New laws mean thousands of Britons could lose their homes in Spain in just 28 days time
Tuesday May 11,2010
By Simon Edge
This week an obscure ordinance came into force in the region of Andalucia, in the baking hot south of Spain. Designed to crack down on dodgy companies who build houses illegally and then sell them to innocent buyers, the new regulation gives local councils the right to send in bulldozers at one month’s notice and knock the buildings down before they can get off the ground. The authorities refer to this procedure as “express demolition”.
The point is to tackle the problem of so-called “urban abuse” that has blighted the lives of thousands of British people seeking a quiet retirement in the sun. But rather than ease their worries, this latest development has sent a further shiver down the spines of expatriates in the Almanzora Valley, about 60 miles north of the coastal city of Almeria.
This area, which hosted a construction boom from 2000 to 2006, has been notoriously blighted by the local town hall’s practice of granting building licences without the authority of the regional government. As a result, many of the residents are trapped in “dream houses” with no mains water and electricity. Some of them are living under demolition orders and the angry, frightened population fear the new regulation could make their situation even worse.
“Based on the track record of the authorities here, we are not being hysterical to worry about this,” says Maura Hillen, who first came to the valley with her husband John in 2002 and is now president of a local campaign group highlighting the scandal.
“One of the things we complain about is that they allowed all this illegal construction to take place without stepping in quickly and calling a halt,” adds Maura.
“The intention now seems to be that the man from the ministry will step in soon and stop it, which we welcome. But our concern is that, in the wrong hands, this new power could be used to destroy houses that people have invested their life savings in. After all, the authorities here have been known to do crazy things.”
Len and Helen Prior can attest to that. In January 2008 they watched as a bulldozer tore down their £350,000 house outside the village of Vera.
Their building licence, issued by the local town hall, had been revoked by the regional government. As his home was demolished, Len collapsed and had to be taken to hospital with a heart condition.
With nowhere else to go, the couple were forced to live in their garage, the only part of the property spared from demolition, while spending money they didn’t have to keep their salvaged furniture in storage.
Meanwhile the British owners of eight other properties in and around the small town of Albox have been served with similar demolition orders. Scandalously, neither they nor the Priors were informed that judicial proceedings were under way against them – which would have given them a chance to fight their corner – until the orders were issued.
Spain’s supreme court has now ruled that the Priors’ demolition order was invalid and it seems likely that they will eventually be compensated. In the interim, the judge ordered that they should be provided with rented accommodation equivalent to the house they had lost.
“It’s not equivalent to the one that was demolished but at least it’s a proper house and they have been able to take their furniture out of storage,” says a friend of the couple. “It’s a step in the right direction.”
As a result of a growing campaign all over Andalucia, culminating in a mass rally in Malaga in March, two of the other demolition orders have been set aside, again because the court recognised the homeowners were not fully informed of the process.
But John and Liz Brown, who spent their £140,000 life savings on a villa in Albox, are still under threat. “Their house was a couple of months away from completion when it was taped off,” says Maura.
“That’s the sort of building we would be worried about with this new legislation. We know that the local councils are anxious to satisfy the regional government and they have been targeting new properties. We are concerned they could quickly demolish one of those before the owner had any chance to appeal.”
Maura estimates 5,000 expatriate-owned properties were sold under false pretences in the Almanzora valley alone. There are similar problems all over Andalucia, as well as those in other regions of Spain.
The beleaguered owners do not dispute there is a problem if their homes turn out to be built on “rustic” or green-belt land. Their complaint is they bought them in good faith. They were not alerted to any problem by solicitors and in many cases the local town hall granted planning permission. They were not to know the town halls were in defiance of the law.
“When we came here we engaged what we thought was a reputable building company of long standing,” says Maura. “They were offering parcels of land and you could pick the design of your house. There was lots of development going on and we didn’t for a moment imagine anything would be wrong.”
Then came the bad news. “Our neighbours, whose house was built at a similar time to ours, had been living there for two weeks when police knocked on the door, asked for any paperwork and said: ‘By the way, do you know your house is illegal?’”
The Hillens may not have been issued with a demolition order but, like thousands of other expats, they are stuck with a house they cannot sell. Others are worse off.
Of the 300 households who are members of the Almanzora campaign group, about 50 per cent do not have secure access to electricity and water.
“These are beautiful houses that aren’t really houses because they don’t have the services,” adds Maura. “People can’t switch on their lights or pump their water. I’m 47 and probably the youngest here. Most people have at least 15 or 20 years on me and those aren’t the conditions they want to live in.
“And if their medical circumstances change and they need to return to the UK, they won’t be able to sell their houses.”
MAURA recognises that the authorities are trying belatedly to deal with the local chaos that has turned paradise into a living hell for British and Spanish homeowners. However, she is nervous that the supposed remedies will end up further penalising the innocents.
“They have thousands of houses that are built on green-belt land and they now need to create town plans retrospectively to regularise them.
“But who is going to pay for the infrastructure: the sewerage, roads, street lights? As the person sitting in the house you are the sitting duck for those costs.
“I appreciate they are trying hard to make sure this doesn’t happen again but for people like ourselves who are caught betwixt and between, it’s a bit of a nightmare. It’s like we are swimming towards a shore that’s moving away from us.”
Perhaps surprisingly, the experience hasn’t put her off her new home. “In an odd sort of way I’ve probably learned a lot more about Spain being involved in this,” she says.
“You shouldn’t let this sort of thing tar every single person in the country or indeed the country itself. It’s a lovely place.