Interview: Mayor, CA
1) Irrespective of which political party was in power in the precise moment, does it not seem to you that for the residents of Almuñécar in general, or one of the house owners in particular, this controversy is just one more case of where residents have to pay the price for the constant inter-party fighting in the municipality, province and region?
Mayor: I don’t think so. There is a court ruling that says that the building licence granted by the then Mayor, Sr. González Montoro, backed by the PSOE is a licence that was granted outside the limits of the standing Urban Development Plan and therefore the licence was annulled and the demolition of these dwellings ordered. It is not a question of inter-party discord or ideological disagreement. The first ‘denuncia’ was placed by neighbours and the second was placed by the Junta de Andalucía. There was quite a strong opposition by these neighbours because a green-belt area was going to be built on. In the plenary meeting of the council we voted against the motion to grant the licence. What we have here are property owners, who have had nothing to do with the decisions taken, who are victims of a …strange… situation between the building developer and the governing council.
PSOE: The subject of the 51 dwellings is not a case of political confrontation. This is something different, I believe, so I will try to define the problem. When that project was presented, there was a report from the Municipal Surveyor that said that the project could be carried out by submitting a detailed study and exchanging building metres for green-belt metres. So, the project included a green-zone comprising of a gardened area for the housing, thus permitting a greater area to be built upon than in the original project. It was the Municipal Surveyor that said that this was the correct procedure but now the law courts says that it was not. Therefore, the building licence has to be adjusted to the correct conditions/format. As far as I am concerned it is the Municipal Surveyor who has made the mistake. I, as a politician, have to base my decisions on the Municipal Surveyor’s reports and on the legal advice from the Town Hall legal department. If both say that the project is correct and legal, I have no basis to refuse a building licence. If I didn’t approve it, then the building developer could sue me. It’s not me saying now that the Municipal Surveyor’s report was inadequate and erroneous, but the judge who has said it.
What must be done is to adjust the project to what is legally permissible and then ‘adjust’ the urbanisation to this criterion. Nowhere does the judge say that the houses have to be demolished.
PP: Undoubtedly, the owners of the dwellings affected by the court decision are the greatest victims, as without knowing anything about what had been happening they find themselves floundering in this problem. Bearing this in mind, I believe that every political party should be attempting to solve this problem, joining forces and living up to our position as representatives of our citizens.
The licence for Los Pinos has been declared null and void, although it received favourable reports from the Municipal Surveyor, accompanied by all the requisite paperwork to change the site of the private green zone contained. The politicians, in this case, have limited themselves to approving the project that had received favourable technical reports, and if they had not approved the project, they could have been taken to court by the building developer.
The ‘political battle’ should be more respectful and it is lamentable that the only victims are normal citizens. Many times, when we are in power, we forget that we are the government for everybody and not only those that share our political views. When we learn this, everything will be a lot easier.
IU: The Los Pinos Affair is an example of the absurdity of how urban development speculation is understood, and in the end, it is the resident that cops the bill. All those politicians and technical functionaries in the Town Hall involved in the scandal should have resigned.
The parties that took part in the approval of the plan and the granting of the building licence are giving more importance to partisan debate, whereas in this case in particular, we are not facing a battle between battles but a solidly based judicial decision which reflects that it was wrong to allow more to be built than the PGOU permitted.
2) Since the Town Hall is the highest municipal representative and since one of its functions is to look after the interests of its residents, do you consider that, as far as the Almuñequeros are concerned, it is the Town Hall, as an entity, that has failed them, more than any political party in particular?
Mayor: Well the reality of the situation is that the Town Hall is governed by an elected council but the responsibility belongs to the institution and for that reason we are doing all we can to help, looking for a solution, despite the fact that we voted against the granting of the said building licence, so that 51 property owners who bought their dwellings in good faith do not have to face a demolition order.
PSOE: I believe that when confronting an urban development irregularity – let’s say irregular even though it isn’t – we must demand that somebody takes responsibility for it. If it is a politician, then he must shoulder the responsibility. If it is a public functionary [Municipal Surveyor, for example] then he should shoulder the blame. What I think is completely unjust is that a citizen has to pay for it. I have defended this posture in the plenary meetings, within my party and on other levels. I think that it is totally unfair that a person, who buys a house, paying for his deeds and to register it in the Land Registry, finds himself in this mess. But this is not the only case where this kind of thing happens – there have been many [Here he lists other cases]. Strangely enough, it is always the same functionary in each case, but there he remains, with the blessing of those that are in power. The Municipal Surveyor has a lawsuit out against him, at this very moment, over his own house! I don’t know whether he is guilty as accused but when you are before the judge over your own house… but one thing is for sure; if a judge accepts a lawsuit, it is because he has seen something that he considers has broken the law.
