“I'LL swap you seven corrupt councillors for two bent mayors,” says Spain's prime minister during a game of cards. “I'll raise you one dodgy constructor,” the opposition leader replies. The cartoon in the ABC newspaper last month underlined how badly the governing Socialists and conservative opposition have been tainted by dozens of scandals involving local politicians taking bribes from builders. The scale of the problem was exposed in March when police in Marbella discovered councillors and officials were handing out building permits and rezoning land in exchange for millions of euros. Since March, the number of town hall scandals has risen to around 150, revealing how drastically the beauty of rural Spain is being disfigured by illegal concrete. So far around 70 politicians, civil servants and businessmen have been arrested in Marbella and gossip magazines have gorged on tales of opulent villas, flashy cars, racehorses and rubbish bags stuffed with cash. British and German residents in the Costa del Sol resort, playground to Saudi princes and British crime kings, are now waiting to hear whether illegally built homes will be demolished. Up the Mediterranean coast, near the town of Catral, houses have been built inside a national park. The mayor of Andratx in Majorca and the tourist island's top planning official were arrested after luxury houses were built on a nature reserve. “We hope we have uncovered a good proportion of cases, but without doubt there will be more,” said Jesus Lizcano, who heads the Spanish branch of anti-corruption non governmental organisation, Transparency International. Corruption has spread in tandem with the fortunes that have been made in Spain's ever-expanding building industry.
Last year, Spanish builders finished around 800'000 homes, more than the French, Germans and British combined. Construction now employs one in five Spaniards and contributes 17 percent to gross domestic product. Land the size of three football fields is built on every day, expanding urban space by a quarter in the last decade. In the region of Valencia alone, an area twice the size of Barcelona will be swallowed up if all the current applications are approved. But much of the new stock is likely to stand empty, like 13 percent of all houses in Spain. Speculative cash has helped house prices surge 160 percent in the last seven years, forcing poorer buyers out of major cities to places like Sesena, 40 km (25 miles