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19/05/2009 - MEP´s back property victims

When Len and Helen Prior moved from the UK into their Spanish retirement home, it had all they wanted - a swimming pool for keeping fit, a plot of land where they could indulge their mutual love of gardening, and a warm climate to help improve their health.

But within a few years the house had been bulldozed, and the Priors had joined the thousands of expatriate homeowners who have fallen foul of Spanish regional planning laws.

Their friend Lennox Napier, a local newspaper editor, has lived in Spain for 41 years.

He runs AULAN, (Abusos Urbanisticos Levante Almeriense, No!), an organisation which helps residents protect their properties from planning abuses.

Mr Napier says British MEPs have at least responded to the problems, unlike their Spanish counterparts.

"It's clear they're trying to help", he says.

"Some of the British MEPs have been out here to visit for a fact finding mission, offending the Spanish hosts but encouraging those of us who've come here to live to think that there is a voice for us in Brussels."

Power of money

Besieged by complaints, the European Parliament's Petitions Committee conducted an investigation into alleged dubious practices.

In some Spanish regions, planning authorities had been re-designating private land for urban use and rubber-stamping planning applications submitted by developers, it found.

Developers were subsequently able to demand that home-owners sell their properties at prices well below the market rate. If they refused to sell, they risked having their houses demolished.

The committee's report called on Spain to protect the rights of EU citizens.

But while MEPs can coax and cajole, they cannot force a national government to take action.

The report's author, Danish Green Party MEP Magrete Auken, says their only actual power is that of veto over the funds Spain receives from the EU.

"The real power is money," she says. "Of course we also really hope that more pressure from the press will mean it's very bad for the Spanish reputation, and therefore this highlights people's cases."

"But we have no formal power except money."

And so, in March this year, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of the report, and threatened to freeze hundreds of millions of euros in funding if Spain did not act.

Too late

The Priors had bought land near Almeria, on the south coast of Spain, and built their home in accordance with what they believed were the correct regulations.

But local planners decided their villa might trigger yet more development, and secretly obtained a court order to have it torn down.

In April 2009, Spain's Constitutional Court ruled that the planners' actions had been illegal. But it was too late.

All that remains on the site is a concrete slab where their dream home once stood. The Priors have moved into the garage and are seeking compensation.

Mr Prior is defiant. He says they are not budging.

"If we go back to England it seems to me as if they've won", he says.

"So we're going to stay here. People have offered us a house to live in and we both turned around and said no, we want to stay here and fight them."

Mrs Prior has gone down many roads in her quest firstly to block the demolition, and subsequently in pursuit of compensation, but they all led back to the same place.

"Most people reply and say: 'We're very sorry, there's nothing we can do - this is a civic problem'," she says.

"They say you'll have to go to your local town hall. I sent it up to the MEPs, but they referred it to someone else and it came back with that same message. "

No-one managed to save the Priors' home and they are too late to benefit even if the MEPs' demands for reform are met.

But Mrs Prior believes one day they will move back into a beautiful Spanish home.

"We'll carry on fighting until it happens," she insists.