It feels almost ridiculous to explain why people are angry that a block of apartment has been permitted for construction close to the Ġgantija Temples. There’s some debate as to whether the planning board that gave the approval was given the information it needed to decide. The board was told the new building is outside the buffer zone restricting construction close to the temples. It appears they were misled.

But leave that aside for the moment because the extent to which the board may have been misled by this detail was not relevant in the deliberations made by two other government agencies.

Those two agencies are the superintendence on cultural heritage (the office which is responsible to advocate for heritage sites as if the sites were their client) and Heritage Malta (the office which is responsible to manage the heritage sites to preserve them and promote them). On yesterday’s papers they spoke about as loudly and as forcefully as the keenest activist protesting the development permit for the apartments next door.

The Superintendence said they were going to ask to have a “freeze” put on the planning permit. I’m no expert but I know no way of “freezing” a planning decision. A planning decision can be revoked, but not frozen. Let’s assume that’s what the superintendence wants: to have the permit revoked. Well a revocation of a granted permit is indeed possible: if the information submitted by the applicant is incorrect, if there’s some error in the paperwork, if there’s a public safety risk, or if there’s been fraud. The fraud needs to be in the applicant’s submission to qualify for this. I don’t know enough about the details of the case to doubt whether this situation justifies this “freeze”. What matters for the present argument is that the Superintendence want it.

On the other hand, Heritage Malta said they “will strongly appeal to the decision” which is a bit strange. I can’t say I have checked every one of the hundreds of representations made to the Planning Authority about this application but I’m willing to bet Heritage Malta has not made original representations. If I’m right and it hasn’t, it won’t be eligible to file an appeal, strongly or otherwise.

The point I’m trying to make is that the Superintendence is itself a consultee of this process. On 3 August 2022 they wrote their review of the application. They said that “the latest proposal has adequately addressed (their earlier) concerns.” They confirmed the conclusion of “the archaeological evaluation”. They said they reviewed the Works Method Statement and said, “this is deemed acceptable”.  In other words, the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage said the project was as far as they were concerned good to go.

They also said they consulted UNESCO about it before giving that answer.

If I were the planning board and was told by the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage approved of the application, I’d need some other reason outside cultural heritage to reject the application.

It doesn’t end there. The superintendence told the planning board that they – the superintendence – also consulted Heritage Malta which makes that latter agency a consultee of a consultee and which could give it the perhaps misguided impression that it could appeal this decision. According to the superintendence, “Heritage Malta also consider that the latest proposal is compatible with the management plan of Ġgantija and that it will not negatively impact on the site’s Outstanding Universal Value.”

Unless the superintendence lied about Heritage Malta’s position, Heritage Malta is lying now when it says that they “have consistently objected to this development.” It appears that they didn’t.

What changed their minds? Public anger perhaps. Maybe it was the report in the UK press lamenting how we’re “desecrating” Malta. Maybe it was someone at UNESCO angrily threatening to expose the local authorities for claiming that their approval of the site followed consultation with “the UNESCO World Heritage Sites Technical Committee, the body responsible for ensuring Malta upholds its international commitments to protect and enhance the values of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.” You’d have to wonder if that really happened.

Protecting Ġgantija from this development, even now that it’s been permitted, is no doubt a priority. But establishing who decided what when and who spoke untruths on official documentation that could have allowed (and can still allow) a world heritage site to be spoilt by yet another utterly pointless block of apartments should follow immediately after.

There are clear reasons to suspect worse than mere administrative incompetence here. There are clear grounds for a proper investigation and for the responsible officials to be held into account. And though the superintendence and Heritage Malta are now screaming indignantly blue murder in the general direction of the Planning Authority, it remains to be seen who royally fucked up here.