It’s a funny place, Spain. There are now so many levels of authority, with so many public servants (‘funcionarios’ as they are amusingly called), that no one is ever quite aware of what to do, scared of ‘doing the wrong thing’, panicked by those situations which are not covered in the ever-changing handbook (ever more of us are said to be ‘en situación irregular’) and, in short, the country appears to limp along from one crisis to the next, with no firm judicial or political presence anywhere in evidence.
Let’s look at our local problems, and leave the country’s larger conundrums, like whether a maverick judge should try and sue Franco for genocide, or the attempts to re-open the wounds of the Civil War, or whether the Catalonians should secede from the rest of Spain and have a glorious non-bullfighting cava-swilling Catalan speaking mini-state all of their own, or even if our best-of-the-year sportsman plays on an American team in a game practically unknown here in this country (the NBA), all for another time.
Two years ago, the ‘delegado provincial de la Consejería de Vivienda y Ordenación del Territorio de la Junta de Andalucía en Almería’ – the Junta’s homes and council house poobah – apparently waiting until the normal judge (who ‘has never signed a demolition order and never will’) was away on holiday and a substitute judge was in charge, obtained a fast-track demolition order on a home in Vera. This killed two birds with one stone. Or maybe three.
First of all, Vera is a town run by a small political party at odds with the ruling PSOE. The mayor has been in power there for some time and, well, politics is a dirty business. Then, the house in question belonged to a retired British couple, Len and Helen Prior. Britons aren’t likely to turn around and bite. They will have no useful cousins in politics, relatives in the judiciary or immediate family in the Spanish media. No one will know, or care, if something happens to such an unimportant family, especially if the action is legal.
But was it legal?
Spain’s mayors have always exercised the ultimate power in their towns. You could argue that they are the stewards or representatives of the just and rightful aspirations of their townsfolk (and we shall all fall over laughing while you do), but it could be argued that they would best know their way around locally and precisely what their community needs most.
Then, with the advent of the ‘autonomies’ in 1979 (Almería was the only province in Spain that voted against its proposed autonomy of Andalucía with Seville at six hours away as its capital and master), new powers and centres of interest were created.
So, as a mayor allows building in his municipality, bringing in much needed taxes to help pay the ever-growing number of ‘funcionarios’ working flat-out in his town hall (and remembering, together with their families, who put them there during election times), the autonomous government begins to discover an interest in these activities and, ahem, opportunities.
On the one side – and we shall leave corruption or special interests or politics out of the equation – we have the limits of water, space, ecology, the number of school-teachers, local police, health-workers and so on to consider. Can the town expand and in which direction? On the other hand, as we are talking about small moribund pueblos generally (in this case) in the interior of Almería, towns which have little or no agriculture, industry or tourism, where the old are dying off and the young are leaving, then what could be better than an influx of apparently wealthy foreign retirees who not only buy a house (and a car and a washing machine and a sofa and a television) but continue to bring in money from abroad twelve months of the year, keeping local businesses afloat and creating jobs.
Almería currently enjoys 30% unemployment.
What is a mayor to do?
While Vera, the town of the Priors, is close to the playas and can aspire to some seasonal tourism, the interior towns of the Almanzora Valley have serious concerns to address.
So now, as our friend the gauleiter from Seville declares 11,000 properties in the eastern part of the province to be illegal (the Junta’s delegado provincial is actually from Oria, a small town in Almería), putting many economies at risk and rubbishing Almería’s name abroad, another eight British homeowners in Albox are told, over Christmas, that their houses are to be demolished.
Did the cops carry candles and wassail them before they handed over the demolition papers? Perhaps not.
How can you build 11,000 illegal houses? Somebody? You there at the back?
Are these people mad?
A house, with all its papers from the town hall in order, is nevertheless arbitrarily demolished. So where is the compensation? Well, we have the courts for that. Len and Helen Prior actually had their case in the Constitutional Court in Madrid when the bulldozers went in. Eighteen months after the fact, the court ruled in their favour. Now the Junta de Andalucía is appealing. After that is all sorted out, the Priors are free to sue either the Junta de Andalucía, or the town hall of Vera. Depending.
This will take the rest of their life. They are, after all, elderly retired foreigners. European. But, alas, foreign.
They have no heroes: no representatives, no ombudsman, no MP or MEP. Only a local foreign home-owners association, the AUAN, to do what it can – demonstrate, write letters, hold candle-lit sit-ins. The British media will often cover these stories, but it naturally has its own agenda; the Spanish press won’t touch the subject with a bargepole. It’s politics.
The problems regarding compensation are, in fact, far worse than the agony of going through the Spanish legal system. Many building companies and promoters have limited liability of just 3,000 euros and the ‘president’ is, as often as not, someone without patrimony to chase after.
It is clear that some houses need to be demolished. They have been built in flood areas, dry river beds or other dangerous or unsustainable places – and, yes, of course the town hall knew about them. But these homeowners must be compensated fully. This modern European country, ultimate destination for many hundreds of thousands of Northern Europeans, needs an agency to protect, advise, inform and defend the foreign property buyers – precisely because it is in everyone’s interest to do so.
Meanwhile, the Priors, two years on, are living in a garage.
Nice one, Spain.