This year Save Our Homes in Axarquía (SOHA) is marking a decade since it was set up by a group of Spanish and foreign residents in the area who had learned that their houses were, to all intents and purposes, illegal in the eyes of the Junta de Andalucía. “Celebrating is not exactly the word,” Phil Smalley, one of the founder members and current president, comments ironically.
Phil, 71, and his partner Sandra, moved to Spain in 2006 and bought land in order to build a house near La Viñuela village. “I was looking forward to a peaceful retirement,” he says. However, as the builders were working on the couple's home, they learned that the licence issued by the town hall contravened the newly introduced planning laws and that the land they had bought did not fall into the 'urbanisable' category of their local authority's PGOU (general urban plan).
Around the same time, a case in Almeria was attracting the attention of both Spanish and international press. Helen and Len Prior had seen their house demolished in Almeria as, like in Phil and Sandra's case, their house had been built on land not earmarked for development. The couple continued to live in the garage they had built, as this was not deemed to be illegal and added a caravan to their 'home' for extra space. The Priors went on to fight for compensation and while one court ruled in their favour, another agreed with the town hall which had appealed the compensation claim. They eventually got 270,000 euros, but Phil points out that this was nowhere near the original value of the property, not to mention the money they had lost in legal expenses. Phil explains that the Prior's case was “the catalyst” for SOHA. More and more similar stories were coming to light, not just in Andalucía but across Spain and SOHA has worked closely over the last decade with similar groups.
In Andalucia alone there are more than 300,000 houses that are considered to be illegal. However, Phil and Mario Blancke, Mayor of Alcaucín since 2015 and also a SOHA campaigner avoid using the term, choosing instead the word 'irregular.'
Both Phil and Mario decided that the only way to get their message across was to go into local politics and in 2011 Phil was elected as a councillor in La Viñuela, where he lives, and Mario was elected in Alcaucín. In the 2015 local elections Mario became mayor of the town. “I stood for election because of SOHA. You need to be in politics to get things changed and there are so many people that are affected by this situation,” he explains.
Phil and Mario explain that they have changed the attitudes of a number of organisations and authorities. They highlight the Junta de Andalucía, who they recognise have become much more supportive of SOHA's cause under current president, Susana Díaz. “We have gone from being described as 'urban delinquents' in the early days to getting support from the Junta,” explains Mario. The pair's hard work has also changed the attitude of both the British consulate in Malaga and the Spanish ambassador. “At the beginning they sent us a list of lawyers and that was it,” says Phil about the Consulate. However, they have seen a real sea change since Charmaine Arbouin and Simon Manley were appointed to their respective posts. They add that mayors in the Axarquía, and in particular, José Juan Jiménez López at La Viñuela have been very supportive too.
SOHA has influenced urban planning laws both in Andalucia and nationally and these achievements include changes in civil and criminal court rulings at a national level regarding illegal houses.
Modifications to the LOUA in Andalucía include getting houses recognised as 'semi legal' AFO - meaning that they will not be demolished and can be connected to mains electricity and water.
Houses over six years old cannot be demolished thanks to a 2015 decree. However, Phil adds that until 2020 there is still the possibility that some houses could be knocked down. Although he points out that because town halls are liable for compensation which must be paid before a house is demolished, it is unlikely that any property will be subject to this measure. Also where the licence to build had been annulled with no instruction to demolish, there was still a 15-year period in which demolition could be ordered. In October 2015 the legal civil code for Spain was amended to reduce that period to five years, which means that those properties with licences annulled before October 2016 can accede to AFO from October 2020.
Individual houses that are built on non-urbanisable land which has been divided up (parcelations) will not be pulled down and can also accede to AFO status.
One of Phil's biggest regrets is that despite there being 1,000 houses just in the Alcaucín area affected by the situation, there are only 200 members of SOHA. “A lot of people are just burying their heads in the sand,” he laments. “They think they have their licences and that this won't affect them. SOHA has been acting on their behalf and without doing anything they have been reaping the benefits,” he explains.
The association's president also points out that SOHA was initially formed to help owners whose properties had been granted 'legal' licences by town halls, but were still at risk of being demolished and in this sense he says “10 years on and nothing has been solved.” However, Mario points out that it is important to “look forward and not backwards” and reflect on what they have achieved in a decade.
More to do
“There has been a huge psychological and financial impact on so many people and several of our original members have sadly passed away without seeing justice done,” says Phil. “We have saved a lot of houses that would probably otherwise have been pulled down by now, but there is still a lot to do,” he adds. “The ultimate goal is that all the houses are made fully legal.”
Phil already spoke Spanish before he came to Spain, having worked in Venezuela for three years as operations manager for the international cash & carry company, MAKRO, while Mario says that he has learned Spanish since moved to Spain, aged 31, in 1990 and is a nurse by profession. Both men admit that Spanish urban planning law was not exactly something they had ever thought much about before SOHA was born. “We know more about it than a lot of lawyers now” laughs Phil. They vow to “keep fighting for justice” and conclude that “it's a battle between the Junta de Andalucía and the local town halls, but the real victims are the house owners who bought their land or properties in good faith.”