December 31, 2010
“Some reflections of the year past - and looking in both directions, back and ahead”
AUN VP, Charles Svoboda
While I don't intend to take much time in doing so, before I cover the year gone by, I want to reflect on where we have been since we started back in 2002. I will also wish to thank those who helped us at the outset and especially those who are still with us.
(These comments are essentially what I used at our recent AGM, for those who missed it. For members who attended I apologise for the repetition. There is a more detailed list of our activities available for members.)
Why did we start and what did we hope to achieve?
- Because we came under direct threat many years ago (2002), we did our research and soon realized how wide spread were the problems affecting small property owners (and not incidentally the environment). It became very clear, very soon, that it would be useless to try to fight these on our own. Hence with a handful of participants we started AUN, Abusos Urbanísticos NO, which is as an association doing well, financially solvent, with thousands of members and many affiliate organisations. About a year ago, AUN helped establish a national federation of likeminded associations from several regions of Spain. The latter expansion was seen as needed, because it became increasingly obvious as the years have passed that the issues we saw in our region were shared, one way or another in other parts of Spain. Many if not all of the associations formed elsewhere are based on AUN’s model and have drawn on our website for inspiration and content alike.
- At the outset we had limited, not always well defined objectives. Basically they wereto get the land laws changed for the better in terms of property rights and protecting the environment. We also had very finite resources apart from a strong commitment to justice and a willingness to dig into the problems and find ways of dealing with them.
- We also saw very early on that it would be almost entirely futile to do this within the Spanish system; therefore we engaged the EU Parliament and the Commission, with considerable success, modestly stated. So our strategy became one of helping small property owners protect themselves with whatever legal means were available - demonstrations, the courts, petitions, letters to top politicians, officials, etc. -until such time as the property bubble burst which we knew had to happen. Just a matter of when, not if.
- As regards the European Parliament, we could scarcely have hoped for a better response – three dedicated inspection visits here, two major reports (Fortou and Auken) and three well supported Parliamentary resolutions reviewing and essentially condemning the problems found. And, despite what the European Court's Advocate General (AG) has recently reported about the complaint we submitted to the Commission about five years ago and which has now made it to the ECJ (European Court of Justice), we beg to differ with those, like the Valencian government that this marks a “victory” of some sorts for those who hold the land laws here as sacrosanct.
- Unusually, the AG has not sided with the Commission which backed our complaint. We have pointed out errors of fact and interpretation on the part of the AG and have good grounds to believe that the court will in the end agree with the Commission and find that Spain and in particular, the Valencian region has systematically ignored EU law as regards public contracts.
- The much castigated Valencian laws were changed in part a few years ago (LRAU stepping aside, but not out of the picture, for the LUV and another package of laws) and we can claim some credit for that. But the laws were not much improved, only made more complex. The problem clearly was, in the boom era, one of attitude - grab as much as possible, by whatever means, fair or foul, before the roof fell in. The
philosophy that there are overreaching obligations in the "public interest" that go along with owning property does not square with the normal western capitalist concept of "what is mine is mine unless I agree to sell it to you", with very few exceptions. This mindset underpins the land grabs, but ends up rewarding speculators and predatory capitalists at the cost of the small property owners especially the unwary non Spanish ones. Thus the conceptual difficulties with the legal framework live on.
- The property bust has almost, but not entirely, stopped the land grabs under such complex laws as the LRAU and LUV, and similar ones in other regions.
- But "new" problems were also emerging just as public attention was focussed on the property problems we were shouting about. Most of these concern the tens of thousands of "illegal" or "alegal" houses built over the past decade, many outside the law, and with the obvious connivance of predatory, often corrupt, developers, promoters, estate agents, lawyers, town halls, etc. Starting with the exposure of this in the post-Gil era in Marbella, this has become a political football in much of the country with no authority taking responsibility or really knowing what to do about it. The ill-defined, retroactively and arbitrarily applied Ley de Costas added tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dwellings and other constructions to the list.
