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:
Report of the European Parliamentīs Fact Finding Mission to Valencia
MADE BEFORE THE PETITIONS COMMITTEE
OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT
CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
Petition 609/2003 et al July 27, 2004
Mr. Chairman, distinguished members of the European Parliament, members of the Secretariat, supporters and friends:
May I congratulate you, Sir, on your election to High Office. Your wisdom and understanding will be essential to the management of this forum, which is unique in its mandate to bring the serious concerns of Europeans to the Parliament between elections, such as we have recently witnessed. It is just such concerns that bring me again before this Committee today. I wish to thank you for inviting me and my colleagues here today on this important occasion when the very welcome Report of the recent Fact Finding Mission (FFM) to Valencia will be discussed and we trust and hope accepted and acted upon. I also wish to thanks the members of the FFM and the Secretariat for their hard work as rapporteurs and drafters of the Report before us today. I am pleased to have here as well members of our Association, Abusos Urbanisticos No, from Denia and Castellon.
This Committee received our petition (609/2003) and others of similar nature and agreed by consensus on February 17 to recommend the sending of a fact finding mission to Valencia to investigate abuses of the regional land laws - shortcomings and defects admitted even by the Valencian authorities themselves. While the report before you today is based on extensive discussions with only a representative sample of the victims of such abuses, it is important to underline that the fact finding mission also requested and was granted meetings with some senior municipal and regional officials in Valencia. Their views too are reflected in this report. That said, it is noteworthy and regrettable that no representatives of the Valencian Community itself, at a political level, were prepared to make themselves available to meet a delegation from Europe's senior political institution or to be here at this important gathering.
It is rather more unfortunate that spokespersons for the Valencian Government, including at the ministerial level, went so far as to publicly denigrate this mission and indeed its report to quote one such as a "farce" and somehow "politically motivated". I understand an official response to these ill-informed remarks has been conveyed to the Valencian representatives and we share the hope that greater respect for this Parliament will be shown in future.
The fact finding report eloquently cites actual examples of victimization which, if neither systematic nor intended by the laws currently in effect, is sufficiently widespread and profoundly negative as regards the rights of many European citizens and residents, to be a matter of ongoing concern to this body and other EU organs, in particular the Commission and Court of Justice. The representative of the Commission need not have reminded us, at the first meeting, that we should and, do indeed, recognize the competence of the regions in Spain to administer, for example, the land laws, subject, of course, to the Spanish Constitution and transcendent national and European laws, we are gratified that the Commission has begun to more actively investigate complaints brought to it, especially where violations of EU rights and breaches of laws under European accords to which Spain is a State Party, for example the Treaty of Amsterdam, have occurred. Indeed, in the past few months, the Commission has been presented with a number of well documented complaints and in response has agreed to commence investigations that could well result in actions before the Court of Justice. Separately, I might add, our Association which works to protect the rights of home owners and the environment is collecting information from victims of the land laws that may soon find justice in the ECHR, should that not prove possible or timely within the many levels of the Spanish court system.
Without commenting on the central issue of this major contribution, we do find it very ironic that just as the Valencian authorities here publicly criticized European institutions, it turns to the European Commission for support in the complaint against the new Madrid government for blocking the massive Ebro River Diversion Project which also lacked the support of the Commission, by the way. Valencia cites in its case, inter alia, lack of transparency, possible breaches of EU directives, lack of public consultation of those directly affected, lack of information on the costs and benefits (benificios) of the project, little or no public exposure of the project, short time to react and such decision-making being contrary to constitutional principles. This could be a page from our own book regarding the land laws. It may suggest a newfound and welcome faith, hitherto lacking in Valencia's approach to Europe, seen principally as a supplier of funds, official and unofficial, rather than as a union whose membership rules must be fully respected.
