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ROME: Devastating floods in Italy that saw an entire family killed when their home was engulfed in water triggered a bitter row on Monday over the country’s vast illegal housing problem.

Rains and winds continued to batter the north while a shell-shocked Sicily prepared to bury its dead after a week of violent storms which took over 30 lives.

Nine members of a single family, including children aged one, three and 15, drowned overnight on Saturday after a river burst its banks in the coastal town of Casteldaccia, submerging their rented villa in water and mud.

Survivor Giuseppe Giordano, 35, who had left the house on an errand with one of his children, lost his wife, two other children, his parents, brother, and sister, his nephew and the boy’s grandmother.

Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, head of the far-right League, enraged many by blaming “armchair environmentalism” for the widespread devastation, which hit the Veneto region hardest.

Critics pointed instead to the scourge of illegal housing.

The villa in Sicily had been built too close to the river, violating safety norms, and the owners had been ordered to demolish it in 2008, but were in the process of appealing, Casteldaccia’s mayor said.

Out of every 100 new builds in Italy, almost 20 are illegal, according to the national statistics institute (ISTAT).

While unauthorised construction stands at 6.7 per cent in the north, it rises to 19 per cent in central Italy and shoots up to 47 per cent in southern Italy, meaning almost one in every two houses there are illegal.

In the Campania region, a jaw-dropping 64 per cent of buildings are thrown up without planning permission.

Of the 16,500 or so subject to a demolition order between 2004 and 2018, only 496 were knocked down.

Casteldaccia’s former mayor Fabio Spatafora said cash-strapped councils cannot afford to deal with the problem.

“If the owner does not comply with the demolition order, the council is obliged to buy the property or knock it down, but often — as in the case of Casteldaccia — it doesn’t have the funds,” he said.

He rubbished the claim that demolitions would leave people homeless, saying many of the properties were holiday lets.

“How many deaths and how many tragedies do there have to be before we realise that the only real public works needed in our country are those to make our territories safe?” said Stefano Ciagani, head of Italy’s environmentalist lobby Legambiente.

“We’ve been saying it for 40 years. Houses built on riverbeds, because in Italy there’s always an amnesty around the corner. Sadly, every tragedy we have to put up with crocodile tears from those who turned a blind eye and favoured illegal construction,” he said.

Italy’s anti-establishment Five Star party (M5S), which is governing in a coalition with the far-right League, pledged during its election campaign to tackle the deadly problem.

It insisted it would not support amnesties, which are seen by many as simply encouraging illegal building.

The centre-left and right parties that governed Sicily over the past 20 years have suddenly “discovered there is illegal housing there”, quipped M5S head and deputy prime minister Luigi Di Maio, saying “it makes me laugh”.

But Di Maio has himself been accused of pushing for a widely-contested amnesty for illegal housing on the island of Ischia.

As the rains continued to fall across central Italy, Naples mayor Luigi de Magistris slammed the government for failing to budget for “the necessary resources to take preventative action” against future tragedies.

“This past week Naples and many areas of the country have been alarmingly whipped by an unprecedented storm... as if we had lived through a weather earthquake with a tsunami on top,” he said.

Published in Dawn, November 6th, 2018