Din l-Art Ħelwa is questioning the practice of granting commercial entities concessions on heritage sites, highlighting the “abandon and abuse” of the 18th century coastal battery in Qbajjar which had once served as a discotheque.
At the very least, the NGO argued, the conditions for such commercial conditions should be far more stringent, in line with the conditions imposed on NGOs who reach guardianship agreements on such sites.
Company holds on to expired lease as government fails to act
The Qolla l-Bajda Battery was built by the Order of St John between 1715 and 1716, as part of its efforts to strengthen the Maltese islands’ coastal fortifications. It is the country’s northernmost fortification and the oldest of Gozo’s two surviving artillery batteries; St Anthony’s Battery in Qala dates back to 1730.
The battery was abandoned in the 19th century, though it was utilised as an observation post during the Second World War. However, in 1978, the government leased it to a private company, which converted it into a discotheque and snack bar. This conversion led to a number of modifications to the historic building, including the construction of additional structures in the gun platform, an enlarged entrance and the creation of a number of windows: the Planning Authority started infringement procedures in 1999.
The lease expired in 2003, “and yet legal manoeuvres and administrative ineptitude has resulted in the stalemate situation today which has allowed this iconic Knights’ period building to crumble to pieces,” DLĦ said.
The NGO had originally expressed its willingness to take on the responsibility of restoring and looking after the structure back in 2007 and has reiterated its commitment to bring the structure to life as it had done with other historic sites, “when it is liberated from the clutches of those who only see it as a commercial opportunity.”
Commercial leases far less stringent than guardianship agreements
DLĦ highlighted that while commercial leases may be given for decades, guardianship agreements of heritage sites generally last 10 years, with NGOs obliged to keep the site in pristine conditions and to report annually to the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage. The agreement may be renewed, but only on condition that the property continues to be kept in its original condition.
“It is arguable why historic properties like the one at Qbajjar are only perceived to have a future if they are let out for commercial use. At the very least, however, says the heritage NGO, the conditions for commercial concessions on heritage sites ought to be more stringent and in line with those obligatory to NGOs and asks the authorities to review them with urgency,” it said.
Though it noted that the Qbajjar battery has made the news in the wake of an article published on its magazine Vigilo, it highlighted that other historic sites faced a similar plight.
“Din l-Art Ħelwa has been at the forefront in the battle to recover these sites for the last 55 years. The authorities have to do their bit, however, to save heritage in the interest of the general public,” the NGO concluded.