Crisis on the Costas: Beachfront homes are under threat

From Catalonia to Andalucia, beachfront homes are under threat. As bulldozers move in, Laura Latham asks where it will all end
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The names Helen and Len Prior will by now probably be familiar to anyone considering buying a home in Spain. To those who already own property there, the Priors may rank as a cause célèbre. For this is the British couple who saw their dream home in Spain demolished last week amid a blizzard of publicity. The story sent shockwaves through the expat community in southern Spain, leaving many owners wondering if they're next.

The Priors, both aged 63, retired to Spain in 2002 after selling their home in Berkshire and putting £350,000 into building a beautiful villa in the small town of Vera, near Almeria on the south coast. Their property had received planning consent from the town hall. However, due to a legal oversight, the necessary authorisation stamp from the Andalucian government was never obtained. Despite the Priors' ignorance of this, the regional authority decided last year that the property was illegal and issued a demolition order.

The couple were assured by their lawyer that the correct legal process had to be followed before the case could be decided. This was supposed to include the chance for the Priors to appeal against the decision in court, and a two-week notification of any action by the regional authority.

Even after receiving letters in December warning them of the impending demolition, the couple were reassured by their lawyer that nothing would happen while the case was under appeal. "We were told all along that our property was 100 per cent legal," said a clearly distressed Helen a few days after the event.

However, on 10 January, the Priors woke to find their electricity and water cut off. A few hours later they were confronted at their home by police with a demolition crew in tow, and given just a few hours to clear out their belongings before the bulldozers moved in.

During the demolition, Len Prior collapsed and had to be taken to hospital. Though up and about again, acquaintances say he hasn't fully recovered. "The human side of this is immense," says a close friend, who says the experience was incredibly traumatic for everyone involved. "Helen and Len have aged in a week, but they have had many offers of help from expats and Spaniards."

Six other families in the area have also been given notice that their homes are at risk, with one couple told their property will be bulldozed within weeks.

"What happened to the Priors is terrible," says Mark Stucklin of the independent advisory service Spanish Property Insight. "It has really created a storm." Stucklin says that it isn't the only demolition he knows of, and says that the Spanish minister for the environment recently pledged to deal with illegal builds in sensitive areas – meaning that the events in Vera could be replicated across southern Spain.

The Spanish government has drawn up plans that could see the removal of thousands of properties it claims have been illegally constructed along the coast from Barcelona to Malaga. This proposal is causing a furore among homeowners fearful of seeing their properties torn down.

They're right to worry: in many cases, the planning permission that their homes received from the town hall was illegal, and could be revoked. This is because many local officials took bribes from developers in order to allow construction where none should have taken place.

Stucklin points out that the law prohibiting building within 100 metres of the high-tide mark along the Spanish coast (known as the Ley de Costas) has been in place since 1988. Therefore, any beachfront property built in the last 20 years is probably illegal.

In addition, he says, urban plans that show areas zoned for building are drawn up 20 years in advance – so local lawyers should have been well aware of whether a building was legal. Which means some homeowners may have become unwitting pawns in a game. It is possible that local authorities, developers and even lawyers (many of whom work for developers) may have been acting in their own interests, even as unwitting homeowners believe their new properties to be legal.

"A lot of illegal property has been built since the law was introduced, but the authorities, not just the local but the regional ones, turned a blind eye," says Stucklin. "A large number of properties now designated illegal were built with permission."

Stucklin advises those who believe that they might be affected not to panic. He says the government has only announced a debate on whether the coastline should be cleared, not actually set the law in motion.

In addition, he says that what appears to be driving this action is the forthcoming election in March, with the incumbent government attempting to curry favour with environmentally minded voters.

This doesn't help the Priors, who will now likely be seeking compensation from the government. "This isn't the only situation in which homeowners have found themselves in this sort of no-win position," says Charles Svoboda of the pressure group Abusos Urbanisticos No.

Svoboda's group is campaigning for justice for those affected by retrospective planning decisions, and is offering legal help to the Priors. He says that people are suffering under a flawed system.

"The major fault lies with those who roped in buyers and abetted the process: town halls and lawyers," Svoboda says. "Individuals who misled or never provided the right sort of cautionary advice or counsel to purchasers." He says that the EU Parliament in Strasbourg is now looking into what he calls this "mess".

The Priors' friend says large numbers of property owners are now in limbo, and the injustice is causing anger. "There are areas where there are hundreds of properties built without proper paperwork," he says. "Helen and Len are kind, sociable people. They are part of the community and what has happened to them is unbelievable."

A pressure group to help the Priors has been set up and can be contacted on 00 34 678 027 656; Spanish Property Insight:; Abusos Urbanisticos No:

The facts

* Coastal property built at least 105 metres away from the high-tide mark or prior to 1988 should be safe from the Ley de Costas regulations.

* Don't use a lawyer that has been recommended by your developer. Find one that is independent.

* Arm yourself with as much knowledge about Spanish building and planning regulations as you can. Ask to see the urban plans at the town hall and check that the site of your property is indeed zoned for building.

* There are specific authorisations you need to make a property legal. These include the First Habitation licence, which guarantees provision of utilities; the licence granting the local authority's permission to build; and a licence from the regional government. It was this final authorisation that the Priors apparently didn't have.