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Top News • September 05 2004

RCC’s pool on grade A archaeological site

Karl Schembri

Malta’s Permanent Representative to the EU, Richard Cachia Caruana, is building a swimming pool at his Mdina residence over an area that is officially classified to be of the highest archaeological importance where ancient deposits are believed to be buried.
When contacted, Cachia Caruana insisted that no excavation works were carried out to build his swimming pool.
“The pool was not dug up but it was built up,” Cachia Caruana said. “In the application process there were discussions about the archaeological importance of the area, and I agree with MEPA that no excavations should be carried out there. So in the end it was built up.”
But exclusive aerial pictures taken for MaltaToday last week confirm that excavations have taken place and are still ongoing.
Mdina is home to undiscovered underground archaeological remains as evidenced by discoveries made two years ago in the main square metres away from Cachia Caruana’s residence.
The swimming pool, which is supposed to have a volume of around 23 cubic metres, as well as the construction of a balance tank and pump room at 2, Triq Santu Rokku, Mdina, was approved by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority last year despite the case officer’s recommendation for refusal.
The application was officially filed by Hugh Attard Montaldo in November 2002 on behalf of MCG Ltd, an obscure business consultancy firm of which Cachia Caruana is a major shareholder and Attard Montaldo its secretary. The latter was also the private secretary of former Foreign Minister John Dalli. The architect for the development is Martin Xuereb, the same one chosen by the government to oversee the redevelopment of the controversial Lm 9 million Malta House in Brussels.
MEPA case officer Caroline Zammit insisted in her report that the development had to be dismissed in line with Structure Plan policies.
“The area where the proposed swimming pool will be located is graded as a Class A of Archaeological importance, meaning that any excavation works are strongly discouraged,” Zammit reported.

Referring to a previous development application in the residence next door to which the Museums Department had expressed its concern regarding the “many metres of archaeological deposits (which) may be encountered with below the present street level,” Zammit had stated that “the proposed excavation of a swimming pool cannot be favourably considered especially since this will involve excavation at a much greater depth than simply for building foundations”.
The case officer had pointed out that the development ran “counter to Structure Plan policies ARC 1, 2 and 3, which seek to protect the country’s archaeological heritage.”
Quoting the latter policy, Zammit reported that “applications for planning permission for development affecting ancient monuments and important archaeological areas and sites… will normally be refused if there is an overriding case for preservation”.
She said “the Planning Directorate feels that the importance of the preservation of such sites overrides the need for a swimming pool,” recommending a refusal to the applicant’s request.
Despite the sensitivity of the area, the Superintendent of Cultural Heritage (formerly known as the Director of the Museums Department) and the Malta Resources Authority did not reply to MEPA when asked for their opinion about the development.
A MEPA spokesman said that according to planning laws, the authority treats government departments’ failure to reply within the consultation time limit as a “no objection.”
“It happens quite often that departments and authorities fail to reply,” the spokesman said. “At times, when we require important feedback, we ‘break the law’ by extending the consultation period, but then we get criticised for dragging the process.”
The Mdina Rehabilitation Committee had replied that it had no objection to the development on the grounds that the site had already been ‘disturbed.’
“This is not the first time that an application for a swimming pool was made for a residence in Mdina,” Committee Chairman Ray Bondin told MaltaToday. “In this case in particular, our office had no objection as the pool was very low and almost above the original level. The garden where the pool was being placed had already been ‘disturbed’- that is the ground had in the past already been moved to make way for the garden. When such ground is disturbed there is very little hope of archaeological remains. We also understand that MEPA had imposed some conditions to safeguard this situation.”
Bondin added that the Mdina Rehabilitation Committee has “no fixed policy on pools in Mdina” except “that they should not be apparent from the outside”.
Xuereb, the architect, was also engaged by Cachia Caruana back in October 1998 when he was asked to plan and oversee the demolition of part of an Mdina house and the construction of three flatlets in what is considered an “Urban Conservation Area.”
Again, the applicant for the development at houses no 1 and 2 in Triq Santu Rokku was not Cachia Caruana himself but a certain Tonio Ellul.
The Museums Department had noted that while it had no objection to the granting of the permit on condition that a “medieval” room there would be properly preserved, there was also “a high possibility of important archaeological remains being located underneath the proposed development.”
“Judging by the depth of a well-shaft located at this site it is reasonable to expect that many metres of archaeological deposits may be encountered with below the present street levels,” the department had said. In view of this, it had “strongly recommended” that the foundations for the proposed development would be “restricted to the barest minimum to limit the negative impact it may have upon the underlying archaeological deposits” and that where excavations for the laying of foundations proved to be inevitable, “such works should be proceeded by an adequate archaeological investigation, to be held under the direction of the Museums Department.”
According to the architect’s submissions to MEPA, the nine Citrus trees that were on site had to be uprooted to make space for the new dwellings and a shallow reinforced concrete raft was to be used for the foundations in view of the Museums Department’s concerns.
Archaeologically rich, Mdina is the oldest town in Malta and was the capital city from the times of the Arabs (who gave it its name, meaning ‘capital city’) until 1571, when the Knights of St John built Valletta. Today, also known as ‘the silent city,’ it dates back to Roman times and its street plan has remained virtually the same as it was a millennium ago. Over the centuries, it has become the refuge of the nobility.

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