Birbili pledges sea change
Athens News, 23 October 2009

Tina Birbili made a bold start at the head of the country's first separate environment ministry, promising significant changes in the fields of renewable energy and town planning.

By saying she will rip up large sections of her predecessor's most recent legislation, Birbili made a clean break from former environment and public works minister Yiorgos Souflias' contentious "master plan" to extend Athens and froze for six months the law allowing homeowners to effectively legalise illegal extensions by paying a penalty charge.

"We have had many meetings with the relevant parties and we concluded that we cannot proceed with a measure that has income - and not town planning - as its principal consideration, and certainly has no environmental benefit," Birbili told journalists on October 22.

Souflias had hoped to raise up to 1.2 billion euros in fees from homeowners willing to declare they had illegally enclosed areas designated as "semi-open" spaces on building plans to increase the living area of their houses and apartments.

Birbili said that those who have already paid an estimated 50 million euros to town-planning authorities would not be immediately reimbursed but would be handled separately once the revised plans are announced in six months' time.

She stressed that the ministry would be open to proposals before tabling revised legislation.

In the space of one week, Birbili committed to tackling many of the country's most glaring environmental issues or, in her words, be judged accordingly.

In her inaugural speech to parliament, on October 16, she said her ministry's priority will be to table legislation protecting the recently burnt areas of Attica from being taken over by illegal construction.

And, in what appears to be the most blatant attack on Souflias' policies, she expressed the intention to reverse the Athens extension plan along with the recently adopted tourism zoning plan.

Environmental groups, hoteliers and a host of other organisations had heavily criticised Souflias for paving the way for mass development on islands. Meanwhile, the Athens plan envisaged the construction of a network of motorways and tunnels linking the south coast to north Athens and the extension of the city into the so-called Attica basin.

Instead, Barbili said the old master plan would be reviewed to include only "mild development". However, she echoed Prime Minister George Papandreou's pledge to proceed with developing disused Olympic Games sites along the coast.

"Athens will open up towards the sea and, with the assistance of the relevant municipalities, we will establish low-traffic roads and cycle and pedestrian routes," Barbili said.

Also in the environment minister's sights is the proposed landfill in Grammatiko, northern Attica, which she said would be built after all but would take in processed - and not raw - household waste.

The dump, which is badly needed to share the burden with the landfill in Fyli - currently Attica's only legal household waste-processing facility - has been opposed by local residents.