Across Spain the mayor/property-developer relationship has become infamous – but what happened in Alhama? As Lisa Tilley discovers, allegations that the mayor of the town allowed a property developer to set up an office in the town hall have still not been investigated
IT is a time-honoured romance; they talk, they go out for dinner, there are whispered secrets and envelopes exchanged, and thousands of column inches across Spain are dedicated to charting the movement of that elusive couple: the mayor and the property developer. We are familiar with the generic situation: developer and mayor begin a relationship, one thing leads to another, developer buys rural land at a snip, mayor reclassifies the land as ‘urban,’ developer constructs high-rise where once nature reined. The pattern has been repeated all over Spain.
In Alhama de Granada, the relationship between the mayor and the property developer allegedly went one step further: the developer actually moved in.
It is claimed that during 2006, the company Golf Balneario de Alhama SL was allowed to conduct business from Alhama’s municipal premises, with the full complicity of the mayor, Francisco Escobedo.
It is alleged the company used as their business premises the Sala de Protocolos in the town hall, which is paid for with money from the public and exists expressly to serve the locals.
Golf Balneario de Alhama sent letters to the owners of the Llano 40 almond fields that crown Alhama’s gorge, offering them 6.25 euros for each square metre, according to an El Opinion report.
If you stand on the Llano 40 and cast a stone across the gorge it would land in the Arabic Quarter. Land here sells for up to 430 euros per square metre – the price difference resulting from the classification of the land.
Once purchased, the plan was to reclassify the land as urban, paving the way for the developer to erect 750 flats, a hotel and a golf course.
At one stage, developers had plans to multiply Alhama’s urban area by 13, by building on a number of areas of natural beauty, including one of the last remaining areas of Mediterranean forest at El Navazo and on the edge of the national park at Valparaiso. Despite support from both the PP and the PSOE parties in Alhama, the resistance of the Izquierda Unida (IU) councillor – as well as formidable public opposition – ensured the plans were shelved in October last year.
The bone of contention pending in Alhama at the moment is the proposal to build 750 flats in the balneario hot-springs area of the town.
Opponents of the plans say so many flats would be impossible to sustain and the environmental impact would be devastating for Alhama.
Aside from the argument that construction would blight the famed landscape of the town and place an unsustainable drain on local water sources, many locals simply do not want Alhama’s population to be amplified overnight.
One local resident told the Olive Press: “Admittedly, there is a large dose of nimbyism involved, but Alhama is small and safe and our children are free to walk to school on their own. The speculator mentality is not welcome here. We just want to bring up our families in a safe community. We do not want 13 Alhamas.”
For many locals, the alleged use of public resources by a property developer went one step too far. The presence of the developers in the ayuntamiento caused outcry amongst members of the IU, as well as La Opinion de Granada – as a journalist from this newspaper claims to have been a witness to the offence.
The case was originally brought to the Andalucía High Court of Justice (TSJA) but the mayor denied there was ever a developer working from the town hall and the file was closed due to the absence of “signs of offence.”
However, La Opinion reported the case was to be reinvestigated by a judge in Loja. Although when the Olive Press spoke to members of the IU, who are pressing for the investigation, neither they nor their lawyer had been informed of this development.
Members of the IU claim that, should the mayor have been a member of the PP instead of the PSOE for example, he would have been charged by now. The fiscalía (public prosecutor), they say, is traditionally sympathetic to the PSOE party. If true, this is a serious democratic flaw and a hindrance to justice, the IU member claims.
If the Loja court decides to investigate, the case of Alhama de Granada could be an important step in restraining the increasingly cosy relations between mayors and large-scale property developers.