Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Making up the Spare Bed

Dear Ethel, this may come as a surprise, but Maude and I have decided to return to England and we shall have to rely on you, as our favourite sister, to put us up in your house until we can find out feet again.
I remember telling you seventeen years ago that we were moving to Spain to start a new life and that you would soon be ready to move over and join us. In fact, if it hadn’t have been for the various things which got in the way, I’m sure that you would have been one of the 200,000 Brits that annually leaves the country for better things – or at least did so until this past summer.
Here, things started to go wrong in January 2008 when the Spanish authorities blithely decided to demolish a perfectly legal home, built in a quiet area away from the motorway, the sea and anything else just to prove some vile political point against the local town, which had made the mistake of voting for an independent party. The home, knocked flat by bulldozers, belonged to a perfectly innocent retired British couple which has been obliged to live since then in the adjoining garage which, due to the vagaries of Spanish property law, survived the demolition. No water or electric, of course, and this elderly couple have been ignored ever since. They will have spent a year in their garage soon and while this injustice has been all over the foreign media, with television programs and news articles appearing in England (practically on a daily basis), America, Australia, Germany, Norway and… oddly… even in Zimbabwe, not a word about this unfair situation has appeared in the Spanish media.
Encouraged by this opportunity to lose face internationally, the Andalucian government promoted the fellow who gave the demolition order and we are now told by this same ‘expert’ that there are currently six thousand illegal homes just in Almería alone. How can all these homes – some of them even built in dry riverbeds - have escaped the attention of the local small-town mayors? Guess how many of these ‘six thousand homes’ belong to foreigners (mainly Brits)?
That’s right.
All of them.
The authorities are keen to help. In many cases, these ‘illegal homes’ (often located on ‘illegal urbanisations’ and built by companies with a legal responsibility of 3,000 euros) can be ‘saved’, with the owners putting in the appropriate costs of urbanising the estate – sewage, streetlights, pavements and so on. Others, unfortunately, won’t have the same luck and they will be demolished without, apparently, any compensation. They are talking about 250 of them in the Alta Almanzora (Almería) alone. Meanwhile, a twenty storey hotel illegally built in national parkland and on the beach in Carboneras, condemned personally by the Minister of the Environment several years ago… still stands, mocking the Junta de Andalucía’s building rules.
In fact, it’s a struggle between various different authorities – local, regional, national… the ‘costas’ and the environmentalists – all running on different and arbitrary rules and casual implementation. No one, you might say, is safe.
With the building crisis in full and calamitous free-fall - two million empty homes for sale and no takers – together with hard-to-find mortgages and revaluations, building companies going bust, ‘off-plan’ companies disappearing to South America, the infamous ‘land-grab’ (now in Andalucía as well as Valencia), rampant fraud, double-dealing and corruption, things are getting harder for everyone. For the British, however, the pound is falling, jobs are scarcer than ever and pensions no longer go as far as they once did, with the drop in one’s buying power probably hovering around 50% over the last two years. Despite over three quarters of a million Brits living in Spain, bringing in to the country something like a billion euros a month, providing jobs and keeping the local trades-people alive, the fact is there is no interest, support, help or defence of this group from either the Spanish authorities or, in fact, the British Foreign Office. There’s no ombudsman in Mojácar, Madrid, London or in Brussels. If the Romanians have four MPs and two senators to look after their ‘emigrants’, the same is palpably not true of the British, who really don’t seem to want to have anything more to do with us. We have tried to organise some groups here to defend our interests and support our community (the AUN, AUAN, Ciudadanos Europeos, RBL and others) but it’s an uphill battle. Despite some towns having more ‘Europeans’ than local Spaniards on the town hall registry – it’s a rare town hall that employs a European and a rarer one still that has a foreign councillor.
So the experiment appears to have failed. We have good sun tans, know more about the world than we ever did before, have finally learnt how to cook and can walk through a crowd without saying ‘sorry’, but it is now time to return back to England…
…or maybe move on to somewhere else.

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