PP: I believe, in this case, it is not necessary to look for the culpable, as the Town Hall did what they did in conformity with strict legality, because, as I said before, all the technical reports were favourable. Building legislation can be interpreted in many ways and all of them can be legal.
IU: This is true. Political parties change, the Councillors change but the Town Hall is an institution that should be guarding against illegalities and looking after the welfare of our residents. In this particular case, and in many others, the Town Hall has not lived up to its responsibilities. Not before, when they were drawing up the plan and its approval for the development of Los Pinos, nor now, because they have left the residents almost defenceless in a situation where they, the house owners, are the only ones free from guilt. The court ruling is not against the house owners, but against the Town Hall that granted the licences, when they should not have done it. It’s not right that the Mayor should say to these people that they should start looking for a good lawyer.
It’s strange that the Mayor and his party did not vote in favour of the project. That means if there is any logic behind their negative votes, they must have seen something wrong with the project. Therefore, the Mayor should explain what he saw that made him vote against it. It is incomprehensible that the Mayor does not take the Municipal Surveyor to task over those projects that he saw something wrong in, and which the judge saw as illegal.
3) Does the Los Pinos incident destroy the trust of potential buyers, making them hold back when considering purchasing a property here?
Mayor: Yes, but this is a general problem all over Spain and in Andalucía in particular, because the anomalous situations occur: The first is that the reactions from the Junta are always tardy. You see, whenever a municipality grants a building licence, it has to inform the Junta of the details within three days of granting it. But when the Junta rejects one, it doesn’t surface right away but one or two years down the line, when the building concerned is already finished and has an owner who is unaware of the problem.
The second anomaly is that in this country, the legal system is very slow so that we get a case like this where a negative court ruling surfaces years after the licence was granted. Both these points generate distrust and all because the Junta reacts very slowly, taking the affair to court and then the legal system moves so slowly, too.
PSOE: Sure, it’s true that cases like this one, or the Carmenes del Mar one, generate concern on the part of somebody looking to buy here and therefore such situations should be avoided. I have proposed in Plenary Meetings of the Council, on repeated occasions, that the technical functionaries should be rigorous in their work and in the case of doubt, they should ask. It’s like when you go to the doctor and he is not sure, he sends you to a specialist for his opinion. So, what’s the problem with consulting the Provincial Commission for Urban Development? Sometimes it’s just not clear, so ask for advice and that way you avoid this sort of problem.
PP: It is true that the Junta de Andalucía, which is ruled by the socialists with an absolute majority, almost as a matter of course, rejects every project that comes out of this municipality, which creates a judicial insecurity that does little to favour the development and economy of Almuñécar and La Herradura. This is the case even with things as basic as a declaration of Almuñécar as a Tourist Municipality, the building of a shopping centre, the construction of a new law court, etc, etc. These things have been requested for many years but they will not authorise them.
But to answer in a more specific way, we consider that the Los Pinos Affair is an isolated affair and unique and should not destroy the trust of investors in this municipality. This town is unique in Europe for its climate and beauty, so, on the contrary, they [investors] should invest and trust the town because there does not exist, nor ever has, an affair like this one. For this reason, from the Partido Popular, we ask people to remain calm, not to worry and have no qualms about investing here when they buy their properties, having full confidence in their purchase.
IU: The Los Pinos Affair is just one more example of how they are ‘killing the goose that lays the golden eggs,’ when they try to make more money than is reasonably possible. When somebody decides to buy a property, the first thing that they ask for is ‘seriousness/earnestness,’ that the property should be dependable, have good quality, that the seller be honest… that they’re not going to sell them ‘cat as hare.’[rip them off]. If a possible purchaser sees that one time after another a particular town hits the headlines over illegal building licences, urban development plans and illegally built dwellings in general… well it is logical that he will hold back. Too many times purchasers have been saddled with illegal properties and have not been able to sell them. It is not just a problem in Almuñécar, of course; in many townships there are similar cases, but that is no consolation. Almuñécar still has a lot going for it, but this ‘rosary’ of court cases will act as a brake for future buyers.
4) What must be done to prevent another Los Pinos incident occurring again?
Mayor: Well, the first thing, obviously, is not to ‘push’ the interpretation of the building norms, thus twisting them. Because if on the plot there is a green-belt zone, as well as the building zone, then don’t build on the green zone. Much less, when over a hundred objections were submitted by the neighbours, who, by the way, announced that if the Town Hall went ahead and granted the licence, then they would take legal action. But besides this, there can always be differences in how the municipal and Junta surveyors interpret the building norms. The majority of these differences of interpretation have been settled in favour of the town, although some have not.
