Page last updated at 00:28 GMT, Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Expats seek home help in hard times

By Chris Mason,
BBC News, Torremolinos

Trevor and Pam Champ with Mike and Ann Devonshire
Long-time visitors to Spain have seen the economy collapse before their eyes

Emigrating to Spain might help you escape the snow, wind and rain, but not the recession.

So the UK Government has despatched a minister to the Costas and is setting up advice surgeries in areas when Brits Abroad congregate.

The aim is to help struggling expats caught out by the tumbling Spanish economy, tumbling property prices and the tumbling pound.

"The value of sterling compounded by the situation in the Spanish economy means that people are feeling the pinch," Foreign Office Minister and Lincoln MP Gillian Merron admitted.

The Costa del Sol, once dubbed the 'Costa Notta Lotta,' could perhaps now be nicknamed the Costa Fortune.

Driven in the good times by a construction boom that has now gone bust and by British spending power that has now gone down, half finished apartment blocks stand as a reminder of how steep the economic downturn is here.

"Not even the buses are as full as they used to be," Pam Champ, 65, from Rickmansworth in Hertfordshire said.

She and her husband Trevor, 64, and another couple, Mike and Ann Devonshire, are here together on holiday.

The Cosy Nook
Businesses in Torremolinos are described as "struggling like hell"

They visit the resort every February and have been coming here for 22 years.

"There used to use bendy buses but they don't need them now," Mrs Devonshire, 70, added. "Smaller ones have enough space."

At more than 14 percent, the Spanish unemployment rate is by far the highest in the European Union, added to which is the sterling-euro exchange rate.

Some British expats and tourists have been paying almost one pound per euro - a slump in sterling's value of around a third in a year.

Dave Walton, 68, from Morecambe in Lancashire, might have looked at ease sipping his lunchtime coffee in the Cosy Nook on the seafront, but he was all too aware of the changes brought about by recession.

"I've been coming to Torremolinos since 1980," he said.

"But since then, prices have gone up six fold. We're here for three months of the year - but next year it'll be a month max."

'Tea to share'

The seaside cafe does a brisk lunchtime trade. English breakfasts and that day's special, homemade cauliflower and broccoli bake, prove particularly popular.

Paul Wills, 50, who runs the Nook, said: "I pride myself on having very good return trade.

"We need it. A lot of businesses here are struggling like hell. We have got to offer value for money.

"Even with our prices one couple the other day asked for a cream tea to share!"

Gillian Merron
You buy a dream but we all know that dreams are underpinned by realities
Gillian Merron

Holidaymakers might be losing their luxuries, but expats are losing their livelihoods.

Businesses are faltering and those reliant on UK-based pensions have seen their retirement pot shrink.

Charities say there is even an increased demand for food parcels for elderly Brits in Spain.

Jean Smith, 83, moved to the Costa del Sol 26 years ago. She lives in Torreblanca and is struggling.

"We have just had a 15 percent increase in electricity prices. I have to be very careful," she said.

"Our houses are cold. We haven't got central heating. Most of us have only got heating in one room.

"So you have got a warm sitting room, but you go out to a cold kitchen, bedroom and bathroom. And I mean cold.

"I sit with a blanket, I don't put my heating on until 5 o'clock in the evening at the earliest. I can't afford it."

Expats believe that as they paid their taxes when they lived and worked in the UK they should be treated the same as British pensioners back home.

But others argue those who give up Britain should realise they are giving up their benefit rights too.

'No guarantee'

The government has to find a middle ground, so while housing benefit is not available to expats, some are entitled to the Winter Fuel Payment - despite the fact it is 20 degrees Celsius in the middle of February.

Pensioners who collected it before they left can continue to claim when they are here, but it won't go up as it does as people get older in the UK, and those who moved here before they were 60 don't get it at all.

"What we have never guaranteed and can't guarantee is that if people choose to move to another country that everything will be exactly the same. We can't make that guarantee," the minister, Gillian Merron, says.

"You buy a dream but we all know that dreams are underpinned by realities.

"You also need to think, 'life happens, I may get ill, I may lose my mobility, my partner might die, how will it be for me in Spain?' Because it is not the same country as the UK."

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