Greek paradise at risk as Athens plans to rip up planning rulebook
Government intent on removing housing restrictions on islands
Wednesday, 15 October 2008
Just as other European countries are counting the cost of overdevelopment in coastal areas, Greece's government is seeking to redraw planning regulations and open the islands up to high-density summer homes, from Skopelos to Santorini.
Opposition parties have been joined by conservation groups, architects, hoteliers and planning experts in condemning the changes which could come into practice by the end of next month. "We are about to see an explosion of summer house construction along the Spanish coast development model," said Kriton Arsenis, from the Hellenic Society for the Protection of the Environment.
Greece has more than 10,000 miles of coastline, and spectacular archipelagos in the Aegean and Ionian Seas with several thousand islands. The islands have – with few notable exceptions – been spared intensive development as they lack the infrastructure and natural resources to sustain large hotels and resorts.
Under the new proposals, restrictions on the size and density of summer homes would be removed and the state subsidies currently available only to hoteliers would be farmed out to housing developers.
George Papandreou, leader of the main opposition socialists, accused the government of launching an irreversible takeover that would change the country's landscape. "[They see this] as a way to fill the government coffers in a once-only massive international auction of Greece's relatively pristine shores and island constellations," he said.
Other European countries such as Spain have been left with an ugly concrete legacy of hotels and holiday homes built during the property bubble that are now largely worthless.
The unusual silence in Greece's media on the proposals has also raised concerns over the links between media and construction interests. For the past two decades, the Greek economy has been fuelled by a mainland construction boom and many of the tycoons that profited from this now control large newspaper and television groups.
Already unusually large property purchases have started to occur. An unnamed company bought 1,500 hectares of the Aegean island of Ios earlier this year. Under current laws a single house of about 200sq m could be built on the site – which is currently used for grazing – but under the new laws, tens of thousands of small houses would be allowed.
Midway through their second term, Greece's ruling New Democracy party now has a single-seat majority in parliament and could face a snap election before the end of the year. The country has been in a prolonged economic decline since the orgy of public spending that accompanied the 2004 Olympics in Athens, with inflation and unemployment climbing all the time. The Environment and Public Works minister Dimitris Souflias insists that the new planning framework is "green" and that it will give full legal protection to EU-identified sites.
The government has said it will approve the plans within a month despite its critics and has ignored opposition demands for a parliamentary discussion on the issue.
"The prospect of snap elections has caused this government to try to ram through the interests of real estate developers as fast as possible," said Mr Papandreou. "This means passing the laws without any discussion in Parliament, discussion which would be potentially embarrassing for the conservatives."
The only European country without a completed land register, Greece already suffers from a notoriously chaotic planning system. Until now though, its saving grace has been to limit that building outside of urban areas to a relatively small scale. The potential impact of an unchecked construction boom on the fragile ecosystem of the islands has led the national hoteliers' association and a number of local authorities to join the battle against the government.