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Paradise lost as prince plans new Marbella

Elizabeth Nash reports on a royal attempt to change the planning rules for the rich.
Madrid - Prince Alfonso de Hohenlohe, the playboy and property magnate who reinvented Marbella as a playground for the super-rich, is on the point of developing a luxury tourist complex by the Coto Donana, a nature paradise protected by the United Nations, after paying huge sums for a small Socialist council to change the rules.

The socialist mayor of the south-western town of Sanlucar de Barrameda, Agustin Cuevas, said last week that his council had accepted up to 80m pesetas (pounds 400,000) from the prince's property company to revise local planning regulations. "We haven't received messages from any court that this is illegal, and if it hadn't happened, the local people would have had to pay."

The Austro-Spanish princesubmitted plans in 1990 to build 1,200 luxury flats, two hotels, a tennis club, a golf course and a polo field on scenic uplands in the town, which is noted for its manzanilla sherry. He expected to obtain planning permission within a month, but fierce local opposition has blocked it for more than six years. "I was misled," he said recently. "In Marbella I can sort these problems out within 24 hours."

By late 1991, the prince had bought out most of the 70 smallholders who tended their manzanilla vines on slopes overlooking the Guadalquivir estuary, one of the most precious wetlands in Europe and breeding ground for more than 250 species of migrating birds.

While awaiting permission, he ripped up the vines, leaving bleak and dusty scrubland that is now thick with thistles. Ms Lola Yllescas, spokeswoman for Andalucia's Ecologist and Pacifist Confederation (Cepa) says the proposed Sanlucar Golf and Country Club will harm both the national park and farmers by hastening the decline in the region's water table.

In August 1991, Mayor Cuevas, believing the project would bring jobs and prosperity to the region, allowed the prince's company, Tenfa, to pay for the revision of local building regulations, reclassifying his farmland site as building land. Ms Yllescas claims this "sinister deal" amounted to bribery.

But the site lies within thebuffer around the Donana national park, and the Andalucian regional government has the last word. The park itself is administered by Madrid. Mr Cuevas is pressing the conservative regional government to exempt Sanlucar from the protective restrictions of the buffer zone. But such a proposal, put to the Andalucian cabinet last week, was unexpectedly withdrawn. "I think the regional authority was afraid of the scandal that would blow up if they tampered with regulations affecting the national park," said Juan Clavero, a local biologist and environmental campaigner.

A week before, conservationists received unexpected backing from the conservative environment minister, Isabel Tocino, who said she "viewed with concern anything that diminished the area protecting the Donana national park". But Mr Cuevas insists the prince will soon be granted the permission he wants.

The pretty fishing village of Marbella became popular in the 1950s and 60s. Rich Americans, minor European royals, aristocrats and film stars fluttered round Prince Hohenlohe's hotel, the Marbella Club, which one former habituee,Veronica Jay, recalls as "a jolly place". A slightly faster crowd of "beautiful people" preferred Torremolinos, along the coast. But by the late 70s and 80s, Torremolinos was stifled by package tours, and rich Arabs began moving into Marbella, including the Syrian millionaire arms dealer Monzer Al Kasser. At this point, sniffs Ms Jay: "People with class moved west along the coast to Sotogrande".

Personifying today's flamboyantly vulgar Marbella - which must contain the densest concentration of powder-blue suede fringed cowboy boots in Europe - is the city's right-wing mayor, Jesus Gil y Gil. Mr Gil, once imprisoned, then pardoned by the former dictator Franco, for building an apartment block that collapsed and killed more than 50 people, now enjoys enormous local support.

Mr Gil has welcomed the latest wave of rich settlers - the Russian "mafia" - whose taste and wealth has swiftly made its mark upon Marbella. To escape these excesses, the prince seeks to recreate the Costa's erstwhile exclusiveness in the unspoilt terrain around Sanlucar, and make another fortune.

But the difference between then and now, says Miss Jay, is that "in those days, nice people had masses of money. Nowadays it's all funny money."