Land grab: taking the fight to the top

26th October 2004, Comments 0 comments

Campaigners fighting Spain's notorious land-grab law are putting on the pressure. As we report, ambassadors from 17 European countries have written a formal letter to Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero demanding action.

It is an old Spanish joke, but they say at election time you should simply miss out the politician and vote for the property developer.

Charles Svoboda (left) and Roy Perry MEP, chairman of the EU petitions committee

So far, the property developers appear to have the upper-hand in a long-running battle over Spain's so-called land-grab law.

But campaigners, who still have some faith in Spanish politicians, took their fight to the top, with a formal letter from ambassadors from 17 European countries to prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

The letter demanded Zapatero take a stand to reform this law, which was condemned in July in a highly-critical report by MEPs.

The letter came from ambassadors from Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia, Sweden and United Kingdom.

It read: "We are writing to you to seek your help in the possible reform of the "Ley Reguladora de la Actividad Urbanística" No. 6/94 (LRAU) of the Valencian government.  This law is affecting a considerable number of our citizens, as well as Spanish nationals.

"The apparent abuse of legality is under scrutiny by members of the European Parliament and the media in numerous Member States.

"This fact could have negative consequences on the reputation of Spain in general, and of Valencia in particular, as a risk-free place to invest in property.

Urbanisations are being built on the 'confiscated' land

"The harmful application of the LRAU has a number of different aspects.  It affects the protection of the right to property, to be informed properly and to be heard, to have recourse to justice and to obtain fair compensation."

So far, Zapatero has yet to respond.

But campaigners are hopeful that the Spanish government cannot simply ignore the problem any longer.

Charles Svoboda heads the campaign against the land-grab law, which supporters claim has robbed thousands of householders across Spain — both expats and Spaniards — of their properties.

"I think this letter is going to rattle a few cages and will bring a lot more support at the level of the European Parliament," says Svoboda.

"They have gone for the head honcho here who cannot ignore a letter of this kind."

Abusos-Urabnisticos-No (No to Urban Abuses), the campaign against the land-grab law, 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, from Andalusia in the south to Catalonia, in the north-east.

The report by 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 serious abuse of the most elementary rights of many thousands of European citizens by design or deceit."

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.

Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero

This is permitted under the Urban Planning Regulation Law (LRAU), which allows land to be confiscated in order to "urbanise" rural areas by adding infrastructure like roads, lighting, water pipes and sewerage.

Often homeowners have these new "facilities" already – or do not want them. When homeowners cannot pay, they are sometimes forced to sell up.

Local councils reclassify land as urban as opposed to rural and building restrictions are lifted. On occasions threats have been accompanied orders to hand over land.

But Svoboda is poised to announce Friday a British law firm will represent victims who are to take their test cases to the European Court of Human Rights.

These cases will claim the Valencian government and the developers have failed to respect their basic right to property.

Svoboda says: "Once they accept these cases, they are saying there is a case to answer and I believe we will win."

He also claims British expats who are faced with the threat of becoming a victim of land-grab can claim legal aid from their government.

And Svoboda is in talks with an insurance company, with an "international reputation", is poised to offer homebuyers insurance against land-grab for the first time, giving them some financial backing if they are targeted by developers.

Ironically, the urban planning law was originally intended to crack down on speculators who were holding onto pieces of undeveloped land in the hope the land could be sold later at a higher price.

Its many critics claim the law has been abused by ruthless developers who often buy cheap, undeveloped rural land which gives them more than 50 percent ownership of an area designated for urbanisation; the rest is made up of other people's homes.

Developers then submit an infrastructure plan to the council that receives quick approval as they tell a council there is majority backing for the project – the "majority" is often the developer and few, if any, other owners.

The council then changes the status of the area to collect more taxes from newly "urbanised" residents.

The Valencian government was to reform the existing law but this has been delayed until November.

But campaigners claim this will offer few real safeguards to homeowners.

Of course, developers claim homeowners simply do not want to pay for infrastructure and are always consulted if an area is to be "urbanised".


October 2004

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Subject: Land-grab law; Living in Spain

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