‘Majority of expats treat Spain as a holiday camp’

The Local talks to Maura Hillen, president of the AUAN property rights association and now local councillor in Albox, southern Spain who thinks expats need to get more politically engaged.

'Majority of expats treat Spain as a holiday camp'
Maura Hillen is councillor for tourism and international relations

The 52-year-old moved to the Almeria province from Weybridge, Surrey only to discover that, like hundreds of others who bought in good faith in the Almanzora valley, her property fell foul of planning regulations.

The subsequent fight with planning authorities has shaped her life and led her to stand in the last municipal elections as an independent candiate.  

What first attracted you to living in Spain?

It’s a common story. We wanted a quieter pace of life. We lived near London at the time and I commuted on a daily basis to a stressful job in the City. Spain seemed like an obvious choice for the next chapter of our lives with good communication links to the UK and any amount of fantastic locations to choose from.

When did the dream start to sour?

We purchased an off plan property from a developer in Albox, Almeria. It is normal in such circumstances for the paperwork (deeds etc) to arrive at the end of the build.  We used a local lawyer (in hindsight a huge mistake) to protect our interests and everything seemed to be progressing nicely. Hundreds of similar properties were being constructed in the area in plain sight and everything appeared to be above board until the paperwork failed to appear. Then rumours began to circulate among the many foreign buyers in the area which were dismissed by everyone in authority (lawyers, architects, promoters and even town halls) until the police started to turn up on our doorsteps advising us that our properties were illegal and asking for our paperwork!

Tell us a bit about your battle with planning authorities?

The first thing that we had to take on board is that illegal construction in Spain is a criminal offence carrying a prison sentence.  The authorities initially considered the homeowners to be in on the scam. This was due to the way some promoters had worded their sales contracts naming the buyer as the promoter. Some were arrested and questioned by the police and many faced criminal charges until the authorities began to realise that they were dealing with purchasers in good faith who had been duped.

Nevertheless, that wasn’t the end of it. The punishment for illegal development is demolition, which is fair enough, but in Spain the law allowed demolition to take place without prior compensation for those who had done nothing wrong. Home buyers were faced with losing their life savings and their home.

A large group of homeowners got together in the town of Albox in 2005 and the association AUAN emerged from that initial meeting. Everything was against us from the start. We couldn’t speak the language; we had to learn about planning regulations, politics, corruption and the law whilst being undermined constantly by those with a vested interest in pretending that all was OK in order to sell more houses. I’m sorry to say that the activities of the vested interests (promoters, lawyers, town halls, technicians etc) resulted in a sort of Stockholm syndrome among expats. Many refused to believe that their properties were illegal in spite of all evidence to the contrary and attacked anyone who attempted to tell them differently, even physically on rare occasions.

Undeterred by what we were up against AUAN soldiered on, using our membership fees to purchase honest legal and planning advice which proved to be indispensable. I became president in 2009 because I have an irresistible urge to understand complicated situations and a knee jerk resistance to bullies, be they administrative or otherwise. We developed a 10 point plan of aims and set out to achieve them. We engaged with the media, met with mayors, planners, lawyers, politicians and gradually grew our profile through inserting ourselves into the Spanish press. The regional authorities went from ignoring us to patting us on the head to paying attention when both the international and Spanish media began to report our situation. The demolition of Mr and Mrs Priors house in Vera, without prior compensation, was and is a focus for the association.

We began slowly to make a difference. In 2012 the regional government introduced the flawed Regularisation Decree which gave a form of recognition to properties that were illegal in origin.

The pot really began to boil when the authorities cheerfully demolished four more British owned properties in Cantoria in 2013/14. The media backlash orchestrated by AUAN and our sister association SOHA in Malaga woke the authorities up to the damage being caused in a depressed property market. The socialist party (PSOE) in Almeria (where the association is located) initiated a real dialogue with us in early 2014. We were more than ready with our proposals for what needed to be fixed. Since then we have seen two changes to national laws which mean that never again can you demolish a house in Spain without prior compensation for an innocent homeowner and we have more reforms in the pipeline.

Final rally before the election in May. Photo: Maura Hillen 

What made you go into politics?

It was necessary to do so for the cause.  I stood as an independent candidate in the #2 position on the PSOE list in Albox in the last municipal elections in May 2015. Apart from that the expat community needed representation in my town. After all, they live there. They have potholes in their roads. Every other councillor is complaining about potholes in his neighbourhood on behalf of his/her constituents so why shouldn’t we? A rather simplistic explanation but you get my point? This old chestnut about being a guest in the country is a load of nonsense and simply annoys the locals because we don’t appear to engage in the community.

How engaged do you think expats are in general with local politics?

They are hopeless. The majority of people who voted for me were AUAN members and those enlightened few who actually look beyond the expat community bubble and therefore know enough to know the real benefits of engaging in the political process at a local level. 

The majority of expats treat Spain like an extended stay at a holiday camp and look for the nearest rep who speaks English to complain to when things go wrong.  Nobody cares about your issues if you have no voice and if you don't register to vote you don't exist in Spain. It’s that simple.

What do you hope to bring to the local community?

I consider the local community to be everyone who lives in Albox, not just expats, but obviously I have a particular, but not exclusive, focus on expat interests.  Rolling out solutions for illegal houses is a good start but I am also working on day to day issues such as water problems, overflowing bins and the ubiquitous problems of dog poo!  I have set up a blog, facebook page etc so that residents can contact me with their issues and they are keeping me busy.

My main role is to promote tourism and international relations for the benefit of the community as a whole. I guess that the powers that be consider that because I have done the most damage to the reputation of this area, in my role as president of AUAN they think that I am best placed to fix it. They are probably right. It’s a clever move on their part and I enjoy the challenge. I’ll start with reliable housing stock and promote from there.

What single piece of advice would you give to those thinking of buying in Spain?

I have more than one. Rent before you buy and get to know the area. Never, ever, ever use a local lawyer especially if they are recommended by anyone associated with your purchase and finally, check out the British Embassy in Spain website. It has some good advice for prospective buyers.

Read more from Maura Hillen on her blog.


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