As good news begins to outnumber the bad, Marbella starts a new year confident that while a lot remains to be done, the road to recovery stretches out before us.
The corruption that enabled illegal construction in former green zones and allowed overbuilding in general was a product of an overheated property boom in Marbella. All was well while the wheels of commerce and construction were turning at full speed, but when the property boom lost momentum in 2006 the questionable practices that had gone on during the bounty years started to come to light. The result was a series of high-level investigations that culminated in the arrest of scores of mayors, lawyers, notaries and property developers all along Spain’s southern coast.
Naturally such a phenomenon is not limited to this area alone, but it did a huge amount of damage to Marbella’s reputation – a situation that was brought home when the government intervened to dissolve the Marbella Town Council in the wake of the corruption scandals. A place that was not fit to run itself had lost its right to self-government, and a ‘best-man’ administration was installed under strict guidance of both the regional and national governments. In the Spanish lexicon, ‘Marbellisación’ became a by-word for overdevelopment and property speculation.
The road to recovery
It isn’t a new phenomenon either. Jesus Gil, the very man associated with many of the planning infringements in the Marbella Town Hall, was also the mayor who cleaned the town up in the early nineties and invested in a beautification and promotional programme that contributed directly not just to the tourist and property booms that followed, but also greatly improved the quality of life in Marbella. Now it was up to the new mayor Ángeles Muñoz to clean up the town and its reputation all over again – only this time with very limited means.
The financial mess left by her predecessors and the limited powers afforded to her as her every step was watched by public and officials alike, ensured that the recovery process would be a slow one. But perhaps that is a good thing, for what Marbella needs now is more than a facelift or promo campaign. In her slow-but-sure manner Ángeles Muñoz has started from the roots up, bringing order first to the Town Hall and its functioning before she ratified the new PGOU (Plan General de Ordenación Urbana) in 2010.
Urban planning reinstated
Every major town and city in Spain has such an urban plan, but the 1986 plan to which Marbella worked was so badly abused by 2006 that an updated planning formula was more than overdue. It has taken four years of legal cases and constitutional investigation to draw up a new directive for Marbella that deals with the past whilst looking to the future. These two aims are not always easy to marry, but the mayor has taken an approach that combines pragmatism in relation to the thousands of illegal properties built in recent years yet also aims to avoid such a thing happening again.
Some have found her too harsh while others would have liked to have seen many more properties outlawed and demolished than has been the case, but the overall impression is that, once built, it is impractical to bulldozer homes that shouldn’t have been constructed in the first place. This is especially so in cases where the properties in question are already owned and lived in, yet whilst providing a shortcut to the legalisation of thousands of initially illegal homes, the Town Hall has been keen to assure the public that the new structures in place will make it far harder for such planning fiascos to ever occur again.
Such assurances are more than symbolic, for Marbella is dependent on investor and homebuyer confidence, and this can only be restored in the first instance by a true conviction that there is now proper governance and in this case town planning practice. In other words, Marbella has had to prove to public, press and investors alike that the rule of law has replaced corruption; a process that will take much longer to fully achieve, but that is finally gathering pace.
Turning a corner
Though the means for quick-fix miracles remain out of reach, the Town Hall has made great strides in improving public finances, initiating beautification programmes and laying the foundations for a sensible future growth. Confidence in Marbella is returning, and the summer of 2010 provided many encouraging signs for the tourist trade, whilst property sales especially in the upper end of the market have also shown steady recovery growth. For the first time in several years the reports coming out of the town are mostly positive, and Marbella’s image is on the up again.
The most tangible example of this was the highly publicised visit of America’s First Lady, Michelle Obama. National and international celebrities are quite regularly spotted in Marbella’s trendy haunts, but to receive a visitor with this kind of profile is a truly special occasion, and the kind that can help put a place on the map for years to come. Michelle Obama’s visit was not a publicity stunt dreamed up by the Town Hall, but rather a private decision by the American President’s wife to visit a friend, yet understandably Marbella has made the most of its promotional value, capitalising on the feel-good publicity that it generated.
While Mrs. Obama was visiting the luxurious Villa Padierna resort, the likes of Antonio Banderas and Eva Longoria were attending the Starlite Gala in town, a happy coincidence and an indication of how Marbella once again draws the big names. Marbella has a great ability to do this, and the many positive factors such as climate, location, facilities and quality lifestyle ensure that this town need only clean itself up to be right up there again. With a Town Hall intent on doing just that and large infrastructural programmes that will further improve facilities and communications, it looks like Marbella has just turned the corner.
Related News: Article published on the 2nd January 2011