The lessons of “Land Grab”

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The author of this report is a semi-retired journalist who has made her home in a rural area known as Los Pinos in the municipality of Bédar in Almería province (Andalucía).

This piece was originally written in May 2007. Since then, a nationwide network of anti-urban abuse associations has been formed whose unflagging efforts have brought international, national and local attention to the plight of victims of land grab and other planning abuses. Yet the legal situation today remains essentially the same as four years ago with thousands of property holders waiting – probably in vain – to be compensated for expropriated property or living with pending land grab or demolition orders hanging over their heads.

Land Grab Introduction

In early 2001, my partner and I embarked on our Spanish rural house renovation adventure, painstakingly building what I hope will be my last home. About three years ago, I began seeing the term “land grab”, often coupled with the word “illegal”, popping up in items appearing in the international press. The articles were always quite short with little specialist clarification. The free local English papers who get significant advertising revenue from property companies never mentioned the subject. Because the cases always concerned the Valencia area, like many other homeowners in other parts of Spain, I pushed the matter away.

In the run-up to the 2007 countrywide local Spanish elections, some of my neighbours decided to form Levante Sostenible, a party championing sustainable development and greater transparency in the administration of local town halls (about 50% of Bédar’s 1000 residents are non-Spanish, predominantly English). One of the party’s issues was “land grab”. Apparently land grab was in our own backyard with several cases already in dispute.

I now heard terms such as “unjustifiable” and “unfair” when referring to cases of land grab. But things still didn’t make sense. How could our mayor look us calmly in the face and say that what we indignantly called land grab was quite legal? How could there be tens of thousands of cases in Valencia which had already led to threats of sanctions by the European Union authorities and yet the practice continues? There had to be a bigger answer. As an ordinary homeowner with no political affiliations, I volunteered to conduct research and write an information paper on the subject to be made available to anyone who was interested.

Brief History Background of Spanish Planning Law

I started my research by speaking to individual homeowners in our area who were fighting potential land grabbing. Their accounts were peppered with technical terms and what they had learned through their lawyers and other professional advisors regarding Spanish planning and legal procedures, but mostly my most basic questions went unanswered. Whatever documentation I was shown was meaningless to me; the planning maps and technical terminology remained a relative mystery.

It was when I began talking to the specialists that the bigger picture began taking shape. And it was only when I received a copy of the Manual de Derecho Urbanístico, a pithy little book on Spanish planning law, that the pieces began making sense. The book is in Spanish and its language somewhat technical, but it is written for non-specialists. Anyone facing problems of land grab, illegal building or otherwise seeking to protect their rights when confronted by the formidable twin forces of local town halls and developers, would do well to get a copy. (The book can be ordered online for 27 euros: ISBN 84-7052393-7 for the 2006 edition).

As I know most people will probably not go so far, herewith is a brief summary of Spanish planning law and its evolution. I apologize in advance to Sr. Tómas Ramon-Fernandez, the author, if my explanation in places in sometimes a literal translation. This summary is of paramount importance in understanding some of the fundamental rights and duties of property owners in Spain. It helps explain how bureaucracy and lack of coordination between different levels of government – state, regional and municipal – as well as central government ministries (Public Works, Housing) have often made an already complex issue more complicated. And finally it shows that however well thought-out or intentioned laws might be, the subsequent reality on the planning execution front has often been very different.

I also must underscore that this paper does not pretend to be anything more than a layperson’s understanding of a complex but fascinating subject and I disclaim in advance responsibility for any errors or misinterpretations. My primary purpose here is twofold. For those already facing problems and dealing with lawyers and developers, more background knowledge might reduce that costly lag between first encountering legalese and your getting a grip on it. For those who want to stay on top of potential problems, this section and the following one on the actual planning process, as well as rights and duties, might help to understand the implications of any changes in the bigger picture.

The first Spanish planning laws appear in the second half of the 19th ct. to deal with the practicalities for the growth of cities as they extended beyond traditional walls. The laws of today, nearly 150 years later, still follow many of the notions set out in these earliest laws even as they have subsequently proved limiting and dysfunctional. The Law of 1864 gave local town halls the power to urbanize land, after expropriating land necessary for roads and public uses against which entities were entitled to compensation in tax exemptions and tax compensations. One by one, Madrid, Barcelona and other cities adopted comparable versions of what became the national norm.

