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Facultad de Derecho
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Recortes de Prensa

The end of the Spanish dream as more homes are declared illegal

The Times, 18 | 01 | 2010 - Noticia

British expats in Andalucia have three months to demolish their homes before the bulldozers are called in. We report on southern Spain’s new civil war

The turning you choose as you drive out of Malaga airport says a lot about the kind of Spain you’re looking for.

If you turn right as you reach the flyover by the San Miguel factory, you’re on the way to the Costa del Sol proper — proper tattooed Brits eating proper fish and chips, or real bling among the yachts and bars of Marbella and Puerta Banus. Turn left, and then left again up into the mountains, and you are into authentic Andalucia: old men sitting on walls or driving herds of goats, the wives and widows going for their evening paseo in their black cardigans. A chain of white villages — the pueblos blancas — sit high in a scrubby, harsh landscape that gets ever more majestic as you reach the borders of the Sierra Nevada. Beyond is Europe’s only desert, in Almería province, a place of intense heat and still unspoilt fishing villages.

More and more British expats have been choosing to turn left. They have shunned the Costa, learnt Spanish and built their dream houses among the olive groves.

Some of those dream-homeowners live in the Almería village of Albox. On December 22, police visited those homes and served notice that they must demolish their properties before April 9. If they don’t, the authorities will bring in the bulldozers and charge the cost to the owners.

It was a horrible shock, but not a complete surprise. Throughout the southern province of Andalucia, tens of thousands of homeowners, most of them Northern European expats, have been living under the shadow of demolition for two years.

Most built their homes with what they thought were cast-iron planning permits from their local town halls, or ayuntamientos. Imagine their alarm when the regional authority, the Junta de Andalucia, came along and ruled that any new property built on rural land and not designed for agricultural use had to come down. If the junta presses ahead with its plans, the sight of sunburnt British pensioners surveying the rubble of their dream homes is going to be daily occurrence on your TV screens. Andalucia will look like a war zone.

Politicians from Northern Eruope are frantically trying to get the Spanish Government to see what a PR disaster it is facing. In September, Chris Bryant, a Foreign Office minister, said after meeting his Spanish counterpart: “He was keen to reassure me that it was very unlikely people’s houses would be taken down”. It will be interesting to see what reassuring words Mr Bryant has for the people facing the April 9 deadline. Last Monday homeowners from throughout the region made their frustration plain when more than 700 marched in protest through Almería city.

I’ve been turning left at Malaga airport for ten years. We came here for a visit, renting a nice little apartment in the coastal town of Nerja. My wife had a vague idea that it would be fun to look for properties. The owner of a ceramics shop took us on a drive and offered to sell us some land in the hills, land that he may or may not have owned. Thankfully, we are not the building or renovating types or we’d doubtless be litigating still. Instead, we went for a drive with a nice man from a small and unfashionable estate agents deep into the foothills of the Sierra, a wild region known as the Axarquia. We ended up in an impossibly high clifftop village called Comares, spent ten minutes inspecting a swish village casita, put in an offer a couple of days later; and a decade on, we’re still there.

A lot has changed in ten years. In fact, a lot changes from one visit to the next, even if there’s only a month in between. Comares itself can’t grow much more because it’s built on hundreds of feet of sheer limestone cliff. But the surrounding countryside, is being transformed.

Every year, every month, the scrubby land of olive and almond trees, boulders and ancient Roman and Moorish paths, gets more filled in: with one-storey bungalows, white-washed fincas and huge villas with swimming pools, stables and car ports. Sometimes, I’ve stood by the remains of the 11th-century fort at the top of the village and looked out on a scene that reminds me of those old pictures of Los Angeles: a parched, remote mountainous landscape about to be turned into a megapolis because people like the weather.

You can imagine the effect the property boom had on the local population, here and in Almería. Rural Andalucia has always been dirt-poor and lawless, exploited and despised by the rich landlords to the north. The people here were the last to give in to the Reconquista of the 15th century and the last to surrender to Franco — who then starved the place. It’s rare to see a septuagenarian without a walking stick, the legacy of childhood malnutrition. Their grandchildren fled to the coast and the cities.

Then we foreigners came with our dreams, our architect’s plans and our fat chequebooks. Farmers who had spent their lives scraping a living from the hard land, growing olive trees and vines for raisins and the local sweet wine, suddenly discovered their fincas were built on gold mines. Phil Smalley, a native of Preston, in Lancashire, bought a parcel of land near Lake Viñuela for €80,000 in 2003. According to the deed, the land had last changed hands in 1972 — for the equivalent in pesetas of £120. “The land would have gone to scrub,” says Mr Smalley. “The farmer’s children didn’t want to do anything with it. Now he’s made for life.”

