Spanish bulldozers target Britons' homes

More than 300,000 houses in Andulcia have been declared illegal, many owned by retired expats
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The Independent Online

John Pritchard, a British pensioner living in Spain, is having problems sleeping at nights but it has nothing to do with age. He just can't stop imagining the noise that bulldozers sent by the town hall will make if they come to knock down his house. "I think I can hear them. It's the stress," he says, while his wife is so distraught about the possibility, she will not even be interviewed.

Mr Pritchard is not the only British expat worried about his house being declared illegal by one set of Spanish regional government officials, despite local planners originally giving it the green light. Official Spanish building reports recently found up to a staggering 300,000 such illegal or semi-illegal constructions in Andalucia alone. Technically, all could face demolition – and that includes some belonging to Britons.

Traditionally, illegal building was associated with Spain's chronically overdeveloped Mediterranean coast. But by the late 1990s, as the Spanish housing boom started, it moved inland and upmarket with a vengeance.

Arguably, the most acutely affected area is the Almanzora Valley, a remote rural region in south-east Andalucia, where there are calculated to be up to 11,000 illegal houses belonging to British pensioners – such as Mr Pritchard.

"These are all illegal, barring a couple of old farmhouses," says Maura Hillen, an Irishwoman, as her car crests a rise just outside Albox, the valley's main town, indicating dozens of detached houses. "Thousands were built in the valley, while in Albox town hall they claim just 11 building licences were officially issued."

Mrs Hillen is the president of AUAN, a 300-strong association formed by, mainly, British homeowners to fight the urban planning abuses ruining their dream retirement in the Spanish sun. Almost all bought property in good faith, only to discover that their homes had been constructed on land not zoned for building, or which lacked the correct licences, and were therefore illegal.

For most of them, things turned sour when court orders revoking planning permission arrived; and this year a new series of fast-track orders means in the most extreme cases an order for demolition can be carried out in under a month. One British couple whose Spanish villa has already bitten the dust are Helen and Len Prior. From January 2008, when the bulldozers moved in, they lived in a garage on their land, staying for over a year before the local council provided them with temporary accommodation.

The latest case to come before the courts involves nine British-owned houses in Albox. They are due for demolition as part of legal proceedings involving corruption charges against a former town councillor in charge of planning permission, while a local builder and two architects are accused of putting up the houses illegally.

But although the state prosecutor has asked for the owners to be compensated, they fear the payments will take as many years to come through as the case has taken to come to court. At the same time, if their houses are demolished, they will have nowhere to live. "The cases go on for ever, some since 2005," points out Mrs Hillen. "You're looking at the tens of thousands of euros in legal costs, or having to pay for urban infrastructure like sewage pipes and street lighting that your builder promised you but which never arrived, or risk getting the debt put on your house and it getting sold from under your feet. It's money nobody has. Either way we are screwed."

And there could be many more cases to come. "All of the houses facing current demolition orders since January 2010 were the first new ones to be built in Albox. They represent the tip of the iceberg, because hundreds if not thousands of houses are illegal in this valley alone."

"We're living in fear all the time," says Anne, who with husband Alan has also had to survive since 2006 on four hours of electricity a day after their builder absconded. And, adds Alan: "We can't have electricity put in as this is an illegal house. And there's no chance of compensation with the builder gone.

Mrs Hillen says: "One key emotion is resentment that people back home think the buyers did something wrong. Yet the Andalucian government has failed to control building on this scale, even though it was in plain sight. It's a massive mess. We've got councillors, architects and builders in court charged with planning crimes. And we're piggy in the middle."

In the Axarquia Valley, where roughly 10,000 houses are in jeopardy, the British expat community is marginally more optimistic. "Our impression is the Junta [Andalucia's government] has lost heart over demolition orders and realised that with northern Europeans bringing in around €5bn a year to an economy in crisis like Spain's, they'd be killing the goose that lays the golden eggs," says Gary Miles, a spokesman for SOHA (Save Our Homes Axarquia). "That said, we'd like agreements where houses become fully legalised without those living on pensions first facing a €50,000 fine."

According to Rosa Urioste, Andalucia's director of inspection of urban planning, the blame cannot be laid on any one person. "We've all failed." she said, in the Diario de Cádiz newspaper: " The buyer, the person who divided up the building plots, the one who built without permission and those who looked the other way." For many British homeowners, that category could include her own government.

With the Spanish economy just limping out of recession, it has been left with a rash of building corruption cases in the courts and having to sort out the status of property constructed so quickly that, in one year alone, 2002, Spain built more houses than in Italy, France and Germany combined. One solution is to try and regularise the houses by giving them legal status, but the cost of doing so, which can also include providing amenities, falls to the owner, not the builder, and again will run into tens of thousands of euros for each one.

Most Britons have already sunk their savings into their homes, and with the pound considerably weaker than five or six years ago, they are caught in an equity trap."Stress, depression, divorces – a fair few people have gone through those," says Mrs Hillen. "A lot of times, there are arguments over whether to leave." But some have gone, leaving behind empty houses, huge investments, and shattered dreams. Very few of those who remain can rest easy in their beds.