A scandal that won’t go away

Brux, April 14th: With Spanish property petitioner Helen Prior

So often I come across problems in Europe which (as I like to say) “No one can explain; no one can justify; and no one can resolve”.  Things like the “Travelling Circus” between Brux & Straz, or the Common Fisheries Policy, spring to mind.

But on Thursday in the Petitions Committee I came face-to-face with a problem which has been with us for a great number of years, and which causes far more personal anguish than the Travelling Circus or the CFP.  It is the Spanish property issue, and it has brought me over the years many hundreds of letters and e-mails from people who have lost their homes in Spain, and frequently had to find more money to cover site clearance, rubble removal, or even the provision of utilities to the site for subsequent building projects.  It sounds too bad to be true, but it is.

To be fair, we occasionally get similar stories from Portugal, or Cyprus, or Romania, or Croatia (this last not an EU member but an accession candidate).  But the vast majority come from Spain.  And though most of my correspondence comes from Brits, the same problems affect citizens from Germany, France, Scandinavia — and indeed Spanish nationals too.

A word of advice to anyone thinking of buying a property in Spain: don’t.  And never, never, never buy off-plan (that is, a property not yet built).  Don’t put down a deposit.  Don’t even think about it.

There are two strands to the problem.  One is the Spanish Coastal Law (the Ley des Costas), most notably affecting the development at Empuriabrava, where literally miles of water frontage and moorings in a marine property development are to be confiscated by the state, and then the owners offered an opportunity to rent back their own moorings at extortionate prices.  The other is a more general problem, which seems to arise from collusion between corrupt developers, lawyers and local officials who manage to alter planning permission retrospectively, and require existing properties to be destroyed.  Sometimes this is to make way for new, lucrative high-rise developments.  Sometimes it seems to be done out of sheer devilment.

The English lady above is Helen Prior.  She and her husband sold up in the UK and emigrated to Spain just days after they retired, buying a rather beautiful house in the Spanish style.  I didn’t enquire, but I suspect that they invested the bulk of their assets in their retirement home.  They started to enjoy their new life in the sun, until one day they received notice that their property rights were being reviewed by the court.  Their house was ruled illegal and they were told it would have to come down.  This was despite the fact that they had done everything by the book, they had employed local lawyers and due diligence, and believed they had a rock-solid claim to ownership.  So far as the authorities were concerned, they were “foreigners living illegally”.

Mrs. Prior had brought a video which was shown in committee as she spoke.  We saw their lovely two-storey home in the Spanish sunshine.  Then we saw the bulldozers arrive and commence the demolition.  We saw stacks of window frames removed by the demolition men.  We saw the family leaving the house, and family members clinging to each other in tears as their dreams and their assets fell around them.  This was one of the most moving and disturbing things I have seen in twelve years in the parliament.  Mr. & Mrs. Prior now live in the garage of the former house: they have nowhere else to go.

When I came to speak, I said “Madame President: This is Groundhog Day.  We have sat in this committee again and again, on many occasions, though none as moving as this, and we have heard grave discussions of the problem.  We have asked questions and written to the Commission.  We have heard the Commission wringing their hands and telling us there is nothing the can do about it.  But the rule of law, the rights of property and enforceable contracts are at the heart of a free society and a free economy.  Spain is not a country under the rule of law: this is bandit behaviour”.  And more in the same vein.

The Commission insists that the “Charter of Fundamental Rights” within the Lisbon Treaty applies only to the operation of EU law, not national law, so there is nothing they can do.  The Spanish behaviour is in breach of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention of Human Rights.  In theory the plaintiffs could go to the European Court of Human Rights.  They would probably win.  But the cost is prohibitive, and pensioners might not live to see the day when a verdict was reached, given the years of delay.

We have discussed the possibility of setting up some kind of colloquium in Spain to try to resolve the problem, and I would back any measure with any hope of success.  But I’m not optimistic.  And meantime, Mrs. Prior goes back to her garage.

Strasbourg, 6th April: I met with Susanne Hoffman, a representative from Empuriabrava, to discuss the Spanish property problem.

Here is poet John Betjeman’s take on retirement in Spain:

Costa Blanca (SHE)

The Costa Blanca! Skies without a stain!
Eric and I at almond-blossom time
Came here and fell in love with it.  The climb
Under the pine trees, up the dusty lane
To Casa Kenilworth, brought back again
Our honeymoon, when I was in my prime.
Goodbye democracy and smoke and grime:
Eric retires next year.  We’re off to Spain!

We’ve got the perfect site beside the shore,
Owned by a charming Spaniard, Miguel,
Who says that he is quite prepared to sell
And build our Casa for us and, what’s more,
Preposterously cheap.  We have found
Delightful English people living round.

Five Years On (HE)

Mind if I see your Mail?  We used to share
Our Telegraph with people who’ve returned —
The lucky sods!  I’ll tell you what I’ve learned:
If you come out here, put aside the fare
To England.  I’d run like a bloody hare
If I’d a chance, and how we both have yearned
To see our Esher lawn.  I think we’d earned
A bit of what we once had over there.

That Dago caught the wife and me alright!
Here on this tideless, tourist-littered sea
We’re stuck.  You’d hate it too if you were me:
There’s no piped water on the bloody site.
Our savings gone, we climb the stony path
Back to the house with scorpions in the bath.

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5 Responses to A scandal that won’t go away

  1. swbk2345 says:

    I didn’t buy when I got to Spain for that very reason. I came to the conclusion that the best thing to do was to rent, get to know the locals as friends and then buy on their advice.

    I still haven’t bought, rentals are so incredibly cheap at the moment and the price of properties is still dropping. I shall wait a little longer.

    If the EU and the ECHR can’t do anything in these matters and priority to given to “prisoners votes”, you might well ask what bloody use are they?

