Despite significantly watered down restrictions concerning building in Natura zones, Environment, Energy and Climate Change Minister Tina Birbili on Friday described the bill on protecting biodiversity that was finally passed by Parliament as a "great step forward in protecting these areas".

In statements to the local radio station Real FM, the minister admitted to having "mixed feelings" about the reactions to her original bill, which finally forced her to make major concessions in order to get it through Parliament. The original version of the draft bill would have banned all building in Natura zones on plots of land less than one hectare, a restriction that was rejected by the majority of ruling party MPs as overly strict. After a series of compromise proposals, the law finally passed essentially retains the 0.4-hectare building limit for all land parcels currently in existence.

Nevertheless, the minister was confident when speaking in Parliament that the new law will help address issues of unlawful development and environmental degradation throughout Greece, noting that 60 percent of complaints concern areas within Natura networks.

According to figures submitted to Parliament, 50 percent of cases are related to intervention in wetlands due to housing development, 18 percent are reports of threatened bird life and 18 percent degradation of ecosystems.

She said the bill outlined a legal framework that could effectively protect biodiversity and also brought the legislation up to date, harmonising this with European legislation and incorporating laws for the protection of forests from the Forest Code, as well as regulating all types of activity in Natura areas.

"The new legal framework will be Greece's tool for the protection of its fauna, flora and its habitats, combined always with the sustainable development of local communities," she stressed, noting that it would add as a foundation for "building an innovative and transparency policy for managing and protecting biodiversity".

In an interview with 'Real FM', meanwhile, she also referred to plans for the old Athens airport site at Elliniko and stressed that this was currently the largest single plot of land in Europe.

"We have to make use of this for our national economy, not as a one-off source of income," she said, noting that the site should have uses that would attract people and make it viable in the long term.