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
CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
Petition 609/2003 et al October 11, 2005
The Association I represent, Abusos Urbanisticos No, was formed three years ago and now has some 30,000 members and affiliates – all volunteer, not for profit, non partisan and representing no outside interests. There are two strings to our bow, the advocacy rights of our members and other victims of a pernicious and the predatory land grab system that prevails in the Spanish region of Valencia. The second is the protection of the environment against the development schemes which the system thrives upon.
This Committee, the distinguished Rapporteur and the two Fact Finding Missions have heard from thousands of victims of the Valencian Land Laws, in person and in writing. Many of them would have paid their way to be here again. But we believe the process has now advanced to the state where this is not again necessary.
Then, why are three members here again? (In my own instance, in the face of considerable public intimidation, even a recent and baseless smear campaign) Simply put, because the situation outlined in our Petition (609/2003 and others) presented over 2 years ago has become notably worse. Just because, there has been much controversy over the prospect of a new legal framework, there has also been a rush to present new development plans and to run roughshod over the rights of property owners, imperilling the fragile Mediterranean coast on land and sea, and the physical, mental and economic health of many of its citizens and residents. At the same time, this frenzy to cover almost the entire coastal area of the Valencian region, has called into question the sustainability of such development.
The facts are quite the contrary, as successive reports from, inter alia, Greenpeace, the Valencian Ombudsman, the OECD, ECB, the IMF, The Economist, and Standard and Poors clearly demonstrate. The chosen form of development, massive urbanization, it appears with no strategic plan beyond fast money, is not sustainable environmentally, economically, commercially, socially, legally or, we believe, politically beyond the very short term, if at all.
Given the chronic and now acute shortage of water for the existing urban population and the declining agricultural industry, how can the Government of Valencia encourage the construction of several hundred thousand new dwellings, plus nearly 100 golf courses (and adjoining luxury housing) each of which would consume an amount of water equivalent to a town of 15,000? Yes, recycling is possible, but the water has to be there or come from somewhere else in the first place.
The current drought in this perennially dry country, could well be in place for several years. Valencia says that it has full legal authority over urban development, so it can ignore warnings from the central hydrological agency to the effect that water supplies are inadequate to meet the demand posed by dozens of new urban developments. The reality is, no matter what the jurisdictional disputes, if there isn't enough water, then development should wait until there is.
The solution to this problem is not to divert water from other regions, at unaffordable cost, but in conservation, higher charges for water use and practical limits on growth and urban expansion. In truth, most of this development is intended, not for social purposes, such as the housing of the poor or young Spanish families, but to lure the well-off from northern climes to buy second or retirement homes
The Valencian Environment Ministry, was recently placed under the same Minister responsible for development has lost almost all of its professional staff. Media reports talk about resignations or dismissals of most of the professional staff in this ministry responsible for development and the environment. Also, about senior officials caught in serious conflict of interest situations. This does not fill us with confidence.
Indeed, the current land law, the LRAU, as all political parties in Valencia have agreed, has been a disaster in almost every aspect, except for the enrichment of promoters, developers, real estate agents, some unscrupulous officials and the coffers of the Valencian Government and its cash-strapped town halls. Yes, it did make more land available for development. But where has the main benefit gone? Housing costs have gone sky high despite the fact that existing property owners have had to cede land free and pay development costs for the benefit of others. It has enriched a few at the expense of the many. Corruption and lack of transparency have repeatedly been identified as the main problems in the housing sector. Nowhere is this more true than in Valencia. Whole volumes of media coverage, letters, petitions, and testimonials to the Fact Finding Missions, this Committee, the Parliament’s Rapporteur and the European Commission bear eloquent witness to the vastness of the problem.