Mr. Chairman, I am certain that Valencian representatives will assure this Committee that, whatever abuses have been witnessed in past (and admitted to publicly by the current and previous ministers responsible) these will be ended under the new land law, rather misnamed to English ears, the LUV (Ley Urbanistica Valenciana) when, and if, it comes into force after passage through the regional legislature, we hope this year, as recently promised. I recall that while the current governing party was in opposition prior to the adoption of the LRAU, it severely criticized the new proposed law, as it was then. But after it took power in 1995, for 8 years it did nothing to reform that law. In the face of criticism the government has now produced a draft of a new law, but so far it seems a more complex, longer and still containing many of the same problem areas. Indeed, this draft is but one of a package of laws that will escape the understanding of everyone but the specialists who normally find work with developers.
If I may further indulge in some informed mind reading, its representative will likely go on to state that, for the first time there is to be a "charter" provision for the rights and obligations of property owners. In fact, there are only two articles on rights and many, many more on obligations in the current draft. The reverse is true for the developers' privileges and obligations. Thus, you will not be told that the obligations to be imposed upon many hapless property owners far outweigh any rights they may be afforded even when many of these are supposed to be guaranteed in the Spanish Constitution (article 33) or European law. The conflict with provisions of article II.17 of the draft EU Constitution will be even more drastic, especially given that the recently elected Spanish Government has stated its agreement in principle with this treaty and has pledged to sign it in a few months.
Will you be told that all of the recommendations of the regional ombudsman put forward recently in an unprecedented bold and highly critical report on the current land laws - in response to some 30,000 complaints- have been accepted in the new law? Perhaps so, but how so, when explicitly and publicly two of the core proposals were rejected by the responsible minister, Sr. Blasco? Incidentally, he confirmed this to me in person less than two weeks ago, just before his office issued an imaginative press release about our meeting. It appeared he and I had attended separate meetings together! Certainly, we neither discussed, let alone agreed, many of the key points in his allegedly "joint press statement". Nor is this incident the only time he and his officials have engaged in blatant media manipulation.
Be that as it may, once again, we have been invited to submit proposals for changes to the draft law and we will do so notwithstanding the fact that our three previous attempts in writing have been largely ignored or lost in some bureaucratic paper storm, I am sorry to say. While this process goes on the actual problems continue, with new plans being approved rapidly and without much regard for consequences other than financial rewards, one recent example is 52,000 complaints lodged against a plan in Godella, just outside Valencia. The disaster at the historic Calpe Salinas, mentioned in the document before you, is now virtually beyond redemption, I also lament to report. There seems to be a fever, perhaps occasioned by the fear that with Europe now looking on, the land grab game may soon end.
The draft law itself begins by recalling the deficiencies of the current law. Thus far, so good. But then it goes on to repeat them in even bolder relief. Apart from being a lawyer's dream and no doubt a property or home owner's nightmare at close to 200 pages of ill-defined and arcane terminology, it has a few paragraphs which are chilling, indeed to anyone concerned with the rights of property owners. For example, draft article 109 which in short translation, states that whatever plan is approved automatically implies a declaration of public utility or benefit and thus carries the concomitant requirement to occupy property, annuls rights including any inherited interests, necessary for development, through expropriation or "servidumbres". This word actually translates as slavery (according to Larousse), but one assumes that it means at least severe restrictions upon future use by owners. There are no objective criteria behind this semantic word game, and according to article 107, virtually no time to react to such a draconian imposition - less than 2 weeks. This is supposed to be an improvement? The authority delegated on the other hand to the developer (Article 118) who needs to own not one square meter of land being absolute under this law, then has the right (e.g. under Article 23) to coerce "obligatory" cessions of up to 60% of land and in addition to demand extortionate infrastructure costs under no control mechanism and free of any concerns about injunctive relief through the courts, since for all practical purposes, this does not exist in Spain. The Town Hall, of course, gets an additional slice, plus licence fees from the developer it has itself selected through a very opaque, and secretive process (see our Complaint to the Secretary General of the European Commission).
