Beware the Town Hall planning ‘Mafia’ in sought-after country areas

masia in catalan emporda
A masia country house in the Empordà countryside of Catalonia

With foreign demand for homes in the Spanish countryside booming in the wake of the pandemic, buyers should keep in mind the problems they might face getting planning permission for even small renovations in country areas, especially in ‘posh’ areas with high demand.

Over dinner on Thursday night I was reminded what a nightmare it can be dealing with the planning bureaucracy in rural areas, which helps explain why there is so much illegal building in the countryside. Planning permission in the Spanish countryside is a minefield, especially in sought-after areas, where officials can be more arrogant. My architect Spanish father-in-law once explained to me how the prohibitive cost and bureaucracy of doing everything by the book in the countryside means that almost everyone ends up doing things illegally. 

We were invited by friends for dinner at their house in the countryside of the Empordà, which lies inland from the Costa Brava, in Catalonia’s Girona province. Near to Barcelona and Girona, with good airport access, a beautiful coastline, magnificent countryside, picturesque villages, a nice climate, and many other attractions, the Empordà has always been highly prized by affluent buyers from Spain and beyond as Spain’s answer to Tuscany. It seems that demand for masias or country homes in the Empordà and other types of property with outdoor space in good areas is higher than ever in the wake of the pandemic.

We were invited to celebrate Saint John’s Eve, called La Verbena de Sant Joan in Catalan, which starts at sunset on the 23rd of June, on the eve before the Feast Day of Saint John the Baptist. It’s a big deal in Catalonia and some other parts of Spain, with a night of fireworks and partying into the small hours. It was quite a spectacle from where we were sitting out for dinner under fig trees and a clear sky watching a chaotic firework display in the valley below us that went on for hours. 

Several of the other guests had country homes in the area, and the conversation turned to the problems of planning permission for even minor works like building a covered parking space, and the challenges of dealing with what they called the Town Hall ‘mafia’. Everyone had stories of dealing with planning officials who make you want to tear your hair out.

Town halls and planning officials in the Spanish countryside are nothing like in the big cities, where things tend to be more straightforward, though some cities are worse than others. Country municipalities are plagued by every kind of problem including a small-town mentality where everything has to be done through the cronies of Town Hall officials, who might otherwise make your life a misery. If you need to build or renovate in the countryside, find out who’s who, and do everything through them, however useless they are. At least that’s the way it works in many areas.

I get the feeling that town hall officials in ‘posh’ country areas like the Catalan Empordà and Mallorca can be trickier to deal with than bureaucrats in more hard-bitten areas who might welcome out-of-town investors more openly. But the fact is that planning permission is generally a minefield all over rural Spain, and buyers looking for a country property need to keep that in mind, especially in a booming market where you are under more pressure to move fast.

Thoughts on “Beware the Town Hall planning ‘Mafia’ in sought-after country areas

  • The stupidity is unbelievable. A few years ago I was interested in a building modification that would have put 100k euros into the local economy. Once I understood the burocrscy involved, not to mention the cut they wanted I just canned the project. I often wondered how many others have done the same thing.

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