Berlusconi's villa escapes Sardinia's building ban

The new president of Sardinia offered his gleaming tourist island the smack of firm government this week, enacting a freeze on construction that will halt almost all building within two kilometres of the sea, to preserve the island's beauty.

The island to which Tony and Cherie Blair fly next Monday as guests of the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, at his extravagant villa, has had a boom in haphazard tourist development along its exquisite coastline in the past 10 months, as a result of a planning vacuum.

A regional court struck down 13 out of 14 of the island's local plans last October. With no overall, island-wide regulations in place, developers and local councils rushed to launch new developments to draw more tourist revenue, Sardinia's main industry for decades. Mr Berlusconi's Villa Certosa, where the Blairs will stay, has seven swimming pools and a plantation of exotic cacti among many other delights, and extends to the shoreline of the Costa Smeralda, the island's most expensive stretch of coast.

When construction crews moved into the villa's grounds this summer to build a pseudo-ancient Greek auditorium and a tunnel enabling access to the estate directly from the sea, opposition politicians erupted angrily in parliament, saying the work was being done without planning consents.

A lawyer for Mr Berlusconi said correct procedures had been followed, and the secrecy was justified on grounds of national security. Mr Berlusconi has entertained dignitaries at the villa, even singing his own Neapolitan-style songs accompanied by his private guitarist.

The island's president, Renato Soru, told journalists in the provincial capital, Cagliari: "We have an idea of sustainable tourism for Sardinia, and we have taken the first steps towards attaining it. Tourism is not the same thing as construction, but rather a careful use of environmental resources, and it must be evaluated not so much for the quantity of structures that get built as for the impact on the economy as a whole."

The decree will be in force for three months and may be renewed only once, for a similar period. But Mr Soru is determined that a fully fledged plan for the whole island - enshrining the 2km limit - will be in force before it expires.

Howls of protest have come from some mayors. The mayor of Villanova Monteleone, on the north-west coast, called the decree "a mortal blow to the Sardinian economy", and demanded its suspension and replacement by consultation with local bodies.

Now, a powerful American landowner on the Costa Smeralda, Tom Barrack, who had formerly indicated his approval of the 2km limit, abruptly changed his tune. "I will not invest even one lira in Sardinia," he was reported as saying by Corriere della Sera newspaper. "I will put my capital in other Mediterranean coastlines."

* A group claiming links to al-Qa'ida threatened Italy on an Islamist website, saying: "This is the last warning to the Italian people. Either get rid of the unqualified Berlusconi or we will burn Italy. The next message will be what you see on your land, not on the internet."

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