The Law of Enforced Expropriation of 1879 allowed for the partial confiscation of capital gains derived from urbanization works with local authorities permitted to expropriate land for new public roads. The Law of 1895 introduced a system of fiscal incentives for urban development. Municipal building codes were introduced in 1904. By 1924 regulations relating to zoning and urban norms (maximum buildable area, minimum index of green zones per inhabitant, road widths, etc.) were established, as well as concepts such as building licenses, arbitration in determination of land value, taxes and the obligation to formulate Extension Plans for any towns whose population had reached certain sizes.

Finally came the Land Law of 1956 laying out the entire basis of Spanish planning law in a mature and comprehensive manner, and whose legal text was considered in the vanguard of European law of the time. For the first time, public entities were granted complete

responsibility for planning legislation throughout the country. The law also introduced for the first time the notion of limited rights of individual property owners. Not only did any urban planning initiative have to first consider public interests, all property owners had three necessary duties, namely, to contribute to the costs of urbanization; to cede land for public areas and services; and to build in accordance to the forms and time scale laid out by the plan. In the simplest terms, in Spain, unlike in the UK, the rights of the community override the individual’s rights and a person’s home is not their castle.

The argument was that it is the collectivity and the implementation of the urbanization plan, and not the individual, which has brought about the increased value of the formerly rustic land which of itself had no value other than as land for agriculture, forestry or livestock. Therefore the community must have a share of the gains arising from the conversion of the land to buildable land. All the pieces of the new law were tightly interconnected but it was this same precision, as well as the lack of funding for the implementation of the controls envisaged in the law, and probably the lack of expertise of the town halls, which proved to be the law’s downfall. The execution of planning proceeded at an excruciatingly slow pace. Twenty years after the introduction of the law, only 600 general plans existed nationwide representing only 7.5% of the national territory. This resulted in a dangerous distance between the theoretical and the reality which undermined the law’s credibility. It also meant a huge shortage of land passed as apt for building (as only the approved plans could create it) which set off the very speculative tendencies and inflationary tensions that it had been designed to avoid.

Other problems related to the failure, practically from the beginning, of the concept of public land reserves which were meant to act as a regulating agent between supply and demand, and fair market values for land. Town halls abused this power, expropriating land holdings. Instead of then returning land to the free market to meet demand, it was withheld, creating a distorted and highly speculative land market. Meanwhile, the country was rapidly developing with a huge influx of people moving to the cities. By 1962, the National Housing Plan was introduced to meet urban housing demand which in effect made the system even more complicated. Reform was inevitable.

It was clear after two decades that the 1956 Land Law had failed primarily because of the inability of administrations at both state and local levels to apply it effectively. The Reform Law of 1975 strove to make urban planning simultaneously more flexible, proactive and regulated. Guarantees of greater participation for the collectivity in the urbanization process as well as a share in all capital gains were reinforced, as was the principle of compulsory surrender of land and contribution to costs. The oil crisis and subsequent financial crisis of the mid-1970s ended a long period of prosperity which had been grounded on unlimited access to cheap energy. Suddenly the illusion of unending growth went up in smoke. But the need for an ever greater supply of urban land continued even as Spain lacked the skills to implement urbanization smoothly.

The battle between the rights of the individual property owner and the rights of the community continue to this day. The 1978 Constitution created further confusion, with articles both recognizing the rights of private property ownership and prohibiting its outright confiscation without adequate compensation, while others establish the right of the community to enjoy capital gains created by urban development. Other important articles recognize the right to quality of life, an adequate environment and the duty of public entities to ensure the rational use of natural resources, land being the only resource which cannot be increased.

Besides the historic shortage of competent planning technicians, Spain also suffers from excessive bureaucracy. If you have to deal with a land grab problem, your head will soon spin when you realize how many different bodies at different levels – state, regional, provincial, local – of government will have a say in your case and how frustrating and time consuming, to say nothing of expensive, this can be. Let us take a quick look at how things got this way.

The Law of 1956 gave final approval to all urban plans to the central government, leaving town halls with the administration and execution of the same. It then became necessary to somehow coordinate the multiple sectorial perspectives which, at central government level, corresponded with the various ministries (Public Works, Education, Industry, Agriculture, Tourism, etc). The solution was to create a National Council and Central Commission of Urban Affairs, as well as corresponding provincial Commissions, each with representatives from the different affected ministries.

