A brick culture


Daniel G Andújar

A Brick Culture (2004), Daniel G. Andújar analyses corruption and town-planning in territorial organisation and their social consequences in Torrevieja, a town on the Costa Blanca, one of the most visited coasts in the country since the tourist boom of the sixties.

The newest form of corruption is urban development and land organisation

(Antonio Vercher, Supreme Court Prosecutor, inaugural lecture of the seminar Corruption: causes, effects and legal procedures, UIMP Valencia. 08-09-2003)

The number of 500 euro notes circulating in Spain has tripled. Within two years 43 million 500 euro notes have gone into circulation, that is equivalent to 21,331 million euros. According to the Bank of Spain the value of these 500 euro notes represents 35.22% of the total amount of money in circulation. But who has seen them? After the switch to the euro, the Bank of Spain detected a great wave of laundering of black money which was invested in property. The price of property has increased by 91% in five years and a large part of the property bubble created is down to corruption in urban development. Spain is the country in Europe that has consumed the most cement in the last five years. 

The axis for the model for tourist and urban development now promoted on Spain’s coasts goes well beyond encouraging programmes and projects to improve people’s quality of life today and in the future. The search for economic growth at all the cost is one of the pivots of the model for the tourist development that can be seen on the coast. One can observe this without difficulty in cities like Torrevieja, the centre and capital of a tourist area with more than 130,000 dwellings in residential areas and the city centre, with a population higher than 130,000 in the low season and more than 600,000 in the high season.

During the move to democracy, the political and social stage in our country saw a new social model shaped by people of the most diverse origins who were intent on getting a piece of the action, their basic aim being to earn money at all cost, to grow economically at the same dizzy as their town, operating from a legal base which they either transformed or simply ignored.

Often, when we talk about corruption we tend to identify this concept with the dark world of drugs or arms trafficking, with prostitution or the organised mafias behind illegal immigration. The concept of corruption is evidently much broader and is better kept flexible. In the context of the tourist areas on the Mediterranean coast the word corruption triggers attitudes, strange psychological responses and reflex reactions, that forces one to look the other way. Urban mafias, black money and the laundering of capital are not identified as criminal acts. The most immediate reference points for corruption are so taken for granted as part of the newly acquired idiosyncrasies on the coast that it is seen as something that involves others. It is something too everyday and too close. What is certainly true is that the Spanish coastline sees a greater movement of black money in the building industry than in drugs, arms trafficking and other activities which we immediately recognise as criminal. And corruption has no prejudice: in urban development it is so generalised and taken for granted that it impacts on everyone, political parties, different social classes, and all kinds of professional. Mafias and organised crime have penetrated the town-planning of these municipalities, though it is not recognised as such since friends, neighbours, relatives, one-self included, benefits or hopes to in the future, thus forming part of a system that is rotten. A complex system and authentic web of corrupt activities, financial entities close to mafia organisations, connections with corrupt low or high level civil servants, representatives of anonymous investors under cover of practices of Spanish lawyers that are created to protect the anonymity of the real financial backers.

Pots of money are moved in suitcases and sacks, not through banks, and nobody wonders where it comes from. For some mayors it has simply meant financial support for their plans for urban development. The municipalities facilitate the process by reducing the price of land and providing building permissions that allow high-rise blocks to be constructed that are at odds with recommendations in relation to the conservation of the natural environment or beauty of tourist areas. Urban development has become a fertile terrain for corruption that goes way beyond the political frame. The legal system is incapable of putting a brake on an activity associated with money laundering and the earning of illegal commissions.    Tourist interests in town halls, building companies, engineers and local citizens has meant more and more building on a coastal strip which gets broader and broader, a predatory action the consequences of which do not seem to worry anyone. A real wedge now penetrates unhindered the interior from the Mediterranean coast. There are towns in the interior which are losing their contours and customary environment. Urban development is also quietly aggressive on the second beach front.   This tourist activity involved and involves an obvious, visible impact on the environment as well as being a transformation and fundamental change in the social, political, economic and cultural context. The profound economic transformation provoked by this activity has changed patterns of behaviour in the smallest aspects of everyday life and led to ways of life where the consumerist, competitive paradigm of the big cities is relegated to the background: the basic priority is to amass a fortune by the quickest route. All this takes place in a complex scenario, a linguistic and social tower of Babel (more than 140 nationalities registered in the Vega Baja) with banks, creeds and religions to suit all tastes.

Corruption is general, particularly on the coast where economic interests go way beyond what ordinary citizens can imagine. It has an impact on all parties since mayors and councillors from both parties can see easy ways to secure rapid, unimaginable income through urban development.   Complicity is absolute. Nobody wishes to reproach in someone else the defect they would not censure in themselves. One keeps quiet in certain circumstances about certain matters: the mayor’s got a new Mercedes?, if it’s a present or quid pro quo, nobody worries , it’s to be expected, tomorrow it could be me, or I may want them to re-value that insignificant bit of orchard I just inherited.

The physical space one occupies has come to be valued as a source of income, of immediate interest and attached to traditional mechanisms for exploitation and profit-taking. The process of exhausting resources and altering the conditions for a balanced environment is the most immediate consequence but it is not the only one. The tourist market is related to the promotion of products connected with the quality of life, but what is definitely up for sale and really able to change the social context is the fact that people can get rid of their family or community heritage in order to get a return that is immediate but of dubious value in the long term.

There is a field of melons or some fallow land where millions can grow like daisies, who can turn that down? The residential model for low-rise housing quickly runs out of steam, and high-rise blocks become the order of the day and when this model is exhausted, the move inland becomes unstoppable. The municipality becomes a surveying and re-valuation business. The position of councillor for town planning is fought over to the death and middle-men and their commissions camp out in the council chambers. Town-planning agreements and re-valuations are auctioned like scarce bricks. Where there was an orchard, agricultural or live-stock land or woods, there is now housing. Where permission was given for three stories, there are now seven. If in a 1000 square metre plot the building density was 150 metres, it is rapidly re-assessed at 400. Areas for public leisure activity (educational, sporting or green) become available for residential building. Cranes invade everywhere, and if it is not a crane, it is a golf course. The space around town halls becomes choc-a-bloc at midday with Mercedes bringing people for the daily business lunch. The local population becomes very flexible, from the hazardous life of a fisherman to one as prosperous plumber, the farmacéutico becomes an apoteker and the panadería a bakery. Politicians harangue the population with promises of golf-courses and estates with 30,000 flats in communities with a few thousand inhabitants, the hypnotic effect of their words is translated automatically into money. And money into social success.    Politicians and builders phone each other at dusk, do deals and dot the i’s and cross the t’s in a discreet brothel.

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