Could thousands more face 'land-grab' nightmare?
Thousands of expats who faced losing their properties to the "land-grab" law thought the tide had turned after a highly-critical EU report. But now it seems a change in the law could mean many thousands more could face the same legal nightmare.Retired businessman Peter Cooke and his wife Eileen count themselves lucky.
Their three-bedroom villa in Javea, near Alicante, in south-east Spain, needed GBP 40,000-worth (EUR 58,000) of extra work before they could realise their dream of spending half the year in the Costa Blanca sun and the rest of their time in their native Britain.
Now it seems they face the prospect of being ordered to pay EUR 16,000 for "amenities" they neither need nor want.
They are among the latest victims of the Valencian government's so-called land-grab law.
If the local council in Javea is successful, the bill for providing street lighting and sewage pipes will eat into their savings. But the Cookes, from Cheshire, north-west England, will not be forced to sell up.
This prospect faces others, some of whom have been plunged into depression and despair. Many are seeing doctors, seeking help for the stress they feel they are under.
When they moved to Spain they thought they could savour the retirement for which they had worked so hard or enjoy a more relaxed atmosphere.
"We will fight this all the way," says Peter Cooke, the retired head of a family insurance firm. "We invested money here so we thought we could enjoy it. We didn't think there would be any more demands."
"But at the end of the day, if we have to pay we will. It will eat into our savings, but no, we will not have to sell. Others may not be so lucky."
Charles Svoboda heads a campaign against the so-called "land-grab law", which, supporters claim, has robbed thousands of householders across Spain — both expats and Spaniards — of their properties.
Abusos-Urbanisticos-No (No to Urban Abuses) is fighting the regional government in Valencia, eastern Spain, which introduced the law ten years ago. The campaign has spread as other regional authorities have introduced versions of the same legislation.
In July, campaigners believed they had won the first round in their protracted campaign to win the back life savings of thousands of expats who lost out to unscrupulous developers who exploited the law.
A highly-critical report by a group of MEPs to the European Parliament attacked "serious abuses" committed under the terms of what it called this "surrealistic" law.
Detailing the experiences of scores of "victims", the report said: "The law has led to a serious abuse of the most elementary rights of many thousands of European citizens by design or deceit."
Charles Svoboda heads a campaign against the law
Campaigners have also launched a lawsuit in Valencia to recover lost money and may take their cases to the European Court of Justice.
The law not only allows developers to expropriate part of an owner's land or
house, but also means that they can, in effect, charge them for doing so.
The "land grab," as the practice has come to be known, is permitted under the Urban Planning Regulation Law, or LRAU, to use its Spanish acronym.
The law allows land to be confiscated in order to "urbanise" rural areas by adding infrastructure like roads, lighting, water pipes and sewerage.
Threats have, on occasions, accompanied orders to hand over land, whose status is changed by town halls which lift building restrictions by reclassifying rural land as urban.
But Svoboda, a former head of the Canadian intelligence service, believes home-owners may face a new threat.
"They are considering changing the law so that local councils, instead of the Valencian government, could grant permissions to developers to "urbanise" and area," says Svoboda.
"The idea of this law is it would preserve coastal areas and develop inland ones. It is only being considered but it would mean that all these small councils decide to urbanize areas. This could be the next story."
Svoboda is currently preparing "test cases" to send to the European Court of Human Rights, claiming that the Valencian government and the developers have not respected the victims' right to private property.
"This right to property is considered a basic right under the charter of human rights, but it is not a right in the Spanish Constitution," he said.
Roger Ranger, 64, a retired printer from Brighton who lives with his wife Pauline in Javea, on the Costa Blanca, leads the protest group of which the Cookes are members.
They are to appeal demands for urbanisation in Javea which will affect up to 350 homes.
In one street, only private homes on the right-hand side face demands. Those unsold homes on the left-hand side, claims Ranger, do not face any demands because they are owned by a British-based developer which is "in cahoots" with the developer who is carrying out the urbanisation.
"People here face bills of between EUR 16,000 and EUR 28,000 for work they do not need," says Ranger. "We already have septic tanks and lighting for each house, so we don't need the amenities they say we must pay for.
"There is a lot of anger here. Many people want to demonstrate at the council. We are currently preparing our appeals and we are going to win."
The urban planning law was originally passed to crack down on speculators who were holding onto pieces of undeveloped land in the hope that the land which they would sell on later at a higher price.
But, critics claim, it has been abused by ruthless developers who often buy cheap, undeveloped rural land that gives them more than 50 percent ownership of a sector designated for urbanisation, the remainder of which comprises other people's homes.
They then submit an infrastructure plan to the council that receives quick approval because they can accurately tell the town hall that there is majority consent for the project — the majority being the developer and few, if any, other owners.
Campaigners claim councils support developers because it means the likes of the Rangers and the Cookes pay for the urbanisation.
Councils then can collect more taxes from their newly 'urbanised' taxpayers.
The Valencian government has presented a draft of changes to the law, due to be passed in October.
But campaigners claim that although it would give more time to appeal, its terms are much more complicated and it amounts to the same law.
Most developers claim owners simply do not want to pay for infrastructure and they are never "ambushed" without being consulted.
Manuel Latorre Hernández, head of urban planning for the Valencia regional government, does accept homeowners have encountered difficulties.
But he claimed in general it was "good law" and improved the areas where it had been applied.
For those affected
Abusos Urbanisticos-No (No Urban Abuses)
The group has been campaigning against the so-called 'land-grab' law. The group, whose president is Charles Svoboda, is made up of both expats and Spaniards. See www.abusos-no.org
Subject: Land-grab law, Living in Spain