- Almost every day we read about a new “solution” to the “illegal” property problems in this part of Spain or another. But so far we haven’t seen one that will work or be acceptable to most of the property owners who will need to bear the costs and legal burdens created by mismanagement, corruption and avarice on the part of administrations and their co-conspirators. A hopeful sign is seen in the reforms to the penal (criminal) code. Even if these can not be retroactive, they should serve as a tough warning to town halls and politicians, that they can no longer gain backhanders from looking the other way or deliberately skirting the law.
- Did we help blow the whistle by our “awareness raising”? - Yes indeed, in ways I don't have time or space to describe. But our successes with the media were quite remarkable, to a degree that I for one hadn’t expected. Why? It wasn't to stop people who owned property in Spain from selling up and getting a decent if not an outrageous return, when they decided to head for “home” or elsewhere for reasons of health, finances, loss of a loved one or even boredom. Rather, it was to help prevent tens of thousands of new buyers from falling into the familiar traps here and locking them- selves into situations that could become very nasty indeed, just as hundreds if not thousands of the unwary had already done. It’s interesting to reflect that our adversaries existed before we started- there are lots fewer now. Along the way, what is much more pleasing for us is that we have made many friends and allies in our work.
- We were not in the lead when it came to advising that no one, ever, should purchaseproperty in this country or this region. We also, perhaps naively tried to warn governments and others in the grand property rackets of the errors of their ways and suggest how things might be better. But those making millions thought their magic formulas would carry on forever and policy makers seemed unable to come to grips with the results of their own folly. I have yet to see any viable and realistic proposals emerge from any party here as they prefer to hurl vapid accusations and blame at the others. It is encouraging to see main players such as the national Minister of Fomento (economic development) agree with what we have said for half a decade about the need to abandon construction as the “engine of the economy” and seek a new economic model. Just some years too late, I fear. And the concern is shared by the pernicious rating agencies.
- Where does that leave us? Against the backdrop of with the economic global crisis, the property market here has collapsed to an extent we would not have imagined let alone hoped for. It will probably never recover to its former "glory" and economic influence even if the financial crisis ends in the next year or so. Most governments in this country now realize the stupidity of putting so much reliance on a single, fragile economic pillar. The market will not ever be what it was. Demographics and the economic reasons reveal a secular shift is taking place, especially for the sorts of dwellings- remote urbanizations centred on unsustainable golf courses are a leading example- where money was made in the billions just a few years ago - often sent off shore as fast as it came in, never to return. The question is why and how so many ofthis country's administrations dug themselves into such deep financial holes in good times, saving nothing but debt to pass on and no doubt soon having to rely on others to help dig them out.
- I wish I could paint a prettier picture. We never spoke of our "winning" in this campaign, for there are in the last analysis, very few real winners. It was mainly to ensure that the ones who caused the damage would gain no real or lasting victory and would be persuaded that new ways of ensuring prosperity and security would be essential. That I believe we have achieved in some part, but there is a long road ahead. I recall the words of Gandhi who said some sixty years ago, more or less “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then they lose”.
- My related hope was that at some stage associations such as ours would have been able to shut down, having achieved what we set out to do. Perhaps that day will come, but not for a few years yet. We will need to assess the situation carefully after the May 22 regional and local elections here, and then see what our course of action should be at that time. And we must, for as long as our association and ones like ours are relevant, continue to renew our management team. Neither our formidable President Enrique nor I should carry the ball for much longer. We will need to look at other ways to carry out our work too - Facebook, Twitter, etc. beckon, but not for me.
- Mention of the upcoming elections brings me to my concluding point. The regional and local elections, given the crying need to come to grips with the economic crisis facing this country and the need for capable leadership will possibly the most important since democracy succeeded Franco over three decades ago. Those who are qualified to do so must make special efforts to ensure they are on the "padron", the "censo" and actually cast their ballots next May. It may mean that some non-Spaniards must delay their summer escape for a few days, but please make the small sacrifice involved and choose those for who you vote very carefully. You should be able to determine which party at the local level is most alive to your concerns and willing to deal with them.
On behalf of our executive, I wish all members and readers a safe, healthy, happy and if possible, prosperous 2011.
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