Where has it all gone?
While I was in Madrid in late September, there were clashes between protestors and police in front of the parliament building in Madrid. The protestors were talking in terms of storming parliament in order to reclaim democracy.
This is where the crisis in Spain I think really diverges from that we have seen in the UK.
Firstly, let?s be clear about this, plenty of people in Spain did very nicely out of the boom years. Anyone with property interests who managed to sell up before the collapse has enjoyed some serious gravy-train action.
However, the ordinary person in the street probably did rather less well during the boom years than their equivalent in the UK. I say this because people in Spain do not tend to trade up their houses. Generally, people will save up for a long time to buy their apartment and that?s where they stay. The idea of buying a small place then trading it in for a larger one, the property ladder, is simply not as prevalent in Spain as it is in the UK.
Where people in the UK were effectively realising their accumulating capital every so often as they sold their house, in Spain, the rising value of housing was a paper phenomenon for most. Obviously credit flowed and people had money to spend but it doesn?t to me feel as if the spread of boom money reached as far as it did here in the UK.
So where was all the Spanish money? I think a lot of it was in the hands of politicians. Not necessarily the national politicians, but in the hands of over-powerful local elites. It?s here that so much damage was done. The mayor of one village seeing the neighbouring village getting a public swimming pool so they?d build one until every village in a sparsely populated stretch of the Alpujarras mountains has a pristine public swimming pool open for perhaps 2 months of the year.
In the village of Benia in the Picos de Europa, population 800, there is one museum, a visitor centre and a state-of-the-art convention centre. There?s no specific demand for a convention centre here in the mountains and its use is occasional at best. In addition to these, the village has a purpose built I.T. centre which is permanently staffed and allows free internet access to the villagers.
It?s a great idea to encourage internet access in rural Spain, the country has a serious problem with migration away from rural areas. However, in this particular instance it would have been much cheaper for the authorities to buy a computer for every household in the village, pay for everyone?s internet connection and then have someone on hand to offer IT support on a roving basis. Much cheaper.
So whilst the villagers enjoy certain benefits and pride in their village, the truth is that many of these projects were poorly conceived, unnecessary and value for money simply not a factor in the planning.
And this brings me to the story of Castellón airport. Not one I had heard about until my recent trip to Spain, it symbolises everything which has gone wrong and in particular explains why the Spaniards are, almost universally, sick of the political class.
Castellón is a city of 500,000 on the east coast of Spain, just above Alicante/Valencia, just below Barcelona.
It?s less than two hours driving from Barcelona or Reus to Castellón. It?s barely an hour from Valencia, double that to Alicante. In any case, suffice to say that Castellón by any measure, is very well served by international airports within striking distance.
Not well enough served in the opinion of Carlos Fabra, leader of the Castellón branch of the Partido Popular of some 20 years? standing.
To this end, he embarked on an ambitious project to build an airport to open Castellón to the world. In March of 2011 the airport opened at an estimated cost of ?150 million.
The company responsible for the construction of the airport, Aerocas, was also awarded a 50 year contract to run the place.
Everything you could possibly want at an airport was there. A permanent staff, the cleaning contractors, the baggage handlers, even the contract for the hawks to clear birds from the approaches had been awarded. The only thing missing were planes.
Despite spending ?30 million on publicity, not a single commercial plane has ever landed at Castellón airport.
And now they are having to dig up the runway because it?s actually not wide enough to permit planes to turn safely. And the ?300,000 sculpture in front of the airport hasn?t been paid for.
The Valencian government has finally had enough and cancelled the airport operator?s licence. In response Aerocas are now thinking of suing the regional government for ?80 million.
By the way, guess who runs Aerocas? Carlos Fabra.
It's these debts which are leading to cuts in schools, libraries and other key services. If I were Spanish, I?d be looking to flush out the political structures which has allowed this extraordinary level of excess and greed to go unchecked.
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