Unfortunately, the nation’s acute housing shortage and the creation in 1957 of the Ministry of Housing with overriding powers set off tensions between the Ministry and the various Commissions. Meanwhile, local town halls often lacked skilled human resources to carry out planning administration. Although provincial authorities were supposedly involved on a cooperative basis only, in the event of gross negligence at the local level, they could intervene. The central government was supposed to supervise local activity and had final approval in planning matters and responsibility for planning discipline. In 1975, the Central Commission of Urban Affairs became a consultative body to the Ministry of Public Works and Urban Affairs.

The 1978 Constitution began a process of decentralization by recognizing the autonomy of Spain’s different regions. In 1983, the statutes of the 17 Autonomous Communities which today form the country were approved. Each has exclusive jurisdiction to legislate, administer and execute in matters of urban planning and housing. At first the parliaments and assemblies of each Autonomous Community restricted themselves to conserving most of the original planning legislation. But a poorly formulated reform in the 1990′s giving too much power back to central government set off years of constitutional challenges and a flurry of regional planning legislation. Finally, in 1997, some 200 existing articles were overthrown, leaving the central government with few powers over planning laws. The new text also guaranteed the autonomy of the local town halls in the administration of their own interests, reinforcing their position in the planning system.

In the past decade or so, legislators in each Autonomous Community have been busy rebuilding the system and passing their own versions of planning laws. Many of the laws are hundreds of pages long and I wouldn’t even begin to try to understand them. The ones referred to most frequently are the controversial Valencian LRAU (Ley Reguladora de la Actividad Urbanística) passed in 1994 and replaced by the equally controversial LUV (Ley Urbanística Valenciana) in 2006. Andalucía’s version is called LOUA (Ley de Ordenación Urbanística de Andalucía) and dates from 2002, though it came into force on January 20, 2003. (NB. On July 1, 2007, a new national land law with several important reforms came into effect which I have not yet read).

Spanish Planning Procedures and Terminology

Rights and Duties of Citizens and Local Authorities

Implementation of Planning Projects

Now that we have some background, let us attempt to understand some of those planning acronyms and technical terms which appear in the press, in public postings and in legal documents. Once again, I am only attempting to emphasize the most important issues which might adversely affect someone’s property rights and pocketbook. In addition, these explanations are geared for Andalucía given that each autonomous region of Spain has its own rules which may differ somewhat.

As we have already seen, the 1956 Land Law left local planners at complete liberty to establish their own ordinances resulting in massive confusion over the subsequent two decades. Planning standards and norms are now highly defined and must be respected; if not, any affected plan can be rendered null and void. National and regional plans, although originally projected by the 1956 Land Law, never materialized. Municipal plans in Andalucía are known as PGOUs (Plan General de Ordenación Urbanística).

At the current time, land in Spain falls under one of three broad categories: urban, non-urbanizable or urbanizable. Urban land must have vehicular access, water supply, sewage and electricity supply. Non-urbanizable land includes protected natural zones and land destined for agricultural, forest or livestock raising purposes. Urbanizable land is land which is earmarked for development and can be urbanised once correct procedures are followed.

APGOUs are advance PGOUs submitted to regional authorities for final approval. As planning procedures are cumbersome and complex, often current PGOUs are non-existent. In the absence of a current PGOU, the system of Normas de Ordenación Complementarias y Subsidiarias del Planeamiento (NNSS) providing a minimum of legislation used to take effect, and in fact many local authorities still have these. The idea, however, is that all local authorities in Andalucia should have a PGOU. The PGOU is deliberately general, intended only as an overall structuring ordinance. Any area which is programmed for development during the current PGOU is marked as Sectorized and identified as Sector 1, 2, etc. Unsectorized land can also be urbanized during a PGOU period if it becomes necessary, by sectorising it first.