But anyway, what we have been doing is sending the project to the Junta before granting a licence, asking before hand if there could be a problem, and do you know what the Junta does? It tells us that it won’t be responding and will only give their opinion once the licence arrives on their desk. This is how cases like Los Pinos occur a few years down the line.
PSOE: (This question was answered within the answer to the previous question.)
PP: In the first place, the Junta, which is governed by the socialists, should have a unanimous criteria for every municipality in Andalucía because we consider that the Junta is partisan and sectarian, because they don’t use the same standards for the municipality governed by their party, as they do for those that are governed by other political formations, thus creating comparative injustices.
In the second place, we consider that the judicial procedure should be faster and more efficient so as to avoid great elapses of time before there is a final judicial finding and thus avoid the suffering of citizens who have nothing to do with the ‘inter-party struggles.’
Thirdly, it should be obligatory for the Land Registry to keep a note of every property that has legal proceedings against it, so that potential purchasers should have full knowledge of whether a property has problems.
IU: The only way to do it is to obey the law and stick to what is legal. When Los Pinos was approved there were two neighbour communities that presented objections to the granting of a possible licence. And they were right, as time has proved. Therefore, it was not only the Junta de Andalucía that took the affair to court, when the planners decided to include green metres within their building project.
To stop this sort of thing happening from now on, you have to start listening to the registered objections from neighbours and the opposition groups. It has become a habit here to respond to neighbour objections in a rude manner.
I’m not saying that the Junta is always right, but when technical functionaries, who are not directly involved with the project, raise objections in Sevilla, you should listen instead of plunging ahead with a policy of ‘fait accompli.’ Perhaps a project should be put on hold when there are objections from other administrations; it could cause other problems, but it would reassure prospective buyers.
5) Is it logical that green-belt land, be it of private or public ownership, can be swapped for building land? And is it legal?
Mayor: Yes, it is legal, although not in the case of public green-belt land. There are bureaucratic procedures to be followed, which is precisely what didn’t happen in this particular case. The Town Hall at the time did carry out a feasibility study but what they should have done was submit a modification of the standing Urban Development Plan. The fact is that times and necessities change and the PGOU is flexible enough to allow changes. I, personally, am against our green-zones dwindling.
PSOE: How I see it, is when you write up a development plan for an area, you include a building volume and an open-space volume. You need to set aside an open-space volume because the people who are going to live there need this sort of leisure space. I, therefore, make two observations: private open-space, which is obligatory when a project is drawn up [a block of flats should have a community garden space, for example] should be ensured and maintained. Unfortunately, the majority of such areas in Almuñécar are in a lamentable state because nobody looks after them. The Town Hall has the responsibility to make sure that they do. In the second place, when the project is being drawn up, the developers might decide that the open space can be moved within an urbanisación, but what they cannot do is make it disappear. So there are legal ways to do it, but the procedure must be followed. I think that there should be more dialogue between administrations and less confrontation. The Mayor says that every time that he is taken to court by the Junta over urban development matters he wins, but it is not a case of winning or not, because building developers are just going to turn round one day and say, count me out.
PP: Private green-belt areas figure in the 1987 PGOU, which is the Urban Development Plan in force at the moment. This establishes that with a private building plot a few metres of ‘green’ should be respected [i.e., you can’t build on 100% of the plot] Via an estudio de detalle, you can re-site a green space, as long as you respect its volume. [i.e., respect its total meterage and do not reduce it.] This is what happened in the case of Los Pinos [the green zone was moved but not reduced in area] and has been carried out on many occasions in Almuñécar and La Herradura and it has never caused any problems nor been declared judicially null and void. This is the only time that it has happened.
Summing up, we in the Partido Popular consider that the aforementioned dwellings were legal and confirmed with the law, counting on the required favourable technical surveys and that for this reason the Town Hall could only award the building licence, having no grounds to deny it.
IU: Of course it is not logical. In fact, this affects the standard of living of citizens in general. When it is a estudio en detalle (detailed study), which is the preferred device when getting up to unsavoury urban development moves, they measure green areas when calculating available building metres, or they place zonas verdes in places where it is impractical to have them. When they do this, they are stealing from the residents because green zones are for everybody to enjoy. A city without green spaces is an inhospitable one, so when they carry out this kind of deceit in order to build more or bigger dwellings; they are cheating the man on the street.
These sorts of things are possible with the complicity of technical functionaries who provide the favourable reports for the politicians to approve the projects. Therefore, how can the Mayor maintain in his post the Municipal Surveyor? Councillors come and go with the elections but the same Municipal Surveyor remains and has done so for more than 20 years.