Storm as Berlusconi hands amnesty to illegal builders

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A storm of protest broke over Silvio Berlusconi's government yesterday because it intends to fill a gaping hole in its budget by giving an amnesty to illegal builders who agree to pay fines.

More than 30,000 buildings have been constructed illegally in Italy since January 2002, and more are going up all the time. But the government is preparing to announce in the budget, in two weeks' time, that illegal builders can "sanctify" their structures by paying a penalty of a few thousand euros. Details of the amnesty have yet to be made public.

It is unlikely to be restricted to what is being called an "amnesty light" - pardoning only illegal building additions to interiors, or those which do not increase a building's volume - because that would not bring in enough money.

The government needs to raise €16bn (£11.3bn) if it is to keep Italy's budget deficit for 2004 to 1.8 per cent of gross domestic product. The government hopes to raise €1.5bn from the amnesty.

Reaction to the proposed amnesty was swift and angry. Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio, president of the Green Party, said it was "a real instigation to illegality ... What is required is a real, peaceful revolt by honest citizens to stop what otherwise is going to destroy our territory. It is scandalous and unacceptable that instead of fighting illegal construction, this government has decided to feed it."

Walter Veltroni, Mayor of Rome and a national leader of the centre left, said: "The building amnesty rewards dishonesty and penalises citizens who obey the law ... It sends the wrong message to the citizen, without mentioning the costs for the community which must tolerate illegal buildings that damage the city and its environment."

Mr Veltroni was speaking in Monte Mario, a section of Rome from which his officials had just overseen the removal of more than 60 illegally installed television aerials.

Abusivismo, as the epidemic of illegal buildings is known, began soon after the war as impoverished families did whatever was necessary to put a roof over their heads, regardless of often rigid, unrealistic planning controls. Successive governments have failed to get a grip on the menace. Now huge areas, particularly in the south and in Sicily, are scarred by impudently grandiose developments, many built without permission of any sort. Only one tiny region of the country, Valle d'Aosta, near the Swiss and French borders, is said to be free of the plague.

Among the most outrageous abuses are those close to important historical or archaeological sites. The Concordia Temple at Agrigento in southern Sicily is one of the best- preserved Greek temples from the 5th century BC anywhere in the world, and is the centrepiece of a complex of important buildings dating from the same period. The area was intended to be preserved as a park, but landowners said to be in league with the Mafia have put up more than 600 illegal buildings of every description inside it, including villas, blocks of flats, garages, tourist facilities and a church. Illegal structures within such historic areas have never been sanctified in an amnesty, but remain standing none the less.

The new amnesty comes on the heels of those of 1994, also overseen by Mr Berlusconi, and of 1985, the initiative of his late, disgraced patron, the Socialist Party leader Bettino Craxi. Mr Berlusconi commented: "I'm aware that the amnesty is annoying to many, but it's also true that we are in need of 3,000bn old lira [€1.55bn]."