The Plan Parcial is a detailed development instrument found within a PGOU (or NNSS). They can only exist within that PGOU. The Plan Parcial is further accompanied by detailed studies which must respect all heights, volumes, and other pre-established norms. There is also a category known as Special Plans (PERIs) which relate to what is called non-consolidated urban land and which are very similar to a Plan Parcial. PERIs take effect when land is almost urban but does not, for example, have all the requisite infrastructure. Unconsolidated urban land can also be subject to what is often called “land grab”. In other words, if you live in a village but there is no mains sewage you should not assume that you will be safe – you could be subject to a PERI and “land grab”.

PGOUs must include a justification statement (Memoria) for the ordinance plan, information plans, land planning ordinances, planning norms, implementation program and a detailed economic/financial plan. This last point is very important: PGOUs must be realistic and feasible, otherwise they can be challenged and rejected. The Junta de Andalucía has stepped in to enforce this point. Last year it released its POTA (Plan de Ordenación del Territorio de Andalucía) which took over a decade to write up. The POTA, for example, caps development in Almería province to 40% increase of existing residential urban land and 30% increase of existing population over the coming eight years.

Coming back to the formulation and approval of Plans, both General and Parcial, these must adhere to very strict procedures and time restrictions. Initial plans must be approved by the local town hall followed by public posting in the relevant official gazette, known as BOP (Boletín Oficial de la Provincia) which can now be found online (www.dipalme.org) for Almería. During the 30 days of public posting, concerned parties may approach the town hall to view initial plans. The town hall then gives its provisional approval followed by final approval from the regional authority (except for planes parciales and PERI’s which can be finally approved by the local authority. Although few non-specialists monitor the Boletín, after having read the Manual de Derecho Urbanístico, it is quite possible to understand the content and language of the public postings. Initial approvals are made during plenary meetings of the local town halls.

Under the 1956 Land Law, ordinary citizens were not allowed to give input in formulating planning initiatives and were only permitted to correct details on already drawn up plans. Local residents invariably raised a ruckus and solutions rarely made everyone happy. It was only with the financial crisis of the mid-1970s and the bursting of the property bubble that the first timid clause concerning the rights to participate in formulating initiatives and information on the part of companies, associations and individual citizens was introduced.

Subsequent legislation progressively consolidated this right. Article 6 of the 1998 Law guarantees the right of public participation in the planning and administration processes, as well as the right of information for affected parties at every stage of proceedings. Other articles establish the “generic” duty of town halls to ensure maximum participation from residents – sadly lacking in practice in some cases. Getting consensus from the local community was supposed to facilitate the subsequent smooth implementation of urban development projects.

Plans and Norms are considered to be public documents and any person can, at any time, consult them at the relevant local town hall or ask for a printed copy of the documentation in question. Any person may ask for a “cédula urbanística” which gives information about any urbanization plans in the municipality. In practice, town halls can charge for this service and take several months to produce the necessary paperwork, and sometimes seem to be very reluctant to give any documentary information at all.

Once a Plan Parcial has received all approvals, it is the duty of all property owners found within its confines to contribute to the urban development action of the local town hall. This is the same for a PERI. The town hall has the right to 10% of the buildable square metres the development of the land gives rise to and this 10% can even be requested from a house owner unfortunate enough to be within the ambit of such a development process. There will also usually be a demand for a proportionate participation in all infrastructure costs. In addition, land should be given up for green spaces, roads, public services etc. In return, any gains from the development should also be equally shared among all the co-owners in proportion to their land holding. As previously explained, Spanish law thus attempts to balance recognition of private property with the necessity of public initiatives.

Owners of urbanizable land can temporarily enjoy the rustic nature of their land as well as participate in planning for its future development. However, they cannot arbitrarily do whatever they want on their own land and must confer with local town halls. Any infrastructure needs must be supplied by individual owners.

There are three implementation systems for Plan Parciales. The first is Expropriation where there is zero private participation; the local town hall expropriates the land and executes the development, usually for public housing. The second is Compensation whereby a group of landowners do the project themselves and are responsible for all costs. It is important to point out here that the term “compensation” does not refer to monetary compensation for the obligatory surrender of property (cesión obligatoria) to the local town hall which surrender is necessary whatever system is used. The third is called Cooperation, an intermediate solution where the local town hall directs and controls the process with the collaboration of affected individual landowners.

