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“Without demolitions, the rule of law is meaningless”

In a recent press interview, Ángel Núñez, coordinator of Andalucia’s environmental public prosecutors, gave an insight into how the environmental authorities would like to approach the widespread problem of illegally-built homes in Andalucia. Here is a translation of the Q&A he did with the Spanish daily ‘Publico’.

Q: In recent times, thousands of illegal homes have been built. Who is responsible?
A: Town planning infractions are the result of inefficiency in the public administration. Local governments have not exercised their functions of town planning discipline. Due to a lack of resources, especially in small town halls; due to a lack of political will to pay the price of unpopular measures like demolition, and, in other cases, due to clear and simple corruption.

Q: Is a lack of money the reason why there have been so few demolitions?
A: You don’t not demolish for lack of money. There have been no demolitions because there have been no demolition orders. In a huge number of cases, by the time action was taken, the illegality was already prescribed.

Q: Is there any historic justification for the town planning chaos?
A: No. There are still Mayors who boast that they will never execute a demolition order. But it is their duty under town planning laws! They defend their municipal autonomy, which I think is fine, but that goes hand in hand with carrying out their responsibilities as required by law, amongst them, to impose town planning discipline.

Q: Do you have a figure for the number of illegal homes in Andalucia?
A: I don’t think anyone has. An accurate figure really doesn’t exist.

Q: What do you think of the wave of regularisations on the way?
A: In a situation so out of control, the only solution is to impose the law somehow, and that implies regularisations (legalising homes). You can’t knock down 30,000 homes. It’s a complicated problem. And when you propose the failure that is a regularisation, other problems emerge.

Q: For example?
A: Pressure groups appear demanding that the rest of society pays the costs of their illegal urbanisations, that they pay for public services, building roads, rubbish collection…so they can benefit. If one regularises something that is worth 20 today, it will be worth 40 tomorrow. It strikes me as unacceptable. These are political issues that the prosecutor’s office does not get into, but it is far from setting a good example so that the rest of society respects the law..

Q: How do the judges and demolitions mix?
A: Without demolitions, the judgements become purely symbolic.

They have been quite reluctant to deal with town planning crimes. Perhaps because they think that only professionals can commit these crimes, whilst we think that anyone can.

The Supreme Court sided with us in 2003. They have been too generous with the principle of error, of ignorance, when it is public land all work needs a licence. And there has been a lot of reluctance when it comes to agreeing to demolish. Without demolition, the judgements become purely symbolic, because the punishments they impose – which are not related to the value of the building, but the income of the guilt parties – are paltry, and the punishment of detention in principle does not imply going to prison.

As a result, the punishments just become an additional cost of building. Fortunately, we are making progress.

Q: Does the lack of demolitions foster a sense of impunity?
A: Yes. In the time it took the Supreme Court to find that anyone could commit these crimes, dozens of people were let off.

Q: You have said that one can’t demolish 30,000 homes, but you can demolish some. Are you thinking about Marbella, for example?
A: One has to distinguish between administrative demolitions, and criminal judgements. Regarding the latter there is no room for discussion, just carry them out. The question being discussed here is the administrative ones.

Q: Does the public prosecutor not have any say in the matter?
A: No, we could not intervene there.

Q: And what do you think about it?
A: Personally, as an ordinary citizen, not as a public prosecutor, I think we need to connect with the rule of law, which will be meaningless if they don’t go through with demolitions, and deal with situations of real social importance as a consequence of not enforcing town plans.

Q: The Government of Andalucia has approved new laws and talks now of supra-municipal planning
A: Planning is about managing growth, but this only serves to consolidate the irregular.

The fact is that the plans are not carried out, and when they are reformed it’s not to advance but to consolidate de facto situations. That way point of the plan is lost. To plan is to manage growth, but this just serves to consolidate what has already grown in a disorderly way.

Q: Are people aware that their illegal actions create problems for them too, traffic jams, a lack of schools…?
A: Up until now, no. People have an old fashioned notion about property. It’s my land and I’ll do what I want with it. There is no consideration of the social function of property.

Q: How much does the environmental department owe the Greens?
A: Their behaviour is absolutely laudable.

Q: What is the biggest threat to the environment?
A: Out of control urban development.

Q: Some people deny the climate is changing.
A: There are always people in denial. There are those who deny the holocaust, the fact that some deny climate change shouldn’t come as a surprise.