Monday, September 2, 2013

Las Lamparillas: The building bubble in Fortuna

Just on the outskirts of Fortuna, alongside the ring road, the gaunt skeletons of hundreds of unfinished houses bear witness to the folly of the Spanish building boom. The planned development, built in the bone dry scrub-land that surrounds Fortuna, was to be called Fortuna Hill Nature and Residential Golf Resort.

A key part of the new resort was the las Lamparillas development. It was aimed at golf playing Britons who weren't quite rich enough to buy a similar place on the coast and was planned to have 3,737 houses when complete. There were other agreements for other developments in Fortuna. If everything had gone as planned Fortuna's population would have increased from 10,000 to 100,000.

A research project carried out by a local university in 2004 gives some idea as to the scale of the building work planned. Across Murcia, a region with just one and a half million inhabitants, there were agreements to build 800,000 houses. The figures never made sense but nobody seemed to notice until everything went pear shaped.

Work on las Lamaprillas, which was just part of the whole resort, started in 2007. By 2010 the principal developer of the site went bust with debts of some 120,000,000€. The banks that had loaned the money took the valueless site and the part completed houses as payment. Nobody, not the banks, not the courts and certainly not the developers considered doing the decent thing by the people who had paid deposits for the houses or to the merchants who supplied the building materials. Local businesses and house buyers are still owed around 30 million by the developers.

The town mayor of the time says that it's easy to criticise now but that, at the time, everyone was doing well out of the building boom and nobody was complaining then.

Local councils can re-classify former rural land as urban land. On reclassification citrus groves and farm fields become much more valuable as building plots. In the boom years Fortuna town council found itself with nearly 10 million Euros extra from the sale of reclassified land and the councillors set about spending the money with gusto. They expected more money to follow and they borrowed against future income. The result now, in the lean years, is that the council has had to jack up taxes and either cut services or charge more for them. Many projects were never completed but the bank loans on them still have to be paid off.

In small towns in Spain everyone knows everyone else. Little networks of friends and relations do favours for other little networks. The money coming in from the developers apparently flowed into lots of those networks. At the time of the local elections in 2003 with so much money swilling around the locals became much more interested in who was in charge whilst the politicians saw the potential in controlling all that lovely money. The ruling Partido Popular party set about buying votes. It wasn't until 2011 that the courts found party workers guilty of vote rigging. The mayor chose not resign until his appeal had been heard in a superior court. In 2012 when he was banned from holding political office for five years he finally went.

The people of Fortuna will be paying for las Lamparillas for years to come. Spain is paying for lots of similar projects the length and breadth of the country.

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