Fake rubble walls ‘are illegal’


Monday, 16th September 2019

Ivan Camilleri

 

When is a rubble wall not a rubble wall? Structures put up along the Tal-Balal road. Photos: Chris Sant Fournierħ

The “fake” rubble walls being built along arterial roads, sometimes in place of traditional ones, are illegal, according to a former director of the planning authority.

“A look at the ‘rubble walls’ which Infrastructure Malta is building, some replacing protected old ones, reveals that they are just dummy, fake walls,” said Alfred Baldacchino.

He was asked for his opinion following an inspection of the walls by Times of Malta.

The faux rubble walls are made up of an aesthetic façade of local stone cladding set against large ‘franka’ blocks. This does not conform to regulations on how rubble walls – which are protected by law – should be constructed, he said, calling for an investigation.

Kilometres of ‘fake’ rubble walls are being built along newly constructed major roads – proof, said Mr Baldacchino, that “the government does not give a hoot about protecting the island’s heritage”.

A case in point is some 2.5 kilometres of what, according to Infrastructure Minister Ian Borg, were new “rubble” walls built along the perimeter of the road connecting San Ġwann to Naxxar, better known as Tal-Balal.

Plans submitted by Infrastructure Malta for the Tal-Balal road widening project described the new walls as rubble walls and not cladded walls.

However, a quick inspection shows them to be constructed of a superficial cladding made up of old and new stone set on large blocks of limestone.

Not only would this appear to fall foul of laws protecting Malta’s traditional rubble walls but they also present an environmental eyesore. Large tracts of wall are exposed at the back – left without cladding – jarring with the rural setting they are supposed to protect.

“To add insult to injury,” said Mr Baldacchino, “the walls are covered in concrete topping, which is also against the regulations, preventing the free percolation of rainwater through the structure.”

A senior government official who works with the government’s Valley Management section at the Transport Ministry told Times of Malta that the ministry had received warnings about the damage that was being done.

Warnings about damage that was being done

However, the road contractors appear to have been given the green light despite these warnings, said the source, who wanted to remain anonymous.

Times of Malta has been seeking the position of the Planning Authority on the matter for nearly a month, sending precise details of the roads and walls in question.

However, despite being the authority responsible for the protection of rubble walls, it has failed to reply to questions, one being whether the Tal-Balal rubble walls are in line with the relevant legal notice. Neither were replies to questions received from the Environment and Resources Authority, which is responsible for the protection of the environment.

A spokeswoman for the ERA initially said it was looking into the case but later passed the buck to the PA. “It is the Planning Authority which is the competent authority for implementing and enforcing this legislation,” she said.

Cladded walls cost significantly less to build than true rubble walls.

Infrastructure Malta was asked which it was being billed by the road contractors for, but it too failed to reply to questions.

Mr Baldacchino was scathing: “The roads agency and the ministry seem to think that they are exempt from local legislation. The problem is that besides the destruction of the environment, these roads are also financed by EU money.

“This should be investigated,” he said. Infrastructure Malta was already in hot water over the Tal-Balal Tal-Balal project when it started to build sections of the road without applying for a permit.

 

This concrete is against the regulations, preventing water drainage through rubble walls.

What does the law say?

The legal notice entitled ‘Rubble Walls and Rural Structures’, last amended in 2007, declared rubble walls and non-habitable rural structures to be protected.

This was in view of their historical and architectural importance, their exceptional beauty, their affording a habitat for flora and fauna, and their vital importance in the conservation of soil and water.

According to these rules, a rubble wall means a dry-stone wall, built in loose unhewn or rough-dressed stones which stands by gravity and friction without the use of mortar.

The Planning Authority is declared in the law as the competent authority responsible for the administration and implementation of these regulations.

The relevent regulation regrding rubble walls can be accessed through this link:

http://www.justiceservices.gov.mt/DownloadDocument.aspx?app=lom&itemid=11490&l=1

 

aebaldacchino@gmail.com 

6 Responses to Fake rubble walls ‘are illegal’

  1. L.F.Cassar says:

    With every due respect, those walls are not typical rubble walls, what in Maltese we refer to as “hitan tas-sejjieh”. These are known as “il-hajt tax-xulliel, where, very often, only one ‘face’ is dressed (mingur). It is actually a more sustainable manner of dry stone wall construction, since it encourages the re-use of old building stone. Presumably, the large blocks of limestone at the back have been included for additional structural support, given the boundaries delineate a main thoroughfare (this would be an engineering decision not one based on aesthetics).

    The re-use of old building material should actually be encouraged, rather than build with loose rubble (sejjieh), which is now a depleted resource and which would potentially lead to the dismantling of other walls elsewhere.

    • So these ‘new rubble walls’ referred to by the Minister for Transport, are not rubble walls at all. They “are not typical Maltese rubble walls (ħitan tas-sejjieħ)”. And, they do not have any historical and architectural importance, no exceptional beauty, and do not afford a habitat for flora and fauna, and do not contribute to the conservation of soil and water, as rubble walls do. They are fake rubble walls as the article correctly points out. Thanks for such explanation.

