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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 December 2007, 11:31 GMT
Spain bulldozes its concrete costas
By Steve Kingstone
BBC News, Spain

Marisa and John Toomey
Mr and Mrs Toomey may lose their savings if their home is demolished

Spain is reclaiming its costas by bulldozing many of the concrete tower blocks that erupted along its coastline with the influx of tourism.

In the rush to cash in, councils illegally granted planning permission that is now being revoked.

"One Sunday morning we opened the newspapers, and there it was - a double-page photograph of our building, saying it was going to be demolished," says Marisa Toomey whose retirement home is one of those affected.

It pains her to recall the saga of Banana Beach, a plush seaside development in Marbella, under threat of demolition by Andalucia's provincial government.

Mrs Toomey, who is Spanish, bought an apartment there in 2004 with her British husband John, a retired property lawyer from London.


"The documents were drawn up by two Spanish solicitors and verified by an independent notary," stresses John Toomey, producing a wad of paperwork to confirm the apparent legality of the purchase.

Only later would the couple learn that the site should never have been approved for residential use.

"We bought in good faith," explains Mr Toomey, "and we're devastated. It could not possibly happen in England - everything was totally legal and subsequently it was made illegal."

Banana Beach was one of dozens of big money construction projects approved in the 1990s.

Apartments like these in Marbella may be demolished
Huge concrete developments have sprung up along the Spanish coast

And Marbella, in turn, is just one symptom of a development malaise which has stricken the Spanish costas.

Coastal regions represent just 7% of Spain's territory and yet are home to 44% of the population.

In some communities, three-quarters of all land adjoining the coast has been urbanised, and much of the infrastructure is geared towards the 48 million tourists who annually spread their towels on Spanish sand.

"The last decade has seen the same number of new buildings as in the whole of our previous history," explains Maria Jose Caballero of Greenpeace.

"For years, people have thought they can build wherever they want along the coasts. We need to change that mentality"

Spain's left-wing government agrees, and boasts that 665 illegal structures have already been bulldozed this year.

The environment represents our future
Juan Fernandez-Ranada, coastal policy officer, Spain

A much-hyped Strategy for Coastal Sustainability pledges to put the brakes on human occupation, and to recover the coastline's natural beauty.

With an election just three months away, the plan reflects the political emergence of green issues here.

The Environment Ministry says Spain's beaches are predicted to shrink by an average of 15 metres by 2050, as a result of rising sea levels.

"The environment represents our future," says Juan Fernandez-Ranada, who implements the government's coastal policy in Malaga.

"It's important that the tourism economy works with our natural resources, as the two can be self-reinforcing."

Partially-built hotel
This partially-built hotel in Estepona has been earmarked for demolition

Indeed, the renewed emphasis on coastal preservation is itself becoming a marketing tool in a country where tourism accounts for 10% of GDP.

"Spain is trying to replace the previous development model of sun, sea, and sangria," explains Mark Stucklin, who runs the consultancy Spanish Property Insight.

"With cheaper sun holidays elsewhere in Europe, they must offer added value - meaning a natural environment, good services and tasteful infrastructure."

Over five decades mass tourism has been a driving force in the Spanish economy, transforming once-sleepy fishing villages into package resorts of mass appeal.

But for those owning a place in the sun, how threatening is the move from Viva Espana to Greener Espana?

Wholesale demolitions 'unlikely'

Many commentators believe that wholesale demolitions of holiday properties are unlikely, not least because of the scope for jurisdictional turf wars between rival branches of government.

"There's a lot of politics in play," says Mark Stucklin, "often involving rival parties which are reluctant to co-operate. There could be years of debate."

Legally, Spain's national government controls a seaside strip of precisely 106 metres, as defined by the 1988 Coastal Law.

The first 6 metres adjoining the beach are reserved for pedestrian and cycle access; while the following 100 metres are considered suitable for municipal leisure facilities, but not private homes.

We'll probably be dead by the time anyone decides to compensate us
Marisa Toomey

Technically, any property built close to a beach after 1988 could be ripe for demolition; while thousands more buildings fall foul of local and provincial planning laws, including Banana Beach in Marbella.

Madrid wants the regions and town halls to sign up to a nationwide development strategy, costing an estimated 5 billion Euros.

Unable to sell their apartment because of the threatened demolition, and sceptical about any promise of compensation, John and Marisa Toomey are already counting the cost of an ill-fated investment.

"This was for our retirement, these were our savings. It's very sad," says John, with British understatement.

His Spanish wife puts it more bluntly: "Our lawyers in Spain have said the compensation will take years and years. We'll probably be dead by the time anyone decides to compensate us."

Holiday home turns into holiday gloom
07 Jun 07 |  Northern Ireland


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