Ta’ Baldu

Ta’ Baldu is an area in the limits of Rabat that is blessed with such wonderful natural  features that for many ages it has been treated with awe and respect by various ruling cultures and local gentry.  It contains various archaeological and rural remains. Beneath several farmhouses built in the vernacular tradition some three hundred years ago,  are a number of caves one of which incorporates a system of irrigation with water gushing from a spring. The date 1629 is inscribed on one of the walls. Nearby, a string of rubble walls of excellent workmanship rise up to five metres.  “In 1665, it was described by Gian Frangisk Abela in his Descrizione di Malta as the most beautiful place in Malta.”

Remains and historical evidence show clearly that the place was always held in high esteem, at least since the Roman period.  All subsequent generations considered that human intervention could not possibly improve the natural beauty of the area, its high landscape value with its delicate habitat and ecosystem as nurtured by the waterflow from the natural spring there. In fact the Roman and later the Arab water catchment system in an underground cavern is still in use by the farmers there today.
MEPA scheduled the Ta’ Baldu area with its cave complex and the vernacular farmhouses in the Government Gazette dated 6 June 2006 (Govt. Not. 492/068), for its archaeological, architectural and contextual importance, declaring the area a Natura 2000 site since then.

The Issue
In spite of the protection given to the site by all the authorities concerned, things have taken a strong turning to the worse when a number of fields in the area together with some of the farmhouses and caves changed ownership. The new owners, being renowned businessmen with commercial concerns, initiated developments that are most insensitive to the integrity and natural beauty of the site.  They did this without even putting in an application with MEPA, and when the Authority came to know about the developments various enforcement orders were issued. Surprisingly five applications to sanction the illegalities were eventually approved, even though the correct procedure required for a Natura 2000 site was not followed by the DCC.

Ironically, on the 16 June 2009 MEPA publicized a feature in its series “One World – Protecting the most significant buildings, monuments and features of the Maltese Islands (08) – Ta’ Baldu. It was about the same time as the above illegalities were flagrantly taking place, as sanctioned by the same MEPA, which induced environmentalist Edward Mallia to request the Audit Office of the Authority to carry out an investigation. Without mincing words the ensuing report by the Audit Office incriminates in no uncertain way:
1.    The DCC – “ the action of the DCC amounted to an abuse of power, deciding policy instead of enforcing it, ignoring the official policies of Mepa, and in general approving development applications when official policies intended to safeguard the environment indicated that they could not be approved.”
2.    The applicant – “The long list of applications to sanction illegal developments makes me wonder when the applicant intends to stop. In addition to the illegalities that have been sanctioned contrary to policy, there are applications still pending to sanction additional development….. It is unacceptable that a developer continuously ignores all laws and regulations, carries out development illegally, presents a fait accompli to Mepa and expects to have his development regularised.”
3.    The architect – “From the correspondence in the file, it seems that all work was carried out under the supervision of a warranted architect. It is not my function to investigate the actions of individual architects, but it is the duty of all professionals in the service they provide to their clients to respect the law of the land and advise their clients accordingly. I consider the actions of the architect highly unprofessional and I would recommend that Mepa refers the case to the Kamra tal-Periti for a formal investigation under the provisions of the Architects Act.”
4.    The Director of Agriculture – “I fail to understand the contents of the letter of the Director of Agriculture in which he stated that the development on the land surrounding the property in question was of an agricultural nature. It is clear from the photographs taken by the Environment Protection Department, and those presented by the applicant himself, that this is a garden, complete with turfed areas and even a small turfed football pitch. How this can be termed “agriculture” is beyond my comprehension.”
5.    The Planning Directorate – “It is obvious that the Director of Planning knew all along what was happening in the decisions taken by the DCC Division A. Yet there seems to have been no response from the Director of Planning to the gross abuse of power and breach of regulations and policies being carried out. It should have been his duty to refer the situation to the Mepa Board.”
6.    The Sanctioning Applications system – “…applications to sanction development on listed sites and buildings and located outside development zones and, in particular, in protected areas and areas of archaeological and ecological importance, should be totally unacceptable. I have no hesitation in advising Mepa to recommend that, in the proposed amendments to the Development Planning Act, applications to sanction should not be acceptable in such circumstances. In addition, the prosecution of offenders (provided that adequate penalties apply to act as an effective deterrent) should be considered normal practice in these cases. It should be made clear that this would apply not only to the owner/occupier of the land but also to any consultants he/she may employ.

Ramblers’ mission
For our Association the problem with Ta’ Baldu has two facets: There is the issue of access, and that of protection.
Access: The lane through the historical and panoramic site has always been enjoyed by the public and the farmers who work their fields there. Ramblers have often gone trough the lane to enjoy the beauty of the spot until some time back when a wrought-iron gate that was illegally installed prohibited entry. Farmers tilling the land have protested against the inconvenience. The new tenant of some of the fields now claims ownership of the lane, without proving unequivocal ownership and in spite of the rights of usage derived through years of usage by farmers and ramblers.

Protection: Ta’ Baldu is a Natura 2000 site and the law prohibits human intervention that is not vital for the upkeep of the ecosystem. The Association is against the conversion of the area into a formal villa garden through the introduction of lights, imported plants that are invasive and detrimental to the existing ecology and other landscaping. We resist the conversion of a rural vernacular agricultural area into a formal villa garden suitable for private weddings and parties, which have been illegally held there already. Ta’ Baldu is a site of National Memory and its enjoyment by Maltese nationals and foreign visitors has to be guaranteed as it has always been.

For this purpose the Association will continue to press upon the MEPA to take into account the suggestions and recommendations of the Audit Office as put in the said report.

Back to our issues.