George Orwell would have found a rich harvest indeed in the land laws for his writings over half a century ago. He had been in Spain about the time that the Communistic Second Republic introduced in its Constitution of 1931 vague concepts, such as "social interest" and "public benefit" to legitimize ruthless agrarian reform. We remember where that led. Now it is most often the small property owner, as witnessed in the Fact Finding Mission's Report, who bears the pain. Interesting that this would continue to be inflicted under the new law just as Spain attempts to attract ever greater numbers of foreign property buyers as a major and necessary source of direct investment. This evidently to "rack and stack" them in large numbers in high rises already despoiling much of the once beautiful coast line. This is the "vertical development" policy now favoured by the Valencian Government. Torrevieja and Benidorm come to mind. Sadly, both have some of the highest crime statistics in Spain. Torrevieja is actually the highest, even if Benidorm has the higher buildings. Meanwhile, the Minister himself applies a strange sort of twisted dialectic, referring to victims of the land laws as "beneficiaries" and serious abuses become merely "minor deficiencies".
Would that a perfect law would resolve the problems. Alas, disregard for the law, not excluding on the part of various governments concerned, as the report shows, is rampant. Worse yet, for a nominally Catholic country, at least two of the Commandments of God Almighty, those which state "thou shalt not steal" and "thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's property, nor shall ye bear false witness against him " appear to fall into sinful disregard with regularity as the Report suggests. A sunny country with so many shady dealings, so some say.
Mr. Chairman, we are gratified that this Report has been authorized and carried out so meticulously with the endorsement of this important forum of the European Parliament. For it is within the Institutions of the new Europe where the rights of those who live here must finally be protected without regard to boundaries of states or regions, if their first lines of defence are deficient or fail them. I regret very much that such a failure within the region where I and some 15,000 signatories to our Petition (we still receive signatures and pleas for help), representing doubtless multiples of this number, who have been born there or have chosen to make Valencia home. We hope and trust that the observations and recommendations contained in this Report will be fully accepted by the Parliament and that a formal expression of concern will be conveyed immediately to the Spanish and Valencian authorities, and that this issue will be kept open before this Committee. We also hope the mere existence of the Report will serve to encourage the Valencian Government to honour its pledges and to make every effort to put new legislation in place that will be in full conformity with EU laws and norms as soon as possible. We encourage the new Government in Madrid to undertake its full responsibilities under the Constitution and its national laws with respect to the rights of all those whose homes are at risk under regional administrators.
Indeed, Mr. Chairman, the Valencian Government has frequently pledged improvements, albeit after large demonstrations and much adverse local and international media commentary (El Pais, El Mundo, Levante, Informacion, Las Provincias, Financial Times, The Times, International Herald Tribune, Focus, Telegraaf, Express, Daily Mail, CNN, BBC, Granada, ITN, ARD (Munchen), Suddeutsche Zeitung, among others). Yet, given that there is already enough land, often seized under the current land law, the LRAU, and dozens if not hundreds of construction projects underway for several years, we fail to see why the Valencian Government would not take the logical and essentially cost-free step as an expression of its sincerity to declare an immediate moratorium on the approval of new development plans. This would be pending the entry into force of a new law, the LUV, or otherwise, that would bring in fact the region's law into full conformity and compliance with those of Europe just as its membership expands and this Parliament assumes greater authority. Regrettable though the current construction frenzy may be, we are not calling for this to be halted for practical reasons. Instead we hope free market forces, if not the imminent and now very likely bursting of the property bubble, will reduce this to a sustainable level very soon anyway.
Lastly, our Association with about 10,000 members and affiliates, all volunteers and not for profit, is popularly known as Abusos Urbanisticos No. Because of what we have seen in our region, were we to choose a name for the other side of the issue, that is the contractors, promoters, town halls and regional officials, who routinely blame all the others for the abuses, we would suggest it be called collectively Abusos Urbanisticos Si (AUS). In the end, we would be most pleased if the abuses such as those cited in the Report ended so that we could all proclaim that Valencia was the land of "Abusos Urbanisticos Nil", that is, that they have ceased, and thus we might all live happily ever after, not only in a warm climate, but in a truly just one.
Thank you for hearing our voices today.
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