Bulldozers to Brexit: British second-home owners in Spain face uncertain future

The dream for many British second-home owners in Spain was once threatened by bulldozers, but now it's Brexit, writes Graham Keeley, and this time there won't be any chance of compensation for those who lose out.

Bulldozers to Brexit: British second-home owners in Spain face uncertain future
Photo by Zac Cain with Unsplash

Standing atop a pile of rubble, gazing out into the valley, it was obvious what had inspired the former owners of these houses to buy a place in this beautiful part of Spain.

Sadly, Peter and Margaret Hegarty and Frank and Janet Doel never got to live out their twilight years in Cantoria, a tiny hamlet in Almeria, in southern Spain. 

They became the latest Britons to see their Spanish properties reduced to rubble after a court decided their homes were illegal and must be torn down by bulldozers. 

Painted in red on the wall of a house which was about to be torn down was the mocking postscript: The Spanish Dream.

I was in Cantoria to report on the plight of Britons who had lost their dream second homes because they had been declared illegal like so many thousands of others. 

The British owners were usually victims of a mixture of corruption, archaic planning laws and naivety on the part of the purchasers.

Some spoke little Spanish and unfortunately took Spanish mayors or developers at their word. Most, however, were the prey of developers keen to cash in on a building boom which appeared to have no end. Except, it did. 


Now, ironically perhaps, British second home owners face a new threat not from the Spanish – but from their own compatriots in the form of Brexit.

Four years after that dramatic vote, Brexit is fast approaching and for some with villas along the 8,000km of Spain's coast this might spell trouble. 

Little progress has been made on negotiations about key issues like freedom of movement for Brits who want to come to Spain to spend time in their second homes. 

Indeed, the worst-case scenario of a hard Brexit appears more likely. 

Those with properties in Spain still have until the end of the 2020 to apply for residence status under the EU rules. But time is drawing short. 

The coronavirus has played havoc with Spanish bureaucracy, along with everything else. 

This means just getting an appointment to sort out residence is nigh on impossible. Campaigners have suggested if freedom of movement for EU/UK citizens is not provided for in the future deal, which will almost certainly be the case, Britons who are not resident in Spain may face new restrictions on movement. 

This could mean they can only spend up to 90 days in any 180-day period within the Schengen Zone. But all this is still speculation with only six months to go before Britain finally leaves the European Union. 

Imagine if no deal is reached on this key point, it could mean something like this: 

Instead of heading off to your villa in Valencia for the weekend on a whim then staying for as long as you want, things might start to get a little more complicated. 

Second-home owners – at least the British ones – might have to start to keep a close tally on how long they are in the country so they do not exceed the 90 day limit. 

'Swallows' – those Britons who head off to Spain for the entire winter – may find they have to return to the UK just as the weather is at its worst. 

Looking ahead, what could this mean? Among foreigners, Britons still buy the largest numbers of homes in Spain and have done for years. 

If it seems harder to come and enjoy that villa or hacienda, then that could all change.

Personally, I do not think it will alter our passion for Spain. 

Britons have weathered other property scandals here and still come back looking to spend more cash in Spain on bricks and mortar. 

Remember the land grab scam in Valencia? Councils simply redefined which land could be used for building and which could not. If part of your property bordered on 'rural' land, it could be declared illegal and effectively grabbed back by the local authority. 

Tens of thousands of homes have been declared illegal in Spain. 

Thankfully, that situation is changing. The conservative regional government in Andalusia, where many Britons have bought houses, has signalled it will grant compensation to those who lost their properties but had acted in good faith. 

This has come about mainly thanks to the hard work of campaigners like Maura Hillen and Gerardo Vazquez, a lawyer, who have fought to change the law so those, like the Hegartys and Doels, could get some redress from the Spanish judiciary system in terms of compensation. 

If only this were possible with Brexit.

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Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

After years of campaigns and promises British citizens living abroad finally won the lifelong right to vote in UK general elections in April 2022. But campaigners say more needs to be done to allow all those Britons abroad to be able cast their votes easily.

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

What’s in the law?

The Elections Act 2022 introduced several changes to the current legislation on electoral participation. Among these, it removed the rule by which British citizens lose their voting rights in the UK if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years

The new rules also abolished the requirement to have been previously registered in the UK electoral roll to become an overseas voter. In addition, the registration in the electoral roll will now last up to three years instead of only one year.

It is estimated that these changes could increase the number of overseas voter registrations by some 3 million. But the way new measures will be applied in practice is still to be defined.

READ ALSO: ‘Mixed feelings’ – British citizens in Europe finally get right to vote for life

Defining the practicalities

Under the new law, Britons living abroad will have to register to vote in the last place they were registered in the UK. This means that people who have never lived in the UK will be ineligible to vote, regardless of how long they have been overseas, while those who left when they were children will be able to use a parent or guardian’s address.

But given that the UK does not require residents to register with local councils, how to prove previous UK residence? “Typical documents accepted as a proof of residence are Council tax or utilities bills, but not everyone will have them or will have kept them in an international move,” says Fiona Godfrey, co-founder of the British in Europe coalition.

Ballot papers are pictured in stacks in a count centre as part of the 2019 UK general election. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP)

Other questions concern how people will effectively cast their ballot. UK citizens overseas will be able to vote by post or by proxy or in person at their polling station if they are in the UK at the time of the election. However, few people are likely to travel to the UK for an election and in the past there have problems and delays with postal voting.

The Electoral Commission has recommended that overseas electors appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf. But who could that be for people who have been away from their constituency for a long time?

New secondary legislation will have to answer these questions, defining how to be included in the electoral roll and how to exercise the voting right in practice.

According to British in Europe, the government should present draft legislation in the first half of the year so that the parliament can adopt it before summer and registrations of overseas voters can start in the autumn.

British in Europe survey

British in Europe are currently running a survey to understand the difficulties UK citizens abroad may face in the registration and voting process, as well as their intention to participate in elections.

The survey asks for instance which documents people can access to prove their previous residence in the UK, what problems they had voting in the past, and if and how they plan to vote in the future.

“We need to get an up-to-date picture of British citizens living around the world and have information to make recommendations to the government, as it prepares secondary legislation,” Godfrey said. “If millions of people will exercise their voting rights, there will be consequences for council registration offices, post office and authorities that will manage the process, among other things” she argued.

The right to vote concerns only UK parliamentary elections and national referendums, not elections in the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or at local level.

The survey is open to UK citizens living anywhere in the world and is available at this link.