St John’s Beheaded ?

25 October 2008

by Carmel Cacopardo


The ongoing debate of where to house exhibits related to St John’s Co-Cathedral at times appeared to be getting out of hand. Contrary to what some would have us believe, it is an issue which should not be left exclusively to the experts! St John’s belongs to the nation.

The fact that it is the subject of a public debate is healthy and we should thank the NGOs Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar and Friends of the Earth for having had the foresight to understand that bringing up the matter in the public domain would encourage the search for and the analysis of alternative solutions.

St John’s Co-Cathedral is not just a place of worship. It is also a museum and, indirectly, a money spinner. The monies generated from those visiting pay for its upkeep. Placing more exhibits on view would make St John’s Museum more attractive to tourists. It will also, however, make the provision of a decent space for the exhibits a necessity. So runs the thinking of the foundation in charge of St John’s.

So the proposal is to consider the manner in which additional exhibition space is to be provided. One such idea was to roof over the knights’ graveyard, bordering Merchants’ Street and reconstructed as part of War Damage. Since St John’s Co-Cathedral complex is a scheduled Grade 1 monument in its entirety this proposal is clearly out of the question: Grade 1 monuments are untouchable!

A second proposal is to excavate below St John’s Square and below parts of St John’s Street and Merchants’ Street, Valletta.

Even if one were to (temporarily) set aside the issue of dust and quantities of excavated rock resulting from such works, a matter which merits consideration is that the proposal to excavate would possibly damage the underground tunnels housing Valletta’s sewers, which tunnels meander below Valletta’s streets. Having, as a civil engineer in the then Drainage Section of the Works Department in the early 1980s, walked through most of these tunnels I clearly recollect that they have a varying width and do not run in straight lines but approximately in diagonals below most of Valletta streets. This would not necessarily show up in the available drawings and would require verification through a detailed survey. The proposed excavation would thus mean that these tunnels, a 450-year old civil engineering feat, could be damaged.

This would consequently exclude from consideration most of the areas earmarked for excavation leaving available just two options: the utilisation of existing vacant properties in the vicinity or else limiting access in the same manner as is being done in the case of the Ħal-Saflieni Temples.

I am pointing this out of concern as there seems to be an underlying interest to create an artificial barrier between those in favour and those against the foundation’s proposals. In reality, it should not be an issue of being in favour or against but in seeking the best way forward in the interests of a better protection and appreciation of our heritage.

The matter will be subject to an environmental impact assessment (EIA) whose terms of reference are being drafted.

It may be worth pointing out that in the short time that EIAs have been carried out in Malta (as far as I am aware) there has not been one instance where the assessors have been critical of a project such that it was abandoned or subjected to substantial modification. This, in my view, is the result of the manner in which members of the EIA team are appointed.

The responsibility of Mepa in vetting the appointment of the EIA team by the St John’s Co-Cathedral Foundation is enormous. The public needs to be assured that the EIA exercise will not be one of trying to justify the foundation’s proposal. There have been too many instances where an EIA in Malta was effectively used or perceived to have been used for this purpose – the flawed site selection exercise relative to the Sant’Antnin waste management plant at Marsascala being one of the most notable examples. In that instance, serious deficiencies in the site selection exercise were ignored, thereby fuelling opposition to a project which, if properly assessed, could have led to different conclusions as well as universal acceptance.

I am purposely limiting myself to the above issues. There are others related to the running costs of providing an adequate internal environment for the exhibits.

It is obvious that this could be much more costly if an underground space is excavated then if a built-up space above ground level is utilised.

Protecting our heritage includes speaking up whenever necessary. Let the discussion continue until all the difficulties raised have been examined. Only then can a reasonable solution be considered but not a beheading!