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 Spain
MADE BEFORE THE PETITIONS COMMITTEE
OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT
CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
Petition 609/2003 et al February 17, 2004
Mr. Chairman, distinguished Members of the European Parliament, Supporters and Friends:
You will have before you our Petition No. 609/2003.and a number of related ones. At the outset, on behalf of the Association of which I am President and the other signatories to those documents, I wish to express my gratitude to be invited here today to comment on the circumstances that prompted the Petitions to be drawn up and presented, now with over 9,000 supporting signatures. I am aware that the distinguished Chairman and Secretary have received many personal letters on this issue direct. I will also provide an update and some brief illustrations as to developments since the Petition was prepared and sent forward to this august body almost a year ago. At the same time, I must also express my profound regret that it remains necessary in our view, that is myself and our fellow petitioners, to be here today to reflect the ongoing concerns, even anguish, of so many of our fellow European citizens and residents. My words may be strong, but the situation facing many of us is very bad.
I believe our principal Petition (No. 609) as presented speaks for itself. Unfortunately for the victims of the situation it, and its supporting document describe, the Petition remains valid in its entirety. Although the Valencian Government, through its Ministers and senior officials have repeatedly acknowledged the abuses occurring under the Valencian Land Laws and have almost equally often promised to reform or replace the existing legal framework as of this date, nothing of substance has emerged in tangible form that gives us real encouragement. Worse still, as we have noted in our Petition, the so called "Land Grab" laws, initiated in the Valencian Community, otherwise a wonderful place to live, have spread to other regions of Spain. Justifications for the predatory practices the Valencian and similar laws in other regions may vary. But, the practical effects, increasingly evident to us, not just from the thousands of phone calls, emails, faxes, etc. we receive continuously and the plethora of national and international media reporting, are very dire for the casualties of this assault on the property, thus human rights of European property owners and, in no secondary place, the environment.
The attachments to our Petition contain references to a number of accords, both con-ventions and laws, plus some relevant EU directives. Far from exhaustive, but taken together, they form an impressive moral and legally binding body of rules we believe the most pernicious of Spanish land practices violate with distressing regularity. Beyond the listing of such accords in the attachments to petition No. 6099, there are of course, Articles 6 and 7 of the Treaty of Amsterdam, to which Spain is a State Party. Unlike the Charter of Fundamental Freedoms and Basic Rights, which is "merely" morally binding, just as other treaties these articles are supposed to be, under the Spanish Constitution itself and international law, the provisions of the Amsterdam accord on freedoms and rights become over riding national laws in the signatory state, whatever the internal arrangements may be with "autonomous" regions, provinces, etc. There may well be technical, legal and jurisdictional games to be played to avoid taking action on the substance of the petitions before you. But in total they represent a serious challenge to the commitment that an important member state, in this case, Spain has to the fabric of this Parliament and the legal structure it represents.
Our Association has a long formal name, but is best known in Spain as Abusos Urbanisticos No (or Stop Development Abuses). Chartered some sixteen months ago, it has now grown, affiliates included, we estimate to some 20,000, about 99% of those Europeans. (It would be 100%, but for me and a few other North Americans!). You may have seen in letters addressed to your Chairman that we also enjoy the support of the "Ciudadanos Europeos" group, plus amongst many others, the "Greens" and other environmental groups. Perhaps that gives us a number as large again. This from a cold start when the "land grab" problems began to be most evident, and horror stories in the media became commonplace. Now we receive complaints and enquiries from all over Spain, as to how to establish similar associations to bring about changes to the unfortunate clones of the Valencian Land Laws. Let there be no mistake, there is not just growing anguish, but growing anger at what must be seen as a major travesty of justice.
Mr. Chairman, I wish to assure you that, as regards the property owners whose rights are under continuous assault, through clever and semantic distortion of relevant European and Spanish law, these are in the main not wealthy, but ordinary working, middle class people. If they are Spanish born, they are often the small landowner who will have inherited a generations old family holding. If foreigners, they are much more likely to be in their retirement, living on modest pensions, having invested a substantial portion of their life savings in a place enjoying the rarely rivalled Spanish climate and unique cultural heritage. But, as our Petition suggests, many of those who believed that property ownership would convey not just a degree of financial security, but of general contentment with their holiday or retirement home are finding to their great distress that not is all as it was expected to be. Incidentally, the vast majority of our Spanish members are still working or could not afford to be here today. A very significant number of those who have signed our petition are however Valencian, Spanish born and bred.