Unfortunately, the proposed new law, the LUV, subjected to critical analysis is no better than its justly criticized processor, the LRAU. The same arbitrary powers will reside with town councils. For example, to declare any property to be of ‘social’ or ‘general’ interest or of potential public benefit (Art. 109). As under the current law, property owners are then under the iniquitous provisions of the new one, still forced to give free title to half or more of their property, perhaps including their home and pay exaggerated development (infrastructure) costs. None of these are subject to any controls over costs, the extent of property demanded and least of all, any possible compensation. When the law was adopted 11 years ago, the party now in power voted against it. But, the current government did not establish the control mechanism envisaged in the LRAU itself in over 11 years, so why should anyone believe this will be established under the new law?
What of the so called ‘Charter of Rights’ for the property owner” about which the responsible Minister has made so much? It turns out primarily to be a mere list of obligations. Yes, more time is allowed to complain and to present development alternatives. But the proposed processes are so complex that they will more than absorb the extra time allowed, plus they will be much more costly. In truth, the new law will mean no improvement on the current "land grab" situation. (It is something upon which we generally agree with the opposition parties in Valencia).
What of EU laws, directives, regulations, etc? Will the new law comply with those related to public contracts, procurement, transparency, or protection of the environment? Forget about property rights, as a subset of human rights, guarantees under Art. 33 of the Spanish Constitution, international conventions, etc. These laws, like at least two of the ten commandments, Thou shalt not steal, and Thou shall not covet thy neighbour’s property’, are regularly abused. But there is one law, that of supply and demand, which is more difficult to ignore.
All this begs a very important question. Does the Valencian Government want the foreign investment that foreign property owners
can bring or not? If the answer is no, then they are on the right course. If he answer is yes, then here must be laws and respect for those laws that will create confidence, not the anxiety we see now. As I noted, resales are down seriously, and this is well known abroad. If potential property buyers fear that they can’t sell when they wish, or may need to do so, they won’t buy in the first place. Schemes to build hundreds of thousands of additional dwellings in the Valencian region alone, will compound their difficulty for current and potential future owners alike.
This Committee will be aware that the European Commission in response to complaints received has issued a number of ‘expedientes’ involving demands for explanations regarding breaches of EU law by Spain or its regions. As we understand it, Spain has replied that because the issues involved lie within the powers of the regions, in this case Valencia, Madrid has no authority. Thus, Spain as an EU member, hides behind its federal system to elude its international responsibilities. It is unlikely that the argument will carry much weight in future. This matter has received extensive media coverage, as recently as yesterday. Forgive me if I quote in summary translation a recent media report:
"As is known, the European Commission has opened infringement proceedings against Spain in relation to the application of the LRAU in the Valencian Community considering that its principles violate EU law. And the Commission maintained its doubts about the future law – the LUV – for the same reasons."
Further, these doubts are not exclusive to the Commission. In a report I have here, the Legal Advisory Committee of the Valencian Government itself, recalling the primacy of EU law over those of its member states, questions whether the new Valencian law which maintains the essential principles of the current one, will be in accord with EU law and thus Spain's international commitments.
These comments focus on contract law, that is public procurement, but they could equally apply to, environmental law and for that matter property rights. Indeed, and most important, this is at heart a rights question, not just one of property.
I have read the draft document prepared as a result of the most recent fact finding mission to Valencia, and which appeared on the Parliament’s website last week.
First, let me commend the considerable amount of preparation that has gone into bringing it forward, as well as the gracious spirit of concern of this Committee and the Parliament. We can only admire the dedication of the members of both Fact Finding Missions, this year and last. The report of last year left little doubt that the situation facing property owners and the environment in dire and worthy of continuing attention and concern. Thank you for all that!
Well deserved praise aside, while the "provisional" document available (2004/2208(INI) has some tough language in it, but it falls far short of what I believe the Parliament was expecting from the fact finding mission. Because it contains so many caveats, I am certain that, as it reads, it would be a major disappointment for those EU citizens and residents in the Valencian Community, who have fallen victim to the perverse and predatory land laws. It deals with testimony, based on fact, as though the well documented cases are essentially mere allegations and hearsay. In effect, the proposed resolution, only has two operative paragraphs, one congratulating the Valencian Government for drafting a new law (which is as bad as the current one) and the final one, which merely asks that the document be sent to the Council and the Commission. What will they do with it? The attached "Exposé de Motifs" is slightly better, but as it stands, it is mainly background, and the conclusions do not form part of the "resolution" itself. So what is their status? We hope the document when it goes to the the Parliament will also have a substantive report as its basis, to give it teeth.