    I noticed that Marta Andreasen of UKIP brought the subject up too. http://youtu.be/a8aKw_d1Ld4

    You seem to be the only Conservative remotely interested in what happens to these mainly elderly people.

    Still, the Conservatives don’t generally seem to care two hoots about what happens to Brits abroad.

  2. Once again thank you for banging your head on the brick wall on our behalf, your efforts are very much appreciated. From the 600 victims in Lliber, Alicante.

  3. My comment refers to the following advice in your blog:
    “A word of advice to anyone thinking of buying a property in Spain: don’t. And never, never, never buy off-plan (that is, a property not yet built). Don’t put down a deposit. Don’t even think about it.”

    Recently similar, albeit somewhat less extreme, advice appeared in a Daily Telegraph blog:

    “Maura Hillen, president of Abusos Urbanisticos Almanzora No (AUAN), one of the many protest groups made up of British expats whose homes have been deemed by the Spanish authorities to be illegally built despite being bought in good faith, said: “The Spanish property market is an option for professional speculators who can afford to lose their investment or incur additional unexpected costs.
    The market hasn’t bottomed out in terms of property values and given the legal uncertainties caused by the planning situation, it’s all a bit of a gamble. Buyers beware.”

    Desert Springs on behalf of the Almanzora Bay Group, an Anglo-Spanish developer in the region responded as set out below. I believe these comments are even more, applicable to the advice that you have given:

    “Maura Hillen’s comments, no matter how justified in respect of the members of her association, are not at all fair to those developers, and the purchasers of their homes that are part of developments which are perfectly legal. They have incurred all the delays and costs of ensuring that they have achieved all the legal stages and consents required by the Spanish planning system and the provision of all the appropriate social and physical infrastructure that the Spanish system requires. Those costs are ultimately reflected in the prices their purchasers have paid for their properties.

    It should be borne in mind that the vast majority of housing in Spain is perfectly legal and it is only a relatively small minority of homeowners, who are involved in illegal properties. That is not in any way to belittle their plight, nor to ignore the need for rapid and effective solutions.

    Unfortunately, these solutions are inevitably going to involve dealing with the very same legal hurdles, social and physical infrastructure provision and complications that the developers of fully legal housing have had to overcome to achieve proper planning consent. That will cost.

    On the other hand the reason why many, albeit not all, buyers of illegal housing were so attracted to it in the first place must have been because it was cheap. Most illegal housing was cheaply built on rustic land, without contributions to the costs of providing public open spaces, social and education land, legal local authority planning gain contributions, or even proper sewage treatment, telecommunications etc.

    All that is apart from the fact that most of this housing never had the usual certificates of habitability, the usual licenses for building based on approved planning consents, themselves derived from legally approved zoning plans.

    These absences enabled the properties to be sold cheaply; too cheaply, leading many to suspend the usual scepticism of something that it is too good to be true. The normal diligences of checking out the developer and of using good quality, truly independent, professionals etc, as one would do at home, were overlooked in the scramble.

    There is no doubt that regional planning authorities, local town halls, architects, developers, lawyers and not least the purchasers themselves all willingly contributed their own vital part to the process that finished in this shambles. Nevertheless, it is completely unfair that the purchaser should be left to pick up the entire costs of legalizing these properties, as the Spanish authorities seem to intend.

    However, it is a good deal more unfair to other owners of legal homes that the illegal housing should be used to put a blight on legal developments and on the ability of those who have paid a proper price for legal housing to sell their homes when they need to.

    In that respect the spokespersons for AUN and those involved in the illegal housing, should be a good deal more thoughtful about the message they give out.

    The fact is that purchasing a home in Spain is not a gamble; what is legal and what is illegal is now very well known, new purchasers are not going to be so easily gulled and prices for legal housing down by 40% represent very good value compared with anywhere else you can put your funds.”

    Extracted from:

  4. june catling says:

    We thought we had done everything right, we employed local builders, architects and lawyers, we had an archaeological survey carried out, we were told if nothing was found we could build.we were given a licence to build a warehouse, but the builder said’ we will build your villa and in 4 years time it will be made legal’. 10 yrs later the same town hall that issued the licence has now issued a demolition order and revoked the licence as the land has been ‘protected’ since 1992, So why did they issue a licence in 2005? The land was protected then, how could they not know?Why did they issue a licence? We are so stressed by this, our lawyer is fighting it as she has discovered that the ‘protection’ was never made law and never published in the Official Bulletin, there are houses around us all on supposedly ‘protected’ land, none of them has received a demolition order. We have 9 more months to wait before the council reply to our lawyer’s arguments. We hope the council see sense but this is Spain after all!

  5. thostids says:

    I sympathise with your predicament. I am a retired English Solicitor. I qualified at a time when we all had to be good at conveyancing and planning matters were and are important here, too.
    I encountered a “cheap” property that a client had bought subject to contract that was subject to a planning condition that it was only for occupation by a full-time agricultural worker. My client was adamant that he was going to buy it and tough it out. I explained that not only would he lose the battle but his lender would not lend against it. Under my duty to the Lender, they were duly warned and revoked their offer. Client saw sense and withdrew. But he would have gone for it despite my advice if he hadn’t needed a mortgage.
    I had a friend who owned land which had no planning use other than Agricultural and will not receive any permission for residential development. There is an exemption for buildings limited to Farming use only. He built a “Barn” which was for all purposes a house, with stairs window and door spaces but used as living accommodation for Cows! I warned him he was wasting his money as no matter what he did, the Planning committee would never grant permission for change of use to a house. He has now been told that that is the position.
    I may sound unhelpful, but if your permission was for a “warehouse” did not any alarm bells ring?
    I know it isn’t what you want to hear, but lots of people have come unstuck in Britain, too.

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