EN DEFENSA DE LOS DERECHOS
HUMANOS, MEDIOAMBIENTALES Y
EN CONTRA DE LOS ABUSOS URBANISTICOS
(Abusos Urbanisticos NO)
BY CHARLES SVOBODA
On Land Law Abuses in Valencia (Spain)
MADE BEFORE THE PETITIONS COMMITTEE
OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT
Petition 609/2003 et al
April 2, 2008
CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
(Shortened due to time constraints. Unbolded text was omitted. )
We’re back. For the fourth time in four years…Thank you for inviting Abusos Urbanisticos NO to be here again today to review what has happened in the year or so since the Spanish land law abuses were discussed in this Committee and in the Plenary Session of the Parliament itself. And became the subject of the important Resolution adopted by the Parliament last June 21 ( ref. P6 TA(2007)0281).
I am gratified to see so many petitioners present here. Those who are here will speak to their own problems. There are, of course, many more. But the absence of others should not be taken to be a sign that interest has declined or that problems associated with the infamous land grab and other arbitrarily applied land laws have now ceased. Quite the contrary. Some of the petitioners, especially pensioners, simply cannot afford to be here. Others, mainly Spaniards who now comprise the majority of our members, cannot take time from their jobs. Some, having cases pending before the Spanish courts, cannot give open testimony while their problems are sub judice. Also, some petitioners who have already lost their property or had to pay intolerably excessive infrastructure costs to developers have simply given up. Some have left Spain, swearing never to return, even as tourists. Several petitions too were not submitted by our members, so we have no right to comment on them, although we are gratified that so many others are following our path.
Speaking personally, even though we were openly harassed, coinciding with this Committee’s last visit to Spain, with the evident connivance of the local and regional authorities, our own property has been and is as far as we know for now at least completely legal. As far as we know today, no development plan is in store for us. But given the arbitrary and even retroactive application of laws or rules in Spain, who can be sure about tomorrow? Alas, even if we are relatively secure, that is not true for the majority of others who will speak here today or who have presented petitions - I know there are many more still pending review.
To set the scene, unfortunately, so far, neither last year’s resolution, the active involvement of this committee, nor the Parliament, nor the Commission, nor the Court of Justice has had much effect in halting the abuses we have witnessed since our initial petition was lodged in 2003 over the signatures of some 15,000 individuals. And it doesn’t matter whether it was under the justly castigated LRAU or the complex package of laws that succeeded it, the LUV included. Small property owners and the environment face the same problems- no juridical security and blatant disrespect for EU law. In fact, these same problems have now spread to many other regions of Spain which is why our association will become a national one.
Since we have frequently heard this accusation, let me assure you that our Association does not represent any occult interests, nor do we form part of any malevolent plot to divert investment or tourism from Spain.
The very interest of this Parliament and Committee has also resulted in similar attempts to shift blame to your own activities. To answer this oft repeated charge, one must ask, just who really is diverting investment and jobs to other competing markets? The answer is, the large developers and constructors who have, according to Spanish media (and the national tax authority, Hacienda) over the past year or two moved 8,400 and more million euros offshore to fiscal paradises and who are increasingly involved in large tourism and housing projects in northern Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America taking jobs and investments, but not their workers with them. We read now that many Spanish banks and businesses are suffering from the crises of liquidity and confidence , but those large ones with spare cash, rather than keeping their financial resources for investments in Spain are using their profits and collateral to purchase foreign companies outside the Euro zone and thus, the influence of the ECB and EU rules. This is considered to be a clever way of conducting business and rarely has come under criticism.
On earlier occasions here, we warned of the dangers of the economic monoculture centered on construction - the “motor” of the economy - and the pyramid schemes built on land speculation, the overvaluation of land often grabbed with no compensation from small property owners, with the attendant (and ever more frequently reported) bribery, fraud, corruption and money laundering. We also spoke about the folly of massive overbuilding, environmental damage, etc. Well, read the current reports. The economic chickens have come home to roost. While many young Spaniards and families cannot afford homes, hundreds of thousands of dwellings sit empty as the hidden refuge for speculators and ‘black’ money. And because construction now has largely stopped, a million or more workers face unemployment and little by way of social safety nets to fall back upon. House sales are down by 30- 50 %, selling prices are forced to follow suit and foreigners are shunning the Spanish coasts. Clearly something must be done, in the context of EU norms and directives.
Why do we pursue our activities in protection of the rights of small property owners and the environment? Why do we continue to seek support from this Parliament, the Commission and the Courts? Because in most instances, neither relief from arbitrary, even illegal development schemes nor in fact justice from an overloaded, costly, complex and uncertain legal and court system is practically or economically feasible in Spain. The national courts (Supreme and Constitutional) are now entering the third month of a strike involving almost all support staff and some judges. The media report that tens of thousands of cases are sitting in boxes. A Supreme Court judge told us recently that only 6 of the hundreds of cases involving land law disputes were even on court dockets. For this reason our Association is also bringing, in collaboration with a prominent firm of international human rights lawyers, several cases to the Court of Human Rights with accompanying demands for proper compensation denied under the justly criticised and seeming ever receding remedies available in Spain.
I regret to say, based not just what we read but the actual experience of our members and even our Association, many court actions are never concluded, or they are directly influenced by powerful economic interests which can sway judgements or delay any meaningful decision forever. Nor, despite Spain’s open declarations and commitment to international and EU treaties, such as “Aarhus“ and the emerging Lisbon Accord, is there much transparency, knowledge of or respect for the fundamental principles underlying EU treaties and law. Rarely do politicians or officials acknowledge or reply to letters , so the system is totally opaque. Nor for that matter, are the guarantees set out in the Spanish Constitution of 1978 as regards private property and the paramount nature of international law respected.