There are two more important concepts to explain. First is Reparcelación, the reorganization of the land affected by a Plan Parcial. Since the local town hall is entitled to 10% of the total buildable square metres, and since there are norms which dictate percentages of land which must be set aside for green zones, parking, public services, schools, churches, etc., each owner’s original share of the overall Plan gets proportionately reduced, roughly by half. Where the buildability ratio is high, for example, buildings are allowed to go up to 10 stories, everybody is happy and there are real gains to be made. Where the ratio is low, original landowners can have their land seized and be forced to contribute to infrastructure costs and gain very little in the end.

The real problem here is the difference between Spanish and foreigners who own urbanizable land. The vast majority of urbanizable land owned by rural Spanish citizens is acquired by inheritance. These Spanish are often delighted when land is scheduled for development because it increases the value of their holdings. The foreigner, on the other hand, looking for a rural sanctuary, often buys a big chunk of land with real money and then builds a house on the land. When developers reach their area, not only are foreign residents usually upset by the prospect, to their outrage, they now find they have to contribute land towards the development as well as pay for the project’s infrastructure costs. Unlike the rural Spanish who often live elsewhere or are happy to move to town, the foreigner often wouldn’t sell up at any price. Many are also retired and on fixed incomes and unable to come up with the cash to pay for their share of infrastructure costs.

The other important concept is that of the Junta de Compensación. This is a self-governing entity formed with representatives from each of the landowners included in the Plan Parcial (or PERI). For most decisions, a simple majority of over 50% is sufficient. It goes without saying that developers will usually have majority land ownership in a project. This means they can have an important influence on infrastructure costs, a source of much discontent. Dissident owners, as a minority, do not have the right to block the project but can choose not to participate and demand to be paid at (in theory at least) fair market values for their properties by local town halls. Town halls have the right to modify or correct previously adopted agreements, can play an arbitrating role when projects run into difficulties, and are supposed to ensure the rights of minority members.

This then is the background of land grab. There are other important issues, including the long-running controversy surrounding land valuations. A ruling which could adversely affect victims of unjustified land grab is that under the latest Land Law, compensation, if such exists, for seized land can in certain cases be calculated at non-urbanizable/rustic values, not urban or even urbanizable values. Let us now look further at some specific land grab disputes.

Land Grab Cases in Valencia and Local Levante Almeriense (Andalucía) Area

Let me preface that everything I know about land grab in Valencia is from second-hand sources. The 1994 LRAU allowed participation of an “agente urbanizador” (urbanizing agent). This is a developer who promises to carry out urbanization works under a project approved by the town hall. The agent does not have to own the land. The costs of the project were to be compensated for by buildable plots or in cash from landowners of buildable plots. Landowners, if they chose not to participate, could ask to have their land expropriated.

In essence, the LRAU allowed developers to ask for land to be reclassified from rural (non-urbanizable) to urban without asking for the owner’s permission and then to compulsorily purchase that land. Many foreign and small property owners were unable or unwilling to participate in development infrastructure costs and their land was compulsorily purchased at prices sometimes far below market value. Cases of abuse of the LRAU by ruthless developers and unscrupulous estate agents, often in collusion with greedy or unrealistic town halls, have, it has been argued, created tens of thousands of cases of land grab and other unfair practices in Valencia province. The 2006 LUV replacement law still maintains the original underlying principles and did little to solve the current impasse.

In my area, we now have several cases of land grab. I have personally interviewed each party I mention here, some at great depth and some only briefly. What I have learned is that each case can be significantly different, both in terms of the people involved, their priorities, and how they choose to fight and/or resolve their dilemmas. Every attempt has been made to be accurate at the time of writing, but each case is still under discussion and there will inevitably be subsequent developments.

The first case study is for those with deep pockets and the stomach for a long battle. In a rural area near Bédar, a retired British couple purchased 172,000 sqm of rustic land in 1991. They obtained all the relevant building permissions in 1992 after which construction work on their 600 sqm house began. In April 1994 they moved into their new home believing they could live out their retirement in peace, having purchased more than sufficient land to insulate themselves and after taking considerable legal and professional advice to ensure that they were 100% legal and safe from any future developments.