Far from conveying the normal security of a home or land ownership, the laws have perpetrated a situation whereby the contingent liabilities often outweigh the value of the property in one's nominal ownership. And this has been compounded by the watering down to the point where they lose real meaning of such phrases as "social interest", "public benefit" etc, contained in many laws , including the Constitution itself. This allows property seizures on the most meagre of pretexts. These are alas, generally focussed on short term gain for a few developers and the replenishment of town coffers, rather than the real community benefit supposedly intended.
Now, what has the excrescent growth, seen especially in the coastal areas, meant for Spain? Or at least our part of it. A speculative housing bubble so described a few months ago by the Economist and by the European Commission as recently as last October. From what the Economist saw as a 52% overvaluation in Spanish housing prices in 2002, the cost of an average house in the Valencian Community rose again by 20% in 2003. This is not to say that the small property owner who loses his land benefits from this. What it does say is that the developers and promoters are reaping windfall profits where there are still buyers, largely foreign ones who, in the period of low interest rates and high property valuation in their home countries may feel themselves able to risk major housing investment in Spain. But, there are practical limits to the numbers of those willing to move to the Iberian Peninsula, just as every town plans almost limitless growth with thousands upon thousands of new dwellings. And there has been substantial degradation of the sensitive Mediterranean coastal environment- witness the current destruction of the historic Salinas in Calpe merely to provide the site for the construction of more high rise tourist flats. Moreover, the opaque process by which favoured developers are chosen for major public projects often pays no heed to contract law nor are EU directives regarding open tendering respected.
Certainly this massive construction does nothing for young Spanish families or the thousands of immigrants who enter Spain to work. For them, the price of accommodation is well beyond their imaginable reach. Instead, the riches of the construction industry have created a form of economic monoculture with all the attendant risks to long term prosperity, including the societal distortions that always accompany fast money.
In this context, the Public Prosecutor of Valencia, Antonio Vercher, reported a few months ago that corruption in the construction business in the Valencian Community was so rampant that it exceeded that of the illegal drugs trade. Declared a mere week or so after a haul of some 50 tonnes of hashish on a Valencian beach, this suggests other problems in the realm of property that a EuroParliamentary investigative commission could review to advantage.
Mr. Chairman, it seems the spirit of the conquistador is still alive, but in reverse. Rather than brigands sailing to their victims in other lands, the casualties now are many of those of us who have brought their life savings to Spain's fair shores. And the abuses under the laws have truly become, in their turn, "weapons of mass construction". Is it for us to cry out? Yes, because those we speak for should not suffer the denial or rights and privileges modern Europe is supposed to offer. Grateful though we may be to live in Spain, there are limits to what is acceptable.
What of the new land laws so long promised? According to media reports the replacement for the LRAU (the main Valencian Land Law – La Ley Reguladora de Actividad Urbanistica)l will be called the LOU( Ley de Ordenacion Urbanistica). The name LOU will amuse the British. In French it may resemble the word for wolf. Truly, if the LRAU was a wolf in wolf's clothing, the new LOU will maintain most of the pernicious elements of the LRAU – will be a wolf in sheep's clothing. LRAU "light", but still the dread LRAU in a new guise. From what we have been able to glean from rare press statements, the intention is to keep the major building blocks of the LRAU in place. More authority for the town halls, who were accused even by the Ministers responsible of abusing this in the past and maintaining the transcendent, dark, often arbitrary role of the property developer, the "agente urbanizador" or the urbanising agent. The fox, we fear, will still have custody over the chickens. I expect the representatives of the Valencian Community will tell you that the new laws, long in coming, promise greater respect for the rights of property owners, more transparency, longer periods to appeal against development plans, etc. But we have been hearing this for some two years, and legislation has yet to be brought to the Valencian Cortes or, despite repeated promises, even shown to those who are most concerned. And the suggestion that the laws might be changed to offer more protection to small property owners has in the meantime touched off a feeding frenzy of new development proposals under existing laws.