Not that Mr Smalley begrudged the vendor his fortune. He felt pretty fortunate himself, after a career as a manager for the cash-and-carry company Makro. He and his Yorkshire-born wife, Sandra, built a villa on the old vineyard with amazing views towards the coast and La Maroma, the mountain that towers over the Axarquia. They applied for a licence to build. Their builder sent designs to the college of architects, which were approved. The plans were submitted to the town hall, the Viñuela Ayuntamiento, which said it was happy. They made sure the purchase was correct at every stage. The Smalleys moved in three years ago. Then, in October 2008, they received a letter from the town hall saying the regional authority was seeking to have the licence for the property declared illegal by the courts. The Smalleys were given nine days to respond. They saw a lawyer and paid him €450 to investigate. He told them they could challenge the move, which would cost about €6,000. But they would lose.

They had done nothing wrong; but they were in the wrong. If they fought the action, they would not only lose, they would forfeit any right to compensation. The only course was to wait for the inevitable demolition order and hope to get at least some of their money back.

There have been 160 such notices posted in Viñuela alone — and it’s not even the size of a town. Across the region and beyond, north and east to Granada and Almería, there are tens of thousands of property owners, most of them British, German and Scandinavian, whose properties have been ruled illegal.

International attention has focussed on Marbella, for many years the centre of unfettered development and mind-boggling corruption. But the temperature has fallen there since the old council was dissolved in 2006. Officials have unofficially assured homeowners their condos are safe from the bulldozers.

Mr Smalley doesn’t pretend that the planning system has been abused — anyone standing at the top of my village and surveying the jerry-built structures perched on the skyline can see that. “There’s been money-laundering, corruption, back-handers, you name it,” he says. “Near here, someone applied to build four houses on a plot of land — they built 20.”

The now familiar story of buyers used to British legal searches and planning laws getting some nasty shocks is all too common on the Axarquia. Mr Smalley mentions the case of one friend who bought a villa, only for an apartment block to be built in front of it. Another couple had their drive bulldozed by the clerk of the local town hall, who claimed the land was his. Indeed, a council official in Comares built a four-storey house overlooking our garden and blocking the view of the 11th-century fort for most of the village. I asked a Spanish friend if there wasn’t such a thing as listing and heritage orders here. She laughed.

There’s a fatalism you learn pretty quickly as an owner in Spain. However much you try to assimilate, there are things — the noise and the treatment of animals as well as the building free-for-all — that you never get used to. At that point you say to yourself: “It’s not my country. What right do I have to force my values on them?”

But Mr Smalley sees such talk as defeatist. A fluent Spanish speaker, he calls the authorities’ behaviour una barbaridad – an outrage. As for his own house, he is not giving in, despite conceding the legal battle. “We have all the receipts. We have our licence. We’ve done nothing underhand. It’s a row between the local mayors and the Junta.

“We’re no more,” he concludes with sour irony, “than interested bystanders.”

He’s right. A new civil war has broken out between the regional and local authorities. Helicopters circle the countryside looking for illegal properties. The town halls are raided. One mayor, in Alcaucin, is under arrest. Investigators allegedly found €130,000 hidden under his bed.

Earlier this year, a report by the Danish MEP Margrete Auken called for grants for Spain to be frozen unless it put a stop to the abuses in the property market. The report was overwhelmingly approved — despite opposition from Spanish MEPs on the right and left.

The rural mayors are lobbying too, and not just, they claim, to protect their own interests. The foreign influx has been a vital fillip to local businesses as anyone who wanders into my local bar will testify. It isn’t the old chaps whiling away the afternoons with a single café solo who keep the tills moving.

The Axarquia was well on the way to becoming the Spanish Tuscany or the Dordogne of Andalucia. Travel journalists come through every now and again, and write in wonder about the place. They visit the yoga centres and painting retreats, the boutique hotels and hilltop restaurants, predicting, sometimes, that it’s going to become the Next Big Thing for the middle class and hedonistic.

Now the incomers are flooding out. The collapse in Spanish property had already persuaded the “place in the sun” crowd to seek new bargains in Croatia, Turkey or Montenegro. The demolition orders will doubtless scare away many others.

“It’s absolutely gorgeous here”, says Mr Smalley. “But I wish I’d never seen Spain. I’m 63 now — and I may be dead before all this is sorted.” Like the others, he’s seen his income savaged by falling interest rates and a plummeting pound. The house he put his money into could be worthless.

Those of us in village houses, which have stood in one form or another for hundreds of years, feel a little more secure — for now. There was a party in my village recently for the foreign residents, a celebration of co-existence. Unless a deal is cooked up between the squabbling Spanish authorities, it could be the first of not very many. Andalucia has a long history of swinging between noisy co-existence and bleak isolationism. There’s another swing coming, even if the weather is still very nice.

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