Monday, January 12, 2009

Peaceful Retirement in Spain

The New Year’s Revolution

Let’s just take a step back for a moment for a better look. The Mediterranean coast of Spain is Europe’s answer to Florida. We don’t have much industry and, until relatively recently, the land wasn’t worth much either. A few people lived here, usually dreaming of a better life. Preferably somewhere else.
In Andalucía, they moved to the industrial areas of Catalonia in the north. They went abroad to Germany or France. Some went further and settled in Argentina or Mexico. Those that remained lived badly and without comfort. Our town of Mojácar in the province of Almería, now an expensive resort with apartments squeezed into every crevice that the planners (and their cousins) can find, used to be a forgotten ruin.
In 1900, there were some six thousand people living in our municipality. By 1960, this had fallen to 600. There was no money, no income. The agriculture was gone with the fall of the water table. Beach-land went for a handful of cents. There were no takers.
Nowadays, we are a wealthy town, built exclusively on foreign income. The local people have become rich. Those that went to Barcelona, or perhaps their sons, have returned. The money has come from tourism (a fickle mistress, where the report of better or cheaper resorts elsewhere can sucker-punch the hotels) and ‘residential tourism’, as the Spanish like to term the relocation of the Northern Europeans to Southern Spain. Most of these settlers are retired and are here for the sun, the (relatively cheap) prices, the security and, above all, the consideration that their new home and their other investments locally are safe.
Which, it appears, they aren’t.
One must remember that Spain was run by the Moors for eight hundred years and was only finally ‘liberated’ (if that’s the right word) the very same year that Columbus discovered America. The last caliphate, Granada, fell in 1492.
So, there is still a very real difference between the Spanish system of doing things and the one more familiar to those Anglos who have moved here to live. Not a problem, we say, and indeed the Levantine Spanish system of laissez faire is superior to our own (the much maligned 'rule of law' or perhaps the strict ‘zero tolerance’ of modern day Britain or America!). Spanish bohemianism versus Northern bourgeoisie.

Until things go wrong.

There are around 380,000 Britons living full-time in Spain, if you believe the Spanish statistics agency (INE), which number is based, unfortunately, on the Britons themselves who have registered themselves as being resident. Many, inspired no doubt by the laissez faire system championed above, simply don’t bother. The British Foreign Office estimates the number of Britons who have left the UK for a new life in Spain, at somewhere between 750,000 and a million. That’s quite a difference.
Then, you can add the Dutch, the Germans, the French, Norwegians and Irish, together with a healthy number of Americans, Canadians and Australians and so on – all living quietly in Spain, mostly congregated in the Mediterranean provinces and the islands. Very nice too.
The Spaniards, as we have seen, have little idea of the numbers involved. They can state with some authority how many tourists come to Spain each year (with numbers supplied by the hotels), but the foreign residents don’t particularly stay in hotels. There are no more border controls with France or other members of the Schengen Accord of Free Circulation, so visiting Spain for most Europeans is about as well-documented as might be a Californian visiting Oregon, or somebody from London going to Manchester. Since there is no direct link between 'residential tourism' and the creation of wealth, there's no ministry or department or spokesperson for this large yet powerless group. There's no one to advise them, help them or defend them. If you don't like it Señor... then there's always Portugal!

Cheap Tourism

Forget the five-day tourism in poorly maintained hotels which clogs up the beaches during the summer months. Most of those tourists pay their holidays in their own countries, where much of the money stays. The hotels, obliged to be ever cheaper to keep their agreements with the ‘tour-operators’, must keep their visitors as close as possible. They won’t encourage their guests to go out and spend their money in the nearby bars, shops and restaurants. It’s a tawdry business where the cost of the staff, as often as not underpaid immigrants from the Third World, works out as the main expense.
The Northern European retirees, if they stay in a hotel, will do so as part of a tour around Spain. They’ll more likely be in the five-star Parador – converted from a castle or a monastery – and located in some historic town of the interior. But more than this, a resident will be here all year long, spending money for 365 days rather than just five (apparently the average stay of a tourist). They’ll not only spend more, they’ll be doing it for seventy times longer in any twelvemonth period! This makes them far more useful (per capita) to the Spanish exchequer.
But, they are more useful still, as they must import funds to buy a house. A car, furniture, clothes and a thousand other things a tourist doesn’t buy. They will generate jobs – builders, painters, gardeners. They’ll keep the local stores and restaurants running. Will the Spanish authorities see this?
It appears not.

