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A historic fountain to be buried because of greed, flawed system

Jun 05, 2023

The legend goes that Għajn Rażul Fountain – which could be translated as the Apostle’s, or Messenger’s, Fountain – is associated with St Paul.

He is said to have hit the ground three times, causing water to flow, with which he baptised the first Maltese convert.

Less exciting, probably the name simply refers to the owner of surrounding fields. Or, somebody has suggested, it really means a place for washing – rgħażul is an old semitic word for “washing”, ħasil.

Whatever, the fountain predates the period of the Knights of St John – the coat of arms of Grandmaster Manoel de Vilhena are a later addition – and, most importantly, it has been a protected monument since 1932 and a scheduled Grade 1 monument since 2009. This is in spite of it having been moved to accommodate road widening works in the 1900s.

Din l-Art Ħelwa (DLĦ) restored this monument twice, once in 1989 and again in 2009.

Therefore, when our attention was drawn to the approval of PA/06472/20, a development application to build a seven-storey apartment block right on top of the monument, we were flabbergasted.

Actually the ground floor, located in the ground hollowed out behind it, is intended to accommodate car parking, while the other six floors, including a receded penthouse, rise barely 30cm above the top of the monument.

Let us be clear about this. The application went below our radar, and the radar of most people, except one person.

Why should an application for a seven-storey apartment in St Paul’s Street, St Paul’s Bay, raise any alarms? Are not Grade 1 scheduled monuments anyway protected by the Scheduled Building Setting circular PA 3/20, which prescribes that care is to be taken in the assessment of applications within areas surrounding protected areas, such as scheduled buildings?

Does the circular not require specific reference to, and discussion with, the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage?

The Superintendence of Cultural Heritage did express serious concern about the significant impact of the proposal on the Grade 1 monument. And it did ask for detailed information about underground water features (too late, the site had already been excavated as part of the works on the adjacent development, PA/7855/17 – even if the superintendence had at the time objected to any works impacting the monument).

The superintendence did ask for a detailed photographic inventory and a “character appraisal” of the context. It did ask for receding the volume away from the monument, to create an adequate buffer zone, and for a complete reworking of the elevations.

And the planning officer processing the application did recommend refusal, given that most of the things requested by the superintendence were ignored by the applicant.

The planning officer also threw in the objection that the proposed apartments were smaller than the minimum prescribed by DC15. And that the proposal ran counter to the SPED policy aiming to “protect and enhance the character and amenity of urban areas”.

There was one other objection, which raised the issue of the ownership of the monument and the land behind it – the applicant claimed that he owned the monument.

The Planning Authority typically does not get into ownership issues, leaving such matters to be determined by the courts. However, in this case, given that the monument obviously belonged to the State at some stage in the past (vide the coat of arms of the grandmaster), and given that the Lands Authority declared that the Għajn Raoul Fountain was government property, and that “it had no intention of disposing of this site”, one would have expected that the issue of public ownership or not would at least be flagged by one authority to the other. The question, therefore, is why was the proposed development approved?

Are those who decide on these applications free to ignore the recommendations of the superintendence, in the case of a Grade 1 monument, or the recommendations of the Planning Directorate, without batting an eyelid?

Is that it, then, a Grade 1 monument, with a fascinating pedigree, is going to be buried as proposed, because of the unlimited greed of developers?

One might ask, why did not DLĦ object before? There are important issues here. If DLĦ did not exist, if other eNGOs did not exist, would there be no reason to object to whatever is demanded by developers? It is physically impossible for DLĦ employees and volunteers to sift through every single application, and get into the minutiae of every single application. That would require the resources of an authority.

So, does the public not have the right to expect that built and natural heritage assets be protected without the necessary intervention of eNGOs?

Is this not the reason for all the laws approved, and all the people employed by the authorities – to protect the legacy of the Maltese and Gozitan people?

Otherwise, what is the point?

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