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Cost of the Lanzarote coastline

Friday November 24, 2006

Penelope Farmer

My partner and I went to a meeting at six o'clock one recent Saturday in a seaside village that islanders, Spaniards and tourists love. They come to sit by the sea, eat gambas al ajillo, or papas arrugados with mojos. It is not a tourist resort, despite the restaurants, just a nice ? very nice ? little white-washed village, parked on a black volcanic coast, backed by volcanoes and lava fields. The meeting was for the vecinos ? a Spanish word hard to translate exactly ? literally ?neighbours? but also community, or householders.

Most of the vecinos are islanders, apart from a Norwegian couple, the odd German and my partner. At the end of July this year all of them received a letter from the Spanish Ministry for Costas (coasts) saying that under the Ley de Costas, a law passed in 1988 but not enforced until recently, their property does not belong to them. The law states that except in areas classified as urban the whole foreshore within 100 metres of the sea belongs to the Spanish government, and should be clear of buildings.

If the authorities enforce the law, this village could cease to exist. Hence the meeting, taking place in a marquee put up for the next weekend's fiesta ? local life carrying on, no matter what. Alongside the organiser, collecting proofs of residence, etc, sat another, canny village woman selling fiesta raffle tickets to her conveniently assembled neighbours.

It was a perfect evening. Not a vecino myself, I sat in the sun with a glass of wine watching the chefs at their twice-daily chore of gutting fish ? hungry seagulls in attendance ? watching people arrive for the meeting, old and young, restauranteurs, householders, in holiday gear. Even the notary turned up in an open-necked shirt and jeans.

The vecinos came to prove their identities, and the notary came to notarise their signatures on the appeal to the parliament in Madrid, requesting that the houses and businesses should remain in the hands of the people who bought them, or who had built them, in good faith, all with the approval of the local town hall, despite the law passed in 1988.

Though it was his town hall that issued the approvals and failed to pre-empt the problem by designating the village an ?urbanisation? in a timely fashion, the local mayor took two months from the issue of the notices to come to the aid of the vecinos. Mindful, no doubt, that there are elections next year, he has now provided his tame lawyer to act for free and to legitimise the appeal to Madrid. People were also heartened by the recent visit of the Spanish minister for the environment, who reassured them that their rights as householders would be attended to.

We were heartened too, at first. But we had dinner with a man who has lived on the island for 30 years and has contacts all over it, political and otherwise. He said that the environment minister knew nothing about the matter, that her reassurances were hot air. He produced a leaked document setting out the orders against the vecinos and listing previous appeals on similar grounds, every one of them rejected. The law is the law, said this Mr Jonah; to alter matters here, the law would have to be repealed. It won't be.

At best there are years of legal wrangling ahead, making property unsaleable. At worst it is all indeed owned by the government as of now, and so worth nothing.

Far from offering compensation, the government will very kindly let the ex-owners stay in the property they thought they owned for up to 30 years ? and charge them rent for doing so. No, I am not joking. The final resort of course is the European court of human rights. But before then every other line of appeal would have to be exhausted. It would cost millions. And none of the people here are rich.

This village is the first to be jumped on. But every other coastal village on the island is under threat. Each is the kind of village that the choosier tourists and expatriates retreat to in preference to the three resorts. The resorts, of course, designated urban, are safe enough. They can abut their casinos, Krazy Golf, McDonald?s and Irish pubs hard up against the beach. For them, anything goes ? and how it goes. Back from the shore, the resort in the same municipality as El Golfo has doubled in size since I arrived in 2001, despite embargos on new development, and despite much of the area's designation as rural.

The mayor's solution? Reclassify the land as urban. He lines his pockets, of course, in the process; that's what mayors on this island do. (According to Mr Jonah, the corruption in Marbella is nothing by comparison. But that is another story.)

Now don?t get me wrong. The Ley de Costas was and is a good law, designed to confront the wrecking of the Spanish coastline ? no one who has visited the Costa del Sol could object to that. It has benefited this island. It blocked a development likely to decimate wildlife on its only salt flats. It ordered the demolition of the hideous hotel, loathed by all, squatting above Lanzarote?s most beautiful beaches and almost twice the size permitted by the dodgy (not to say illegal) licence handed out to its Valencian developers by the above mayor.

The problem is that despite the fines paid by those responsible, despite their enforced contribution to the demolition, it will cost taxpayers, local and national, at least ?20m, and the authorities may well balk in the end. It costs much less to knock down the harmless and pretty villages ? even though they are not and should not be the law?s primary target. It costs even less if the householders are charged for living in their own houses for up to 30 years.

There are odd chinks of light. Mr Jonah has activated the local MP, who will shortly be asking questions in the Spanish parliament. There is some suggestion that in this case the demarcation will be set only 20 metres from the sea, not the full 100 metres. But this still leaves a group of people deprived of their property ? of their rights, you could say. And all the other villages? Let us see.

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