Urban Corruption

While there are now many towns along the southern coast where there are more Northern Europeans than Spaniards, the former group has made no effort to acquire power through their money or their influence. Through good old politics. Unlike Miami where over the decades the out-of-towners have eventually wrested control of the city, the foreign residents have made no effort: perhaps because, when you are retired, all you want is some peace and quiet.
Which is where things start to get tricky.
The ‘laissez faire’ thing, together with the lack of political strength of this group, means that sooner or later something will go wrong. It’s not a social problem as the Spanish are easy-going and welcoming; it’s a political problem.
A year ago, a foreign-owned house in Vera, Almería was bulldozed down by the regional authority – the Junta de Andalucía based in far off Seville. It was as if the Texans knocked down a house – just one – in California belonging to a New Yorker. The reason was patently absurd: the house was ‘illegal’ according to the authorities, built with the town halls permission, but without the Junta de Andalucía’s blessings. Oddly, the surrounding houses, with the same conditions, seem to be OK. The family was a retired couple from England, tossed into the street without explanation or compensation. A year later, they are (still) living in a nearby shed, with no water or electric connection.
While this news hit the international media (friends of mine in Miami and Boston separately heard me talking about this on the BBC World Radio), nothing appeared in the Spanish press which – remembering the old Moorish way of doing things – wouldn’t want to upset the financial applecart of truly staggering ‘institutional advertising’ which keeps them both alive and mute.
While it is incomprehensible why the Junta de Andalucía would do such a thing – risking massive investment from abroad for those small communities along the coast which have no industry or agriculture to speak of – they decided to compound the error by declaring an extra 5,000 homes in the interior of the province of Almería to also be ‘illegal’. Homes which, in every case, belong to Northern Europeans. Homes, even urbanisations, which are apparently without the proper paperwork. All of them built by local builders, with the town hall permits in place, the notary public’s signatures, the bank, the lawyers and everyone else’s best wishes and permissions. All these local politicians and professionals, we are now told, corrupt and without honour. These events usually occuring only in those communities run by people from a different political party to the Junta de Andalucía, the PSOE Socialist Workers' Party. Demolition orders, confiscations and brinkmanship are now happening all over the Andalucian autonomous region (the south of Spain). Foreign owned homes in Marbella, in Granada, in Ronda, Jeréz and in Almería are under threat. In the Valencian Region, it’s even worse. There they have a thing called ‘land-grab’ where local businessmen can legally take half your land – for commercial interests – and charge you a massive fee into the bargain.
The Andalucians are said to be intrigued by the idea.
In Spain in this time of crisis, of property surplus and high unemployment, it appears that we suffer from institutional and arbitrary demolition orders, corrupt town halls, bent lawyers and crooked public servants.
So, last week we held a protest in the local city of Almería. Upsetting the traffic and blowing whistles and waving banners, the ex-pat Brits (plus friends) put on their carpet-slippers and their sun-tan oil (the weather is very good here) and hit the streets. We gave speeches outside the Junta’s building and we talked to the press: after all, several hundred elderly foreigners, some even in wheelchairs, clogging up a modern Spanish city, doesn’t happen every day of the week. On the same day, by coincidence, a group of Euro-deputies from Brussels visited Valencia to see for themselves how ‘displaced Europeans’ are treated in Spain. They weren't impressed.
Did the protest make a difference? Once again, the foreign media covered it: once again, the Spanish media barely touched it. Perhaps the Junta de Andalucía took some notice, as their short-sighted policy of disturbing the reasonably wealthy foreign investors here must be costing them (and their voters) hundreds of millions of euros a year in lost sales.
For many of us, living under the threat of losing our house, or having to pay massive extra fees to ‘legalise’ it, or being forced to wait for years in some form of limbo, when one is elderly and retired from an active career, is unnecessary, stressful and unfair.
As for the unfortunate couple who had both their dream and their house taken from them in that callous attack a year ago, they were able to briefly interview the local representative of the Seville government following the protest. Let’s introduce them. They are called Len and Helen Prior. They are both 64 years old and they live in a garage. The creature from the regional government, in charge of ‘public works and housing’, said that he personally felt for them but that ‘the law must take its course’.
Have you ever heard a Spaniard say that before?


Mick said...

I am actually 65 today Lennox, Great article as usual. Many thanks for your help on Friday. Helen Prior

Guirilandia said...

Good luck with this, Lenox. I haven't seen anything about this in the press over here in Barcelona (though, lately I'm getting my news from podcasts and blogs).

Also, for some reason I can't sign in on your blog with my wordpress account. Weird.