Of course no-one is going to sell the Colosseum, says Stefano Lenzi of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Italia, one of the organisers of the campaign to protect Italys cultural and environmental assets from recent legislation aimed at raising revenue from state property. The problem is with all those lesser monuments and sites which are out of the public eye. He cites the 14th-century Carthusian monastery of S. Martino in Naples as an example.

The object of his concern is the integrity of the national cultural and environmental heritage which, he says, could be seriously compromised under the new law. On the eve of the fifth settimana dei beni culturali, the annual celebration of the national cultural heritage, the prospect of parts of Italys historical, artistic and environmental patrimony falling prey to financial speculation is far from reassuring.

Environmentalists and cultural heritage associations are not alone in their concern. The president of the republic, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, accompanied his signing of the law last summer with a reminder to the government of its constitutional obligation to preserve the national cultural and environmental heritage. Former cultural undersecretary Vittorio Sgarbi, one of the most outspoken opponents of the legislation, fell out with culture minister Giuliano Urbani over the issue before being forced to resign. And the Corte dei Conti (state audit office), European Commission and European Central Bank expressed concern about the financial implications of the law.

But what is the new law and what exactly is at stake? Masterminded by the finance minister Giulio Tremonti, whose name it takes, the law provides for the management and sale of state-owned property through a public company called Patrimonio dello Stato Spa. Set up in October last year, Patrimonio Spa is designed to take over assets which have little or no return and make money out of them. The government has a major deficit on its hands, says Lenzi of WWF. This measure is designed to make money on what is currently a cost.

The portfolio of public real estate consists of around 30,000 items, including hospitals, parks, beaches, prisons, commercial buildings and monuments. Much of this property produces very little income for the state and often represents a loss. Under the Tremonti law, all public assets can be transferred to Patrimonio Spa and subsequently sold, leased, used as collateral or otherwise employed to increase their profitability. The legislation provides for the involvement of the culture ministry only in decisions regarding the transfer to Patrimonio Spa of assets of special artistic and historical value (there is no similar provision for the involvement of the environment ministry in regard to the transfer of property of environmental interest). Under the law, the subsequent use of this property to raise revenue is to be determined by the finance ministry alone.

Governments have been trying to make money out of state assets for years. In 1998 the centre-left government passed a law paving the way for the sale of public property in some circumstances. However, following strong opposition from environmental and cultural watchdog associations, it was forced to introduce a regulation safeguarding items of artistic and historical importance.

Critics of the Tremonti law argue that with its shift of emphasis from the cultural or environmental to the economic value of state property, this guarantee is compromised. Though common sense dictates that important assets will not become the object of financial speculation, in the absence of explicit safeguards who is to say that a government that is strapped for cash will be able to resist putting its hands on something it should not?

There has been a lot of confusion surrounding this law, admits Benedetta Napoleoni, press officer for Patrimonio Spa. Numerous legislative steps are still needed to clear things up. However, she says it is unlikely that something important would be transferred to the company.

It may be that all the opposition has already had an effect. Regulations governing Patrimonio Spa, drawn up last December in the wake of protests at the law, provide for involvement by the competent ministry in decisions regarding the cultural and environmental assets in its possession.

As Napoleoni herself points out, everything remains to be seen. Though Patrimonio Spa has been operational since February, no land or real estate have yet been transferred to it. Napoleoni estimates this will happen around September. And while there are a number of different ways of making money on these assets, she says that until operations get underway it is difficult to say what exactly will be involved.

To find out more see www.patrimoniosos.it. The Tremonti law is 112/2002.

Picture: The Colosseum is not for sale - but other state assets could be.