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What will this ‘buffer zone’ protect?

Villa Barbaro in Tarxien, with its extensive walled gardens, still retains much of its old charm. The property dates back as far as the 16th century, years before the Great Siege. A former country house, it is now enclosed by streets largely lined with two-storey houses.

The historic value of this villa has been recognised and the property is scheduled. But the surroundings and setting of a heritage building are also important.

The Planning Authority recently claimed to have established a level of protection for the spatial context of this special property, by establishing a buffer zone around it.

This may have sounded like positive news at first, until it was pointed out by incensed and exasperated NGOs and others, that this so-called buffer zone establishes a scenario for new 15.4- metre buildings, a height equivalent to five storeys, to surround the place.

Instead of truly protecting the visual context, this buffer zone will still enable the bordering streets to be transformed into buildings more than double the height of the villa and its gardens. One would expect a buffer zone to be lower than the building it sets out to protect.

This outcome invites serious scrutiny into the way in which such decisions are made by the PA. In fact, existing planning policies do consider context but this aspect can then be readily played down or ignored by the decision makers.

The Superintendence of Cultural Heritage had previously objected to a proposal for a five-storey development opposite the villa. It noted that the visual integrity of Villa Barbaro and its garden should be safeguarded.

But the way that this recommendation has now been implemented by the PA is clearly not what buffer zones are intended for. With this kind of ‘buffer zone’, Villa Barbaro will potentially be completely overlooked and submerged in a mass of surrounding buildings. Its context has not been adequately safeguarded at all.

The PA should always strive to provide solid and detailed reasoning on how it reaches its conclusions and decisions. It should make this information readily available for public scrutiny and challenge. What does it expect this unsatisfactory buffer zone to effectively protect?

Besides buffer zones, the entire scheduling process conducted by the PA merits a review of its workings. The authority should primarily serve the public interest. Historic buildings are scheduled as part of the national heritage, and it is in the public interest that our heritage is protected. There should be full transparency on how decisions are made.

The character of old Maltese streets and buildings is disappearing. The partial or complete demolition of old buildings, or of their gardens or interiors while retaining only the façade, is a familiar concern. But the spatial contexts and settings of old buildings are also fundamental to the appreciation of heritage and to the way in which people experience it.

The PA would have us believe that it does prioritise the protection of historic properties and streetscapes. Yet our towns and villages are so engulfed by new five- and six-storey construction that the wiping out of our built heritage seems closer to the norm.

Villa Barbaro is but the latest example of the wider, wilful neglect of Malta’s, and now Gozo’s, precious built heritage.

Future generations will look back upon the last decade as a travesty, dominated by the rapaciousness of the few whom the so-called guardians of heritage were unable to stop. What a legacy. The decision makers at the PA ought to hang their heads in shame.


SOURCE ARTICLE: Times of Malta