How much longer? The situation is clearly not under control. We believe, given the serious nature of the situation and the disregard for European Union norms, it is highly appropriate that this body agree to recommend, as a matter of urgency, the establishment of an investigative mechanism, such as we have proposed. We are not looking merely at reaction to our concerns, but a substantive response in the form of action, we hope, both here and in Valencia. In the meantime, if it is true that the Valencian Government is moving towards substantial reforms of the land laws, as indication of good faith, the current ones should be suspended with immediate effect. For our part, we have frequently offered positive suggestions for reform and to cooperate wherever we are able and allowed to do so. We repeat that offer to the Valencian authorities today.
In the end what do we want and what do Spanish citizens and residents deserve in the Europe of today? A vibrant economy, a high standard of living no doubt. However, this must not only be sustainable, but coupled with full respect for the rights of European, be they old or new citizens, residents or merely visitors. Only those with an insatiable quest for quick money would wish to see waves of concrete and endless building. Few, if any, of the rest of us want this or the attendant injustices perpetrated in the name of false progress, let alone permanent destruction of the very environment which attracted us in the first place.
I am pleased to see here not only supporters of our main petition, but others who have come to speak to their own. It will be readily evident that these have a common focus and that the anxieties they convey are heartfelt and profound. Your time cannot allow a full expose of the problems faced by those on behalf of whom the petitions here are presented. To reiterate, the request of our petition is that this body recommend the formation and sending to Spain of a multiparty, multinational group to investigate the situation prevailing as soon as possible. Consistent with this, the Spanish and Valencian Governments should be urged to hold in abeyance any projects and plans approved under the existing legal framework until the report of this group is considered in the European Parliament.
There are precedents for this. In 1988, for example, when a parliamentary group came to Valencia to look into the serious problems of the day. The Parliament at that time responded to some 20 petitioners. Your distinguished colleague, Edward McMillan Scott was the rapporteur and could bear witness to the fact that there was, under this scrutiny a quick response from the authorities to the problems of the day. Those of today are much worse, but please recall too, that we now have vastly greater numbers of petition supporters, the very sort of people that Spain and the Valencian Community hope to retain as contented property owners and attract as the potential buyers, so vital to the national and regional economies.
Mr. Chairman, since our inception as an association we have not been idle in pursuing justice within the Valencian and Spanish system. And even before that individuals had been taking their cases forward. The problem they and we have had, is that the process is lengthy, costly and uncertain. The Valencian Superior Tribunal has, to be sure, found in favour of some who have challenged the rapacious effects of the land laws. But some of these cases have taken years, even a decade or more. By the time decisions are reached, the damage is done and no authority or constructor can be found able or willing to settle the matter where financial reimbursement is awarded. So the "victory" is a hollow one.
In most recent cases, moreover, the successful plaintiff has been a developer or major landholder (dare we say even speculator?) with deep pockets and the luxury of institutional patience. Justice delayed being justice denied, on behalf of the smaller property owners we are thus forced to turn to European institutions, such as this one, the Commission and if need be, the Courts of Justice and Human Rights for protection. And we will do so. Bear in mind we view this more as a rights question than one solely of property.
Besides a number of our supporters who, like us have paid our way to be here, I welcome the presence of several representatives of the Valencian Government. (I am sure their travel and accommodation is of a higher standard than our own!) I hope that, besides telling you (and us) again, what a bright future proposed new legislation will bring, they also listen to what is said here, what is presented in the Petitions and what has been expressed by so many who have written in to support our central case. They should also take back to their political masters the thought that those who were attracted to Spain and have been caught out in the various traps of the land law system, (including as of last month, ourselves) are not stupid, not naïve, nor simply have they been taking advantage of low land prices and guilty of "speculating". Some ill informed Valencian ministers have suggested this. Absolutely the contrary. Most bought in good faith, believing that the laws, lawyers and the general system would serve to protect, rather than they could work to destroy their contentment, investment and in some cases their lives.
Mr. Chairman, it is a long way and a long time from where and when I first drew breath as the child of American expatriates in a small town on the Canadian prairies on a very cold February morning. I have had many experiences that enriched my life since that day. But it has been a singular privilege to be here with you today, even if the subject matter of the Petition I present is so unfortunate for so many of us who now have Spain and particularly Valencia as our home. As a relatively new European, I am encouraged by the support we have garnered for our campaign to ensure respect for the basic rights of those who live here and should have every reasonable expectation of enjoying the protections and privileges offered by the European Union. Our rallying cry has been "Abusos No – Justicia Si"! No translation needed! We hope for and trust in the support of this Committee in our quest.
Thank you! I welcome your questions and discussion.
President, Abusos Urbanisticos No
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