The MEPA Board dropped any pretence of environmental and heritage protection this morning when it approved the building of flats in the garden of Villa Mekrech in Ghaxaq. In 2005 the MEPA Heritage Committee had demanded that this garden be scheduled as “the uniqueness of this feature in the Maltese Islands as well as the integrity of the garden cannot be overstated.” The 2006 Local Plan designated it as a protected enclave however in 2008 an Outline permit was granted against the advice of MEPA’s planning Directorate. The scheduling of this Baroque treasure was only enacted a month ago on the insistence of Flimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar (FAA), however the protection left out part of the garden, making it easier for the developer to obtain a full permit there.
MEPA’s Planning Directorate still insisted that the project was not acceptable since the proposed internal residential development will entirely destroy the existing garden. Astrid Vella for FAA highlighted that this permit violates seven clauses specifically included in the Local Plan to protect heritage homes in the South.
In discussing the destruction of trees on the site MEPA Chairman Austin Walker said that he did not feel that the permit could be delayed “for a few trees”. Reports about the destruction of trees reached MEPA in August 2010 however Enforcement officers only inspected over a year later and the Environment Directorate claimed there was no abuse, in spite of photographic evidence to the contrary. Mr. Walker claimed that investigating the destruction of the trees would be “a wild goose chase” in spite of the fact that MEPA has at its disposal aerial photos of the site taken every few years.
Judge Vanni Bonello expressed his disappointment that he would have no choice but to vote in favour of the permit, due to the Outline permit having been issued, however Astrid Vella pointed to the Case Officer’s clause saying that in in case of confirmation of unauthorised destruction of trees, the Outline permission becomes invalid and the proposal needs to be assessed afresh. Photographic evidence was produced to show that trees had been destroyed, therefore the Outline permit was invalid and the Full development permit could in fact be refused.
The permit was however approved by the majority of MEPA Directors, including Dr. Vanni Bonello and Dr. Philip Manduca, who had been appointed in order to represent the interests of heritage. Mr. Roderick Galdes voted against the project.
According to MEPA’s Heritage Unit the proposed development will demolish part of the large garden which to date has survived in total, and such a proposal will compromise the heritage value of the rest of the property as it will serve as a precedent for similar redevelopment requests on the abutting related gardens, thus destroying this heritage site in a piecemeal manner. This will not only deprive residents of the sight and health benefits of the trees in this garden, but also impact the touristic potential of the south of the island.
FAA expresses its disgust at the MEPA Board’s refusal to investigate the evidence of abuse presented to it, and declares that it has lost all faith in the MEPA Board. FAA asks what is the point of paying millions of euros of taxpayer’s money for sham hearings and the issuing of permits to destroy heritage, just was done in the past.
FLIMKIEN GHAL AMBJENT AHJAR