In January 2005, to their astonishment, they were approached by the same development company which had originally sold them their land and told that part of their land had been included in the town’s urbanization proposals and the developer’s development plans. Apparently, the developer had been making various Plan Parcial applications through the years and 33,000 sqm of their latest Plan was identified as belonging to the couple. Needless to say, the couple had never been informed of any development proposals at any time. At the first meeting between the couple and the developer, also attended by two professional advisors, the couple were given three choices, namely:

1. Do nothing in the hope that nothing was likely to happen anyway;
2. Become a minority partner in the development and be required to contribute financially;
3. Agree to have their 33,000 sqm segregated altogether from the development and for the land to therefore remain non-urbanizable.

The couple, who had no intention whatsoever of getting involved in any development scheme, chose the third option. Agreements in both Spanish and English were drawn up and signed on 23 March 2005 clearly stating that the 33,000 sqm of the couple’s land had been included within Sector 2 (the relevant Plan Parcial reference) due to a “material (serious) error” – without their knowledge or consent. The agreement also stated that the 33,000 sqm would be segregated from Sector 2 of the Plan Parcial and that the developer undertook to carry out a punctual modification of Sector 2 involving initiation of a new procedure based on a Sector of reduced size without the participation of the couple as landowners.

Attached to this agreement was a detailed topographical survey of the 172,000 sqm of land, the boundaries of which had been signed by the same developer in July 1995. The agreement and topographical survey duly signed by all parties concerned was then presented to the local town hall which registered and stamped both documents on 6 April 2005. On 2 June 2005, a unanimously signed minutes of the plenary session of the town hall acknowledging reduction of the surface area of Sector 2 and the agreement between the couple and the development company was received. The couple then thought that everything necessary had been done to protect their land from any further interference.

To their great indignation and shock, nearly a year and a half later on 27 Jan 2007, they were informed by their planning consultant that the developers were no longer proceeding with the segregation modification previously agreed upon. Apparently the original developer had sold their land adjoining the couple’s to a developer based in the provincial capital of Almería in Sep 2006 and now professed to have no knowledge of the current situation. The instigator of the latest strategy shift appeared to be national legislation introduced in draft form in Jan 2007 decreeing that 30% of all residential development projects be destined for “social (council) housing”, thereby significantly reducing potential profits for developers.

On 2 Feb 2007, the couple were formally notified by the town hall of the latest Plan Parcial and the official notice in the provincial Boletín appeared. This notice allowed only 28 days to file formal objections. Then followed lengthy and costly research by the couple’s planning consultant and specialist lawyer as well as an unproductive meeting with the mayor and secretary. With only two days to spare, a detailed set of professionally worded objections was formally filed. These were supported by 11 separate sets of professionally worded objections from adjoining neighbours and a considerable amount of informal support from others in the area. A press conference was called where some of the principal issues were made public, including:

1. Proposed forfeiture of 33,000 sqm of land against the will of legal owners;
2. Demand of 670,000 euros towards infrastructure expenditures for the proposed development (which could be substantially higher depending on final costs);
3. Construction of residential dwellings in protected areas and without previous study of ecological and other infrastructure considerations

Continuous pressure and negative publicity in recent months leading up to hotly contested local elections, as well as the couple’s well defended legal stand, may well have contributed to a softening of attitude from the town hall. Meetings were held with the mayor and town secretary during which verbal agreement to segregate the couple’s land from the Plan Parcial and maintain it as non-urbanizable were reached. As yet the local authorities do not appear prepared to give further commitments regarding other “unjustified land grab” cases.

On 25 Apr 2007, a meeting took place in Almería between the couple’s lawyer, planning consultant, the local mayor, the delegate from the Public Works and Planning Department of the regional Junta de Andalucía government and the technical head of the Junta’s Planning Section where it was agreed that the local town hall would shortly pass a resolution to specifically exclude the couple’s 33,000 sqm from the Plan Parcial and keep it as non-urbanizable land. On 2 May 2007, the local town hall approved the non-urbanization proposal put to them in allegations submitted on 25 Apr 2007.

On 9 May 2007 the provincial section of the Environmental (Medio Ambiente) Ministry confirmed informally that the land in question was in an environmentally protected area and that permission for development was most unlikely. However, an environmental study would be required and this could take about two years to complete. The couple was advised that their land was likely to be safe. Later Medio Ambiente said they were concerned that they might be sued by the developer and are no longer guaranteeing their earlier offer. In any case, final ratification will not occur until the area’s regional plan (PGOU) is published and agreed by all concerned bodies, also possibly taking another two years. Until then, nothing can be regarded as 100% guaranteed.

