King Juan Carlos 'surprised and very worried' at Spain's urbanisation

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King Juan Carlos has sounded the alarm over the excessive urbanisation of Spain's southern coast, especially the booming resort of La Manga in Murcia, popular among golfing British sunseekers, and footballers on the spree.

Speaking informally with a group of ecologists, the Spanish monarch said he had recently flown over the region and was "surprised and very worried" by the extent of building work.

The upmarket tourist development has sprouted a vast cityscape of cranes and scaffolding along one of the last stretches of virgin coastline in southern Spain, a zone that hitherto escaped exploitation because of its aridity.

King Juan Carlos observed that the driving impulse behind the boom was the desire for local authorities to make money, and that urbanisation was their main source of income. The monarch is known for his concern for the environment, and was attending a gathering to honour the Spanish conservationist and pioneer of ecology, Felix Rodriguez de la Fuente, who died 25 years ago.

His remarks were reported in yesterday's El Pais newspaper by one of those present.

Ecologists have long warned that the chaotic scramble of unplanned development vastly outrips resources in the parched region and is unsustainable, a message that has finally caught the ear of entrepreneurs and ministers.

Spain«s big hotel conglomerates warned this month that the rapid rate of new building was driving foreign holidaymakers away from traditional resorts of sun and sand - bedrock of the country«s mighty tourist industry. The Environment Minister Cristina Narbona last month accused Valencia«s regional government of wrecking its own coastline by "building a wall of cement."

The situation is worsened by the persistence of Spain«s worst drought for decades. "The situation in the south is very severe and serious, and very worrying... because the autumn rains have been insignificant," Ms Narbona warned yesterday. Southern farmers are still having to suffer water rationing, as Spain braces for another year of drought.

Ms Narbona's first important act on taking office 18 months ago was to scrap a gigantic plan to transfer water from the Ebro river to the parched southern regions, especially Murcia, on the grounds that the transfer would be environmentally catastrophic. Water-saving methods and desalination plants were to be encouraged instead.

But the building of many new homes, complete with swimming pools, patio showers, golf courses and shopping malls continues unabated, despite the drastic cutback on future availability of water.

Some local authorities, however, are finally calling a halt to the invasion of concrete, to the intense displeasure of developers. In the small village of Alhama de Murcia, a massive project to build eight golf courses, 60,000 houses and an aerodrome on rugged terrain inland from the Murcian coast was blocked this week after a renegade Popular Party councillor, Teresa Rodriguez, refused to approve the plans.

"People are frightened... at the prospect of 120,000 people arriving all at once," Ms Rodriguez said last November. She was expelled from the party, but her campaign caused fellow councillors to think again.

"It's not that we're opposed to macro-developments in principle, but we think they haven't taken into account the insufficient infrastructure, like water," she said this week.

The construction giant Polaris World, a major operator in the region, said it planned to sue Alhama«s local council if its projects there did not go ahead. The company aggressively targets British settlers, who are its main customers.

Cross the barren wastes of Murcia along single-lane roads, and Polaris World«s huge posters showing luxury villas shaded by palm trees assail you from all sides, inviting you, in English, to make your home there.