While article 33 of the Constitution guarantees total respect for private property except in instances where there is an overriding, but justified general interest, in none of the relevant regional laws does the word “justified” actually appear. Thus, simple majorities of town halls make this “implicit”. Then they can declare the outright confiscation of private property- the euphemism is “’obligatory cession” to designated developers, without having to say anything further about real public or general benefit whatsoever. The money grubbing interests of developers and promoters, often using unfunded “front” companies, have readily taken precedence over the rights of property owners. It is a sad fact that this has never been the subject of any case that has succeeded in making it through the labyrinth of regional courts to the one court, the Constitutional Tribunal in Madrid, that could decide the validity of such laws and practices. The cases are conveniently struck down for technical reasons or never dealt with. Such is the role of the regional superior courts which are about to be given total responsibility under new internal statutes of autonomy.
Collectively therefore, European institutions including the courts in Luxembourg and Strasbourg, remain as the last, best hope for many who have fallen victim to a perverse and unjust system.
In the past year or so some very important and highly critical reports have emerged on the issues that concern us and this Committee as regards the situation in Spain, especially in the Mediterranean coastal areas. These include the reports of this Parliament, Greenpeace, Transparency International, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Housing, our own regional and national ombudsmen, to say nothing of countless international and Spanish media stories.
The responsible media in Spain and elsewhere has indeed been active in reporting on land law abuses all over Spain. The retroactive and seemingly arbitrary application of obscure and complex laws that even specialized lawyers cannot comprehend are almost commonplace. Laws and rules issued at different levels that are mutually contradictory. If a new problem is identified, a new law is needed. Forget about making the existing ones work. What is legal one day is suddenly determined to be illegal the next with retroactive effect. And hotels, resorts, restaurants, but most of all private dwellings have already been torn down or face imminent demolition. We are seeing more of this every day, with no consistency or legal certainty. This can only hurt the image of Spain as a safe place to purchase a retirement or holiday home or even to reside. What has been reported internationally is not a conspiracy to ruin Spain’s image or frighten investors. It merely reflects facts and mirrors reporting in Spain’s media.
Our sympathy goes to those workers and property owners alike who have suffered because of , but not those who exploited, the deeply flawed property development “system“. How many of those enormous enterprises who were so rich a year ago have joined another famous name, Titanic, because of the crises now hitting the construction industry, the freewheeling promoters and the estate agents? Where are the high flyers of a year ago, Astroc, Llanera, Colonial, Habitat, Cosmani, Prasi, Martinsa-Fadesa , Encoval and Nou Temple for example? The media is now revealing that many of these concerns readily exploited lax laws and rules to gain billions of euros, largely at the cost of the small property owners. The vultures I see have now become subjects of interest to “vulture funds” who buy at bargain rates and sell any assets at whatever price will yield a tidy and quick profit, no matter what the social consequences that will surely follow.
However, we did not just complain to this Committee or arrange demonstrations in the streets as some might have you believe. All along our wish has been to make a positive contribution towards solving or better, avoiding, economic and social problems, while making the country a better place for us and others to live in. We have always wanted and still wish to be part of the answer. On four occasions over the past five years of our existence, we have met with Valencian ministers and officials who have dealt with territorial development. We have proposed a number of ways in which some of the current problems might have been averted, ways in which regional laws could have been brought in line with EU norms and directives.
Despite public promises to take account of what we said, our recommendations have largely been ignored. Instead, at least in Valencia, in response to us and the emerging crises we read about in order to placate developers, the government recently promised to approve even more massive development schemes and to simplify the new laws developers suddenly find to be too difficult. And just this past week, several new plans have indeed been approved by Valencia- tens of thousands more houses and several water consuming golf courses included , just as the country is suffering its most severe drought since modern records have been kept for almost a century. Laws, in other words, are written and revised a la carte. Those who complain are blamed for bringing the economy to its knees.
Meanwhile, because the usual sources of money are now drying up in the current dire financial circumstances and property collapse, developers are finding new ways of funding themselves, for example, secretly placing liens against property owners or even managing to transfer title to themselves without the property owners’ knowledge. Some of the other petitions deal precisely with this relatively new game. So we will need to remain vigilant, even as the market worsens.
Finally, because this was contested by a representative from the Valencian government at an earlier meeting, I wish to read into the record an excerpt from an important and recent letter from the office of the Commissioner for Internal Markets. It bears on the responsibility of Spain as a sovereign state entering into international law, and thus EU treaties to ensure compliance throughout its entire national territory: “All the authorities of the member state, regardless of their hierarchical level have a duty to ensure the observance of EU law within their spheres of influence. Of course, this includes local and regional authorities in a member state”. It goes on to state that “ it is the responsibility of a local elected authority to prevent the execution of acts which are not in conformity with Community Law…”
The Commission has also concluded that the awarding of contracts under the infamous Valencian land laws, the LRAU and now LUV, which have had “disastrous” consequences for landowners are subject to the EU directives applicable to public contracts and must therefore comply with the principles of equal treatment and transparency. Almost needless to say, the Spanish and regional authorities also contest this and it will fortunately be for the impartial Court of Justice to rule on this matter, and we hope this will be soon. Meanwhile, this Committee is key to giving inspiration and momentum, if not direction to the Commission based on what you have already heard from hundreds of victims of land law and related abuses in Spain. Please continue!
We thank you….
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