Not all developers are unscrupulous. In a nearby area, five homeowners whose properties lie in a Plan Parcial scheduled for development have signed a convenio (private agreement) whereby the developer is respecting their original boundaries and guarantees that he will not expect contribution for infrastructure costs. In another case involving over a hundred existing property owners, a similar scenario is allegedly planned. In a different Sector of the same development as the five previously mentioned homeowners, the developer has taken a tougher stance. Here some of the homeowners simply can’t afford the expense or further energy necessary for a protracted battle. Negotiations appear to be the best course of action, for example, giving up some land but not having to pay infrastructure costs. The urgency in another potential land grab case on the coast seems to have abated due to the forces of a falling property market coupled with the new social housing requirement which has just passed into law.

Down on the beach there is a group of 12 co-owners in an older apartment block whose location is just too juicy for developers to ignore. They are losing their garden and getting charged for infrastructure costs. They also have to pay another substantial amount because their apartment building will subsequently be too large according to building standards for the plot they will be left with after the town hall gets their garden. The total bill presented by the Junta de Compensación is around 200,000 euros, rising to nearly 250,000 euros if they decide to fight. This group long ago missed the deadlines to put in objections and has no funds to pay the bill. With the serious problem of coordinating 12 co-owners, half of whom don’t even live in Spain, at the time of writing, they had only weeks to decide what to do before compulsory procedures kicked in. They were advised to lobby the local mayor to exert pressure on the developer, to talk to the press, and to lodge appeals on any plausible grounds. Their lawyers were also considering negotiating terms.

Before closing this section, it is also important to note that many individual landowners, both foreign and Spanish, have benefited financially from their right to develop. In our area, there is one development going forward to build some 70 dwellings to which nobody is objecting. The original (foreign) landowners made a windfall when the area was re-zoned for development. As I said earlier on, every case is different.

Fighting Urbanistic Abuse

AUN (Abusos Urbanísticos – NO!)

European Parliament

If there is any serious light at the end of the long tunnel for many worried homeowners in Spain who find themselves in limbo, equally unable to stop worrying or to sell out, it is due to the unflagging efforts of the AUN in Valencia province. This all-volunteer group began in 2003 with two members and now numbers over 30,000 members in the Valencian region with a parallel national association in the works to deal with similar land grab cases in other regions of Spain. Because of AUN’s efforts in collecting thousands of signatures from aggrieved parties, three fact-finding committees from the European Parliament have visited Spain in the past three years. The last visit took place from 27 Feb to 3 Mar 2007 with the committee travelling to Madrid and various locations in Andalucía and Valencia. The full text of their report which roundly condemns the abusive planning practices and makes recommendations can be found at www.europarl.europa.eu/meetdocs/2004_2009/documents/dt/660/660551/660551en.pdf.

The excellent bilingual AUN website can be found at www.abusos-no.org and is updated on a daily basis. Despite all the threats and negative publicity, the Spanish central government maintains its stance that the Autonomous Communities are self-governing and have final say in their individual legislation. The next move is to take test cases to the European Court of Human Rights in an attempt to win the first cases and establish precedents. AUN constantly feeds the international press with updates and there are links to major related stories.

For now there is no new next step. The official AUN position is optimistic that the laws will one day be changed as a result of both continuous lobbying and EU sanctions in the form of reduced subsidies. In the meantime, the fight against both abuse of rights of individual property owners and the environment continues. The website’s blog reports on related news and gives a good idea of the bigger picture. Development plans approved without proper environmental studies are being overturned. Mayors of towns whose PGOUs had populations scheduled to multiply many fold in the next eight-year period have reduced their numbers due to protests from existing inhabitants. Local officials nationwide are under investigation for corruption with some already incarcerated. It is clear from the rampant overdevelopment in so many parts of Spain that the highest priority now is the protection of the environment and quality of life. Sustainable development is the watchword of the day.

More ominous are the implications of a collapse in the property market. Anybody who lives in southern Spain knows that prices are inflated and that nobody is selling. Construction is the only game in town, with banks dangerously overextended. The knock-on effect that will be set off when developers start folding and defaulting on loans doesn’t bear thinking about.