Thus, notwithstanding some of the appropriate harsh words in the document, I expect the Valencian Government will shrug it off, after a considerable amount of bluster and claims that it is ill informed, partial or whatever. And they will pound the opposition party for creating the LRAU in the first place, while they themselves have taken full advantage and profit from it. Just as has been the pattern in the past. In short, lots of thunder and lightening, but like all storms it will pass, in this case without much if any damage or change to the system.
Substantively the tentative document includes some phrases that will be music to the ears of those who perpetrate or richly benefit from the "land grab" situation. In essence the regional government , when it suits them, will quickly seize on the suggestions that nothing the European Parliament can say is binding on the authorities here and that it has no say in proposing amendments to the new land laws, even if these would be simply to ensure they are in accord with what should be prevailing European ones. Given their record so far, we very much doubt that any ad hoc Commission ( Paragraph L 3 of the document to be precise) set up under the aegis of the Valencian Government to pay compensation to "victims" of the land laws would be viable or have the desired effect. This would ensure that the fox remains in charge of the chickens! I doubt anyone would have faith in such a body. Also, it would expose some of the already very nervous victims to a process that would thoroughly intimidate most of them.
Another mechanism which involved the Parliament, the Commission and perhaps the regional Ombudsman, along with a representative of the Valencian Government might have some credibility, but where would the funds for compensation come from? The Valencian Government, like most town halls, is already heavily in debt, and derives a very significant amount of its revenue from taxes from the construction industry. Placing a tax on the windfall gains of the main players could provide a source of funds, but I doubt if the regional government would risk the hostility of its backers. Besides, the Valencian authorities repeatedly claim that what we see as "victims" are really "beneficiaries"- so what would be the basis for compensation?
I will have further comments on the document at the media conference but I caution that if something positive, constructive and influential doesn't emerge from this lengthy and well publicized process, at least in our corner of Europe, the fact finding missions will be seen to have been a cruel waste of time and emotion and the Parliament itself will be seen to have failed those thousands of EU citizens and residents, who have placed their faith in it.
It is fair to say that many victims in Valencia despair of getting true justice through the complex, costly, uncertain and time consuming legal processes available to them. Hence the desperate pleas to European institutions, notably this Committee, the Parliament itself, the Commission and the Courts of Justice and Human Rights. It would be a major breach of faith if their hopes and prayers are not answered before it is too late. And those who have got rich, will laugh all the way to their banks or their fiscal paradises, knowing there is no power on earth that can stop them.
What is it we hope to see from this Committee and the European Parliament? In sum:
To conclude, I would ask you to consider where in the world it is possible to buy a property, have the property researched and the purchase reviewed by a lawyer,……only to find that the house was built illegally,that is without permission, but with the tacit approval of the mayor …..or to find out later, because the lawyer, the real estate agent, and the town hall deliberately didn’t tell you that the property was located in an area already zoned or soon to be zoned for development….and be forced to tear the house down or keep the house, but in either case be forced to give up 10% of the land to the town council for roads, green space and land for services, be forced give, not sell, an additional 40-70% of the land to the developer, and, on top of that pay exorbitant infrastructure costs for water, sewage, electricity, paved access roads, sidewalks and street lighting when some or most of this infrastructure already exists and was paid for by the property owner…..And all this with NO COMPENSATION!
The answer to that question is in the Valencian Community, in Spain.
If you believe this to be justice, then I and my Association, Abusos Urbanisticos No, will have wasted the last three years fighting for the just rights of property owners in the Valencian Community.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman
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