* Helena Smith in Athens
* guardian.co.uk, Friday November 28 2008 00.01 GMT
* The Guardian, Friday November 28 2008
The legality of one of the Mediterranean’s biggest tourism projects faces fresh scrutiny after Greece’s highest judicial authority launched an investigation into the role of a British company involved in the venture.
Athens supreme court prosecutor George Sanidas ordered an inquiry into the Cavo Sidero project after a complaint that the London-based Minoan Group, which won a bid for the development, had an unfair advantage over rivals. He also instructed Crete’s chief prosecutor to look into the original acquisition by an ancient monastery of the land on Crete’s rugged Toplou peninsula.
The €1.2bn scheme has sparked an outcry from ecologists, archaeologists and politicians in recent weeks over new planning regulations that would allow construction on uninhabited Greek isles and virgin coastline to create a 7,000-bed luxury resort.
The land sits on an area of the island that is a biological hotspot, rich in vegetation and rare plants. The 16-mile peninsula also contains archeological evidence of farming techniques employed in the Mediterranean since antiquity.
The Council of State has received an application from residents and environmental organisations urging officials to reject the government’s approval of the development.
The scheme’s opponents, led by historical ecologist Professor Oliver Rackham, from Cambridge University, argued that the multimillion-pound development was ill-suited to a region that in most other countries would have been designated a national park.
If built, the Cavo Sidero project would comprise six tourist villages, three golf courses, hotels and other top-end facilities across 2,600 hectares (6,400 acres). The British company, which tendered for the development under the name Loyalward, plans to start construction before the end of the year.
The leader of Greece’s leftwing Syriza party, Alekos Alavanos, has added his voice to the protests. He claimed that through prior contact with the monastery that owns that land, Minoan Group obtained an “option for first submission” before a global invitation for tenders was issued in late 1992. Dealings between the two had been marked by “a lack of transparency”, he said.
But the British company’s operations director, Tim Hill, said the allegations “are not based in fact”. Rebutting allegations that the development is out of scale for a site that in 2000 was declared a protected area under the EU Natura scheme, he said the project was underpinned by the most comprehensive environmental impact study conducted in Greece.
“The best procedures have been applied, the most transparent methods used and the best consultants employed,” Hill said. He pointed out that six ministries had endorsed and signed the study.
Environmentalists fear Greece could be in danger of becoming the victim of a Spanish-style development disaster. “We have never faced anything as dangerous. It will lead to a massive urbanisation of the Greek landscape on the same disastrous scale … seen in Spain,” said Kriton Arsenis, a leading conservationist.
Nearly 11,000 people, including more than 500 scientists and archaeologists from more than 80 countries, have signed a petition against the development.
The Council of State said it would announce a decision on the Cavo Sidero development next year.