My solutions to the expat Spanish property scandal

Fecha Publicación: 
14 Septiembre 2011

Maura Hillen, president of an expat action group, explains the major property issues faced by Britons in Andalucia – and what the Spanish government must do to fix the problem.

The Telegraph | Opinión (Maura Hillen)

Entering the Andalucian property market is like entering a minefield. Some will emerge unscathed and others will step on the unexploded bomb. There is no reliable map to guide you.

The tripwire for the unlucky is a poorly-policed system for urban planning and land management, which has resulted in an estimated 300,000 illegal buildings in this region of Spain alone.

The consequences of owning an illegal property are many and varied, ranging from unexpected and expensive urbanisation costs to land grab, court proceedings, fines, denial of access to basic services or in the worst case scenario, demolition of your property.

Since the problem emerged over a decade ago, the regional government has made efforts to cauterize the wound. It has introduced new regulations which attempt to ensure that mistakes are not repeated. However, it has thus far failed to effectively tackle the stockpile of illegal housing which continues to stink up the market place.

Its latest legal manoeuvre, a draft decree, describes a complex, sometimes ambiguous, lengthy and expensive solution which fails to bring any immediate relief to those facing demolition or denied access to basic services.

More decisive action is required in my view. The market demands it and the homeowners desperately need it.

As president of AUAN (Abusos Urbanisticos Almanzora, NO), an association of some 700 British homeowners who have become trapped in this mess, I have a fairly detailed perspective on the problem and its possible solutions. I believe that the following should be done.

Change the law

The genie is out of the bottle and cannot be returned or ignored. The regional government must create a complete and up-to-date legal framework to deal with illegal constructions. This requires changes to the planning laws, rather than clarification of its finer details via various decrees.

For example, current planning law does not recognise the existence of a house in the countryside unless it is associated with farming or is more than 25 years old. This does not conform to the needs of rural communities, the demands of the market or the current reality of homes in the countryside.

Current planning law does not permit the segregation of a rural parcel of land to create a building plot. In reality, such parcels exist in large numbers, and must be dealt with to solve pressing problems with title to land and the property on it.

Introduce interim measures

Realistically, a properly-ordered solution will take years to implement. In the meantime, prosecutors are obligated to seek demolition of illegal properties and service providers are obligated to deny access to basic services such as electricity and water, creating untenable situations for the homeowner. Interim legal measures are required whilst fair and just solutions are put in place.

Remove planning powers from small town councils

In my experience small councils lack the funding and the technical expertise to prepare complicated town plans. There is also the frequently irresistible temptation to rezone the land of friends and family as lucrative building land at the expense of the wider community. A centralised function would create economies of scale and be more impartial.

Act decisively against illegal construction

It is easy to find examples of continued illegal construction. There are less than 50 planning inspectors in Andalucia for a land mass of 33,694 square miles. The complicated intermingling of politics, business, wealth and favours in small Spanish towns makes it unlikely that such activities will be reported. Citizens alerting the authorities to illegal construction need a means to protect their anonymity.


Create a fund to compensate those whose homes have been demolished through failings in the system rather than any wrongdoing on the part of the unsuspecting homeowners. Divert money from marketing campaigns for this purpose. It will do more good.

The government of Andalucia has complete control over planning matters within its borders. This gives them the power to amend the law to solve the problem. One can only hope that they heed the demand for change not only from Spanish nationals who are similarly affected and who will have their say in the coming elections, but also from the thousands of foreign homeowners who were encouraged to settle here only for their investment to be wiped out and their dreams shattered.

If Spain wishes to remain the premier choice for European retirees and to bring in much needed new investment, it needs to make changes that will offer the security demanded by purchasers. If it continues to ignore the mistakes of the past or papers over the cracks with piecemeal legislation, consumers and the property industry as a whole will continue to be badly served.

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