      These new fake rubble walls have destroyed and replaced many Maltese characteristic rubble walls protected by law, achieved by the use of EU funds.

      The comment that the “re-use of old building material should actually be encouraged…” in this case, is more of a political comment lacking any scientific input. A look at the new rubble walls at Buqana, limits of Rabat, reveals the relatively new rectangular pieces limestone used.

      I am greatly disappointed and surprised by L.F. Cassar comments that this “…is actually a more sustainable manner of dry stone wall construction.” I would have expected an emphasis on the importance of dry stone rubble walls from a natural habitat point of view, as defined by the regulations. Unless of course natural habitats are not important any longer now.

      This is all contrary to the Rubble Walls and Rural Structures (Conservation and management) Regulations. I am attaching the link for ease of reference.

      http://www.justiceservices.gov.mt/DownloadDocument.aspx?app=lom&itemid=11490&l=1

      • L.F.Cassar says:

        Alfred, your being “greatly disappointed and surprised” is neither here nor there, apart from demonstrating a degree of condescension. It is simply a matter of subjectivity and taste. Personally, I prefer ‘hitan tax-xulliel’ than ‘hitan tas’sejjieh’, which were in frequent and regular use during the time of the Knights of St John. You can see similarly constructed walls in Buskett and around Verdala Palace, on the way to Ghadira from Mellieha, at Imgiebah and in numerous other locations, especially around ancient gardens at Siggiewi. Both techniques are traditionally ‘dry’ (no concrete) and both are of cultural interest. Perhaps whoever drafted the Rubble Walls and Rural Structures Regulations had limited knowledge of local dry-stone wall construction, its culture and history. Furthermore, I can assure you that both wall-types in question can and will function as refuges/biodiversity corridors for micro-mammals, reptiles and a suite of invertebrates.

        I would tend to agree with you that the use of concrete in the new walls is not traditional, but I am not in the habit of jumping to conclusions, given there may be a structural reason for its use, in addition to the fact that my knowledge of structures and construction is limited, beyond the aesthetic point of view.

        • Louis, it is not my intention to enter into a never ending discussion on this matter. I believe that both of us can use precious time for the better conservation of biodiversity in our own way. I was never involved in the drafting or amending of the rubble wall regulations, as you may well know. But, like them or hate them, these are the regulations in force today. My main concern is the loss of adequate habitat for flora and fauna.

          Considering the way that rubble walls (ħitan tas-sejjieħ) and claded rubble walls (ħitan tax-xulliel) are constructed, one cannot deny that the former are better refuges/biodiversity corridors for mammals, reptiles and a suite of invertebrates, than the latter, especially when the latter are covered by concrete, irrespective of the reason. When the latter replace the former, then the loss of such habitat cannot be denied. I never said that one cannot find ħitan tax-xulliel anywhere else in Malta, as old as they may be, though this is of no consolation for the old characteristic rubble walls the new ħitan tax-xulliel are replacing.

          My comments are all based on simple biodiversity conservation principles, which, as far as I am concerned, are not a matter of subjectivity or taste. When we were younger we did work for many years together on such principles and never had any disagreement, as far as I know. That is why I find it a bit out of place for you to say that my reasoning is “demonstrating a degree of condescension”. My principles are still the same, though perhaps a bit stronger in the face of such biodiversity destruction going on.

          Wishing you all the best with beneficial results in your work for biodiversity conservation, and thanking you for your interest and comments.

          • L.F.Cassar says:

            Alfred, I should like to assure you and your readership that, likewise, it was not my intension to enter into a polemic. I merely pointed out what, in my view, were flaws in some of your statements, which conveyed an element of inaccuracy and subjective perception. My objective, therefore, was technical and certainly not designed to ‘shoot the messenger’.

            Your article seemed to ignore the fact that apart from conventional rubble walls (hitan tas-sejjieh), there was yet another traditional technique, which has been in use locally for centuries (obviously, without the use of modern concrete). Subsequently, you dismissed its cultural importance, perhaps because of a lack of familiarity with the term and technique. Again, I reiterate my firm belief that this latter practice (that of using old stone, notably, ‘xulliel’), is more sustainable; reasons being that (i) it does not lead to the collection and subsequent removal of large amounts of naturally dispersed rocks from the countryside (for rubble wall construction), which, otherwise provide in-situ refuge and habitat to a host of species; and (ii) ‘hitan tax-xulliel’ provide exactly the same functions as their kin, namely, ‘hitan tas-sejjieh’.

            For reasons already explained in a previous post, I shall not enter into the merits of why road engineers used supporting blocks of stone, etc., and, in case anybody is wondering, I am not in any way associated with the project in question.

            Let me end by reassuring you, Alfred, that I cherish to this day the decades spent working together for conservation!

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