Some can say little more than ‘favor’, but British families are now settling in Spain’s villages in record numbers, reports JASON BURKE
The white Andalucian sun beats down on the red earth of the fields, on the dusty grey-green leaves of olive trees, on the white-walled churches – and on Mark Thompson, 34, a builder from Newcastle who has just unlocked the door to his new home.
An hour earlier Thompson picked up the keys from a busy estate agent’s and drove across the bone-dry, flat land of southern Spain to the tiny village of Palenciana, population 2,500 and until recently shrinking fast. He parks his Renault Clio and looks around proudly. Behind the house, a donkey brays mournfully. ‘Magic,’ he says. ‘Magic.’
Palenciana is 70 miles and a world away from the beaches and high-rises of the Mediterranean coast. With its cobbled streets, shuttered houses, tractors and old ladies in black sitting on stools in the shade, it is very much the campo, not the Costa del Sol. Yet it, and Thompson, are part of a massive new wave of immigration that is putting tens of thousands of young Britons – and often their families – into villages in remote parts of Spain. Thompson, tattooed and sunburnt, expects to be joined by his partner and 13-year-old daughter soon.
The days when it was just the old hoping to soak up the sun or criminals on the run who headed for Spain are gone. The most recent official figures list 208,523 foreign residents in Andalucia, of whom the vast majority are British, double the total of five years ago. Most of the new arrivals are between 30 and 50.
Because only a fraction of immigrants register with local authorities, the true number of Britons heading to Spain to live is thought to be much, much higher. According to Foreign Office estimates, there are now more than 675,000 UK citizens living in the country, mainly along the southern and eastern Mediterranean coasts, and new tax laws that allow higher tax earners to buy second homes as part of their pensions, to come into force next April, coupled with a rapid expansion in cheap flights, are thought likely to spur a new flood of migrants.
In and around Malaga, heartland of the Costa del Sol, the local English-language paper, Sur in English, has increased its print run to 60,000 – and sells out. Once the newspaper was just read on the coast. Now, according to Liz Parry, the editor, copies are trucked far inland ‘to the oddest places in the back of beyond’. The profile of the readers has changed, dropping about 20 years in age. The paper is full of ideas of things to do with children.
In some areas, the newcomers have been welcomed for bringing life to agricultural communities that have become stripped of young people and economic activity. In others, the influx has led to social tensions, anger and massive pressure on space and resources.
There are few complaints in the village of Comares, high in the hills behind Malaga. There the 425 registered foreigners are credited with keeping the village alive. ‘So many people were leaving that the school was half empty. Now all the classrooms are full,’ said Inmaculada Gutierrez, an assistant to the mayor.
In the village of Arboleas, a three-hour drive into the mountains from Malaga, the story is the same. British immigrants make up a quarter of pupils at the school. Carl Shears, a 40-year-old former manager for a fitness company in the UK who moved in 18 months ago, said that the newcomers had ‘reinvented the lives of people here. This is rural Spain. All the young people were leaving. They had the TV and internet and suddenly farming olives didn’t seem so attractive any more’.
Neither are many newcomers as insular as previous migrants. Felipe Plaza Cabrera, an architect in Alhaurin, said that even in his own conservative town the newcomers had fitted in well. In nearby Competa, Maria Kupers, a long-term Dutch-born resident, said that if it wasn’t for the new arrivals’, mainly between 30 and 50, the village would have ‘died’ and its cultural traditions with it.
‘It’s foreigners who have set up art exhibitions, opened pottery and ceramics shops, organised concerts and music nights in the bars,’ said Kupers, who has been elected to the district council.
Yet the huge influx has not always been so well received. In La Viñuela valley, 50 miles northeast of Malaga, the population has risen by a factor of eight or nine in the past five years, according to a local resident. Hundreds of new houses, many built illegally, perch on pristine hillsides above a beautiful lake. Some have been built carefully with due concern for local style, providing much-needed employment and boosting the local economy, but others have been constructed with little respect for the environment. And among the new permanent inhabitants are those who show no interest in integrating.
These are dubbed the ‘por favores’ because, despite living in Spain for years, their language skills run to por favor, but little more – if indeed they bother to say ‘please’ at all. In one village a group of five British families has recently angered Spanish neighbours by drinking, brawling and swearing in the streets.
‘The atmosphere there is very bad,’ a resident said. ‘The British are not welcome any more.’ Another local described how the fiesta, where traditionally the local town hall provides free wine, beer and paella, had been overrun by ‘British men in their fifties getting plastered’.
One problem has been a shortage of water, caused both by the recent drought and the huge demands of the new housing developments with golf courses and swimming pools. And corruption in local councils has meant that many homes owned by the British are built on protected land. Last week dozens of UK homeowners in Alicante on the Costa Blanca were told that their houses might be demolished and a crackdown in the summer on the Costa del Sol has led to 73 arrests and the demolition of scores of properties. In one small district alone, nearly 3,000 cases are being investigated and a long-running investigation into an alleged money-laundering scheme has led to further problems for some homeowners in the Marbella area.
The pressure on schools reveals the nature of both the por favores – and their more culturally open counterparts. Previously, British migrants would sell up in the UK, buy in Spain and have enough left over to put children into fee-paying international schools, said Eve Browne, advertising manager of Sur in English. ‘Often you end up with the children being perfectly integrated, speaking fluent Spanish, while the parents know nothing.’
There is also pressure on local health systems. ‘No one goes home now to be treated by the NHS,’ said another resident.
Many new migrants are driven out of the UK by property prices. Thompson, Palenciana’s newest arrival, said he simply could not afford Britain any longer. He paid £70,000 for his new dwelling, a shell of a small townhouse that has been used as a warehouse.
‘Even in Newcastle you can’t buy a decent property for that any more,’ he said. ‘The views are fantastic, there are 320 days of sunshine, schools and everything. It makes sense.’
But he revealed other reasons for leaving the UK, widely shared among the expatriate community: ‘England just is not English any more.’
Thomson picked up the keys for his house from the Inland Andalucia estate agency in the small market town of Mollina. The agency, according to Amelia Chacon, the manager, concludes two or three sales or long-term lets every day. Mollina itself, despite its relatively isolated location, has a thriving British community, some of whom live in a large trailer park on the outskirts of the town. The new immigrants are served by several bars, a shop selling English newspapers and books, a Chinese takeaway and an Indian restaurant. Many appear dedicated to preserving a bizarre vision of a ‘Britain of yesteryear’, one with no crime, cheap property – and no one who is not white.
In one Mollina bar, late one afternoon last week, as the Spanish owner served Britons with beers at just over €1 (66p) a glass, Raymond Timms said how he and his wife had sold up in Devon. They had arrived in Spain a week previously to take possession of a nearby house. ‘I am not racist …’ began Timms, 62, before correcting himself. ‘Actually I am racist. Britain has gone to the dogs. There’s just too many foreigners. They’re all coming in from Somalia, Czechoslovakia and Bangladesh. It’s all wrong.’
‘There are so many immigrants, it’s black Britain now,’ said Jay, his Irish-born 52-year-old wife.
What is clear is that more and more Britons are heading for Spain. Property developers talk of a 20 per cent year-on-year rise for the foreseeable future – with prices rising even faster.
As for Thompson, he is determined to make a success of life in Spain and to integrate as much as he can. He bought a Teach Yourself Spanish course before leaving Britain. ‘You’ve got to learn the language,’ he said. ‘As they say, when in Rome, do as the Romans do.’