Advice For Those Currently Facing Land Grab

The list below was compiled by the party in the land grab case described in detail above who, after his protracted battle, certainly has the right to give advice.

1. Beware – it could happen to you, even if you own urban land.
2. Land grab in Spain as currently practiced is not the same as compulsory purchase in the UK where there is ample consultation and adequate compensation.
3. Whatever you may be told, there is a deliberate lack of transparency, so remain vigilant and ensure that you have ready access to competent, honest and diligent professional advisors.
4. If you possibly can, ensure ready access to funds to pay for professional assistance which may be needed at very short notice. Your advisors should constantly monitor the Boletín and keep abreast of all development proposals in your area. Remember, you usually have only 30 days to object, even if you are not in Spain or in ill health, and those objections need to be thorough, professional and grounded on legal and other valid arguments.
5. Do not underestimate the extent of land grabbing or trust anyone who tells you what you may want to hear. Even if you are legal in all respects and take all available precautions, you could still be adversely affected.
6. If in trouble, take the time to gain the support of neighbours and as many other local residents as possible. Go public with the aid of press who tend to be sympathetic with human rights and natural justice.
7. Do not succumb to extortion as some victims have already been persuaded to do at great expense. There are now many people on your side and you can fight for your rights.
8. Make sure that you are 100% legal.
9. Register and encourage others to register to vote. Lack of opposition enables local town halls and developers to continue to misinterpret and exploit the Spanish legal system.
10. Remember, knowledge is power, so try to be proactive in order to avoid or at least mitigate future disasters.
11. Involve the Ministry of Medio Ambiente (Environment) where appropriate.
12. Note that the European Parliament is now fully aware of the land grab situation in Spain and has condemned it. The next step is the European Court of Human Rights which has the power to impose sanctions on Spain.
13. Ensure that if necessary your lawyers are aware of human rights guaranteed by the Spanish Constitution and know how to communicate with the relevant EU authorities.
14. There is now significant international pressure on Spain to at least clarify and, if need be, change the laws that have so far been abused to the advantage of land speculators and local councils. There is good reason, therefore, to hope that in the not too distant future, land grab will cease – but until then, remain paranoid.
15. In the meantime, potential purchasers of land and buildings are advised to stay away until everything is resolved satisfactorily.

Having A Say in Development of Your Area

Since getting involved in this research, I have learned a lot and shared what I’ve learned. Certainly information is power and I feel less threatened than before. There are resources available everywhere and plenty of people with specialist knowledge which perhaps isn’t getting disseminated in the best way. Unfortunately, according to one planning specialist, people usually look for professional help when it’s already too late. I’ve also been surprised to find that Spanish who have moved to our rural area for a better quality of life were just as uninformed as we were. It is time to find ways to stay informed, whatever happens in these elections, so that we can participate in any development plans for our area. We need a more proactive role in shaping and safeguarding our future.

Copyright Josephine Bow. Reproduced with permission.

Los Pinos, 18 May 2007


BACKGROUND EXPLANATIONS

What is the Plan General (PGOU)?

In simple terms, a Plan General De Ordenacion Urbana (PGOU) is an overall plan setting out proposals by a Town Hall administration for the general development of the municipality over a stipulated period of time.

A plan must accord with Municipal and Regional Government laws, e.g. the Territorial Plan for Andalucia (POTA) involving a series of land and other laws which cover various aspects e.g. infrastructure, protection of parkland, forests, rural land, water requirements, apportioning of land for industrial and residential urbanisations and many other considerations.
It is a multi-faceted, complicated plan which must go through several stages, including various public consultation processes which allow for objections, amendments, etc. The Plan must obtain final approval from the Regional Government, the Junta De Andalucia.

What is the POTALA?

The POTALA (Plan de Ordenacion del Territorio de Andalucia del Levante Almeriense) is the blueprint drawn up by the Junta de Andalucia for development in the Levante Almeriense for the next decade or so. Its most alarming aspect is the designation of a large area called the Llano Central including land primarily from Vera, Antas, Turre, Mojacar, Bedar, Los Gallardos and Garrucha where a number of dwellings are to be built. Although many groups filed allegations against the POTALA, in the end, it’s being pushed through. The Spanish property market is in the doldrums now, but that doesn’t mean the stage isn’t getting set for a massive “land grab”.