lllegal buildings get the nod

The new bill presented by Environment, Planning and Public Works (YPEHODE) Minister Vasso Papandreou before a throng of journalists and television cameras amounts to a frank admission of the State’s massive failure to develop the country’s urban centers in accordance with planning and zoning principles. It is the confession of a longstanding inability to determine which areas in the country can be built upon. As a result, many districts, not only mountain settlements but large cities like Iraklion on Crete, have been built up illegally. There has been a concomitant failure on the part of state services to monitor, curb and, finally, to suppress rampant illegality. Semi-legality But the rudimentary bill (exact terms for electricity connections and other facets will be fleshed out by ministerial decisions that are to follow) breathes complicity as well as failure. Targeted at the upcoming elections, the government bill offers a state of semi-legality and the beguiling message that illicit buildings will, eventually, be legalized by the government. The hasty and anxious announcement of the measures by Vasso Papandreou essentially opens a window of opportunity for those wanting to break the law. The measure’s time limits, from January 2004 when the bill will be voted on and the six months in which applications will be submitted, leaves a margin of at least nine months during which anyone can build an illegal building to their liking and then declare it using the looser provisions of this law. The Ministry of Planning’s initiative has little planning to recommend it. Instead of the present owners of illegal buildings (who were often forced to build illegally, having nowhere to lay their heads) being summoned to declare their dwellings by a strict deadline, the ministry has broadcast to all and sundry that the State will regulate the issue, the message being, make haste and build. On the other hand, the bill enables the supply of power and water to certain categories of buildings, the majority of which house population groups that require protection. But it is far from providing any solution. The definite legalization of those dwellings will come about only through the expansion of city plans. Despite Papandreou’s assurances, it will be six years before that happens. By then, the issue will be a purely formal one. Quality of life and the environment will have paid the price. It is a political certainty that no minister of planning would dare to demolish illegal buildings in order to create the necessary roads and public spaces. Until then, even privileged groups whose houses lie within city limits will have to pay fines, though much reduced, for having built illegally. They will also have to embark on another labyrinthian process to obtain electricity and water. The terms for hooking up to state utilities were to be determined by a ministry circular, so that, it is authoritatively stated, the interested parties can collect the necessary documents. The process looks set to try not only the capabilities of state services but also the endurance of citizens. Terms The general preconditions for connection are that the building lies within a general city plan or settlement, or alternatively, wherever located, that it is the owner’s main dwelling and does not exceed 120 square meters for a four-member family (plus 30 square meters for every additional member above the age of 4). Buildings in forests or areas earmarked for reforestation, on archaeological sites, on the coast, in streambeds or protected areas of natural beauty are not included under any circumstances. Clearly, planning departments would have to deliver their opinion on the size of the building. That is, owners of illegal buildings would have to go to planning offices in order to declare their dwelling. The declaration would then have to be checked for its veracity. To check whether the building is a primary or summer dwelling, the ministry aims to use tax declarations. As for whether a building is built on forestland, streams or archaeological sites, civil engineers declare themselves wholly ignorant of the procedures that must be followed. Given that there is no clear and contemporary record of forestland and that streams are not delimited even in the general city plans, but only by special acts, the possibility that the relevant state services will be jammed looms large. Size the only criterion This will be the case unless, of course, owners are required to haunt forestry services, tax offices and local archaeological councils for months to get the necessary certificates. Then the government will be blasted for subjecting citizens to such an ordeal. Those who assert that this is a very general bill that makes size the only criterion appear to be not far off the mark. As for the expansion of city plans, this depends on local authorities, which for years now have been unable to function, nor to monitor or program. In many local communities, mutual back-scratching due to the blood ties is unfortunately highly developed.