Tuesday, May 14, 2013

What happened to the dream?

The tiny village of Lliber nestles beneath the Sierra Bernia in the beautiful Jalon valley in the north Costa Blanca in Spain. To the average tourist it is an unexceptional Spanish village, typical of the region with its stone houses and narrow streets and spectacular mountain views, but behind its picture perfect fa├žade lays one of the biggest property scams in Spain. A scam that has brought unrest and disharmony to the community, has set neighbour against neighbour, ruptured friendships and families and brought financial, emotional and medical hardship to a great number of people. Until the beginning of the 21st century this sleepy little village, with a population of less than 500, had not seen an influx of incomers since the early part of the 17th century, when Majorcans were offered low rent land and houses to come to the village to replace the manpower of the vanquished Moors. Most of the current inhabitants of Lliber – and of surrounding villages – are the direct descendants of these incomers as their names and dialect suggests, and has earned the village the name Llucmajor – from the Majorcan village of the same name. Before this Lliber was occupied only by Moors. The current invasion – which in just two or three years more than doubled the population - began around the beginning of 2000. It was at a time when many northern Europeans were being seduced by the Spanish sun. Its cheaper houses and its promise of a better and cheaper lifestyle than they could have back home in Britain or Germany. It seemed to many like the ideal place to retire, to relax and to reap the benefits of the long years of work. It was also the ideal climate for fraud and its unpleasant accomplice, greed, to flourish. The stage was set for the formation and planning of a major conspiracy – and the unsuspecting buyers fell right into their trap, seduced by the promise of beautiful houses set in a stunning location. At least one of the builders advertised in a major British newspaper. Most people who chose Lliber were intelligent, professional people. Not the sort of people who one would expect to be taken in. They all thought that they had bought prudently and cautiously, with due regard to the law. It wasn’t until several years later that they realized that they had been the victims of a massive fraud involving town hall officials, builders and legal representatives. The building licences that had been obtained to build their houses proved to be worthless pieces of paper, issued to the builders by the then mayor and architect, in exchange for allegedly large sums of money. 2m euros, found by the fraud squad in Andorra, is thought to form a small part of this. Unknown to the unsuspecting buyers who had put their trust in the hands of their legal representatives, the licences were issued for the rebuilding of warehouses (whether or not they existed), on rustic land. The law states now, as it did then, that houses cannot be built on rustic land on a plot less than 10,000 square metres – all were built on smaller plots, in many cases on land owned by third parties and some on protected land. In some cases, people paid for land, houses and swimming pools, which were either not built at all, or were left incomplete. An embargo by the local police meant that people either had to complete their properties at their own expense (and at the risk of prosecution), or find alternative accommodation. It is estimated that the fraud amounts to an astounding figure of between 90m and 130m euros with more than 300 houses deemed to be illegal. In 2009 the Guardia Judicial began a long and arduous investigation and in December of that year, they arrested eighteen conspirators, who still await trial. On the back of this, and in an attempt to minimize the possible infrastructure costs and danger of their houses being demolished, one hundred and forty one people affected by the property fraud, presented themselves to the Denia court as victims. These pensioners have waited over ten years for justice. The waiting has brought untold hardship. Some people have lived without mains electricity – dependent on expensive and unreliable generators, while others, without a mains water supply, have had to have water brought in by tanker. All have struggled to understand a system that could leave them in a no man’s land of uncertainty, trapped in a situation that could not have occurred in their homelands. At least six people have died with their problems unresolved leaving their partners or families to continue the battle. Many have suffered ill health and stress as a direct result of this; all have suffered in some way or another. In January 2009, prior to the police enquiry, and in an effort to bring about some sort of resolution, a group of victims formed an association – AULN (Abusos Urbanisticos Lliber No) under the wider umbrella of the national group AUN, to support each other and to put pressure on the authorities to help them by whatever means at their disposal. This in itself has divided the community, some people choosing to stoically support the perpetrators of the crime, victimizing and harassing those who have chosen a legal and peaceful solution. Many well-earned years of retirement have been spent worrying and actively trying to solve the problems of their illegal houses. Endless hours have been taken up in long and arduous and often fruitless meetings with town hall officials. Often the language is a barrier but more often the barrier is a lack of comprehension at the perplexities of Spanish law and bureaucracy and the corruption that lurks just below the surface. They have seen two different governments occupy the Town Hall, have tried to become actively involved in the administrative process, have heard conflicting reports and solutions from the opposing political parties and still feel no further forward. The former PSOE administration who were in office for eight years, advocated that the only way forward was through a General Plan that would redraw the boundaries of the village, encompassing the illegal houses, thereby allowing them to be legalized on smaller plots. For the past two years the PP party have been in power and brought their own, different criteria to the problem. Some house owners who have until now been without mains electricity have been granted group licences to install it. While others who do have electricity – albeit on the ‘temporary’ basis of builder’s supply, are being urged to either pay out large sums of money in order to update the infrastructure or to face being disconnected. This may sound like progress but to many people who have already sunk their life savings into their dream houses in Spain, it is the straw that could break the camel’s back. All have already paid for mains services in the cost of their houses. None expected to have to find large sums for infrastructure ten years down the line. Some people will not be able to finance this. Meanwhile Spain itself struggles to survive the economic crisis that has befallen it, with 27% of the population unemployed and the figure rising to 50% of those under the age of 25. Thousands of Spanish people, unable to repay their mortgages, have been evicted from their homes, yet still face a life time of debt to the banks as a result of this. At a time when the Spanish economy needs every cent it can get, in Lliber alone, an estimated 1m euros has already been lost in local taxes, with an annual loss of somewhere in the region of 100k euros.. Multiply this by the amount of revenue lost nationwide! Their European and international image has become tarnished as successive governments fail to see the bigger picture and millions of euros are lost in petty bureaucracy. The housing market is at rock bottom as northern Europeans, traditionally their biggest customers, have lost confidence in it. Well documented corruption in the housing sector, draconian land grab laws, coastal laws and the legislation affecting foreigner’s assets all contribute to this. The Spanish government is literally biting the hands that have fed them for many years. More to the point, the human rights of many people, including those trapped in the property scam in Lliber, have been compromised by the lack of justice. As court papers fail to move from judges’ desks, 141 people in Lliber wonder which will come first – death or justice.

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