Can Picafort, quite different to how it was fifty years ago. | Archive

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I'm looking at a photo of Can Picafort. It must be from the late sixties or early seventies. There is some development, but the frontline has yet to obliterate all the dunes. There are quite a number of people on the beach, but otherwise there is a lot missing. I can see only one beach umbrella, and it is small; barely worth the effort.

Different times, when protection from the sun was not why you went to the beach. And when there wasn't the education there now is. But it's not this health aspect that is so startling about the photo. It's the fact that there are no parasols and nor are there any sun loungers.

Santa Margalida is one of the latest town halls in Mallorca to have a run-in with the Costas Authority over renewal of beach services' authorisation - meaning the permissions for sun lounger sets, among other things. This renewal is typically every four years. On the face of it a formality, it often is not. If a town hall wishes to change the specifications, or is ordered to, there is added complexity. But even where renewal is straightforward, there can be delay; town halls invariably blame this on Costas tardiness, as in Can Picafort.

Fifty or so years ago, there wasn't this administrative aggravation. Apart from the fact that authorities paid little attention to beach management, the sun lounger - as far as I am aware - had yet to come into fashion. So there was little to administer, and the beach was therefore still in its age of innocence. A towel would suffice, while beach entrepreneurship was limited to pedalos and a beach bar, the legal status of which had yet to be subject to a giant sandcastle of regulations.

The sun lounger, once it became commonplace, divided opinion and continues to. There are beachgoers who want to lie on a lounger and there are those who do not. Today, the lounger is just one item among many being transported to the beach in order to form small encampments of paraphernalia. Groups of beachgoers mark out their territory, but they do so in the knowledge that the beach is free public space. Except when it can appear that it is not.

Privatisation of the beach, in theory, is not permissible and is unconstitutional, unless there is permission. Beach bars, the chiringuitos that have existed for years may constitute a form of privatisation, but this is limited in terms of occupation of public space. The specifications in documents that form great piles on Costas Authority desks include the size of lots for sun loungers. This size, in comparative terms, is vast.

Town halls manage this service either directly (Alcudia and Manacor) or through concession. Either way, town halls receive revenue and so does the Spanish government. The Costas Authority acts as the landlord, an arrangement which was highlighted in 2020 because of Covid. Strictly speaking, it is the businesses who pay the Costas, but municipalities usually make the payments and so charge concession-holders accordingly. Pollensa town hall, as an example, decided not to have beach services in summer 2020. As the entity obliged to make the payment, it wouldn't have been worth the town hall's while because of the low returns.

This charge, in effect a tax on the use of beaches, isn't "privatisation" because it is the government which levies it. Yet the very permissions for sun loungers do amount to a privatisation - to the benefit of concession-holders - and this form of occupation of free space has led to public complaint whereas there has been none directed towards the old beach bars (unless one includes the denouncements by environmentalist organisations).

There have been occasions when things have got heated on beaches because people armed with little more than their towels have entered the areas that the sun loungers occupy and plonked themselves down between the rows and columns. This has happened because beaches have been very crowded. But it has also happened as protest at the sheer amount of space given over to the services. Concession-holders, who then demand that these people leave, have no right to. They do not "own" their lots. The state does, and this state ownership means that the beaches are free space, until they are occupied and paid for with the permission of the state.

Sun loungers have become an essential service. If they are lacking because of town hall ineptitude or Costas inefficiency, the cry is that their absence negatively harms a resort's image. How times have changed, therefore, marked also by the fact that safes are now integrated into sun lounger sets.

Fifty or so years ago, little thought would have been given to the possibility of beach theft, while no one would have complained about the occupation of space and especially not about a beach bar. The spirit of the beach, as was, is characterised by the chiringuito, the attack on which has left so many scratching their heads as to the justification. By contrast, that spirit was not the sun lounger.