after Vella’s outcry that plans approved in 2002 for the social housing project were changed to preserve the historic aspects and include more open spaces.

The PA approved the new plans last year and works on the social housing project started in the summer. The site was previously an abandoned slum area.

The preserved building had to be used as a child care centre once the project is completed.

The tunnel is believed to be an underground escape route built in the 17thcentury by the Knights. It is located at the corner of Hannover and St Helen streets.

In 2017, a spokesperson for the Family Ministry, responsible for the project, had told the Times of Malta that the underground passages were unknown to them and not mentioned anywhere in the planning application process prior to 2002.

Government reaction

In a statement on Sunday evening, the parliamentary secretariat for social housing said it was "closely following developments" and insisted that preliminary research indicated that "no cultural heritage was damaged during excavation works".

The secretariat said that excavation works on the site were now complete.

"The Housing Authority together with the project architects and the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage, will continue to follow every established procedure as was always the case from day one," the secretariat said.

The statement made no reference to the fact that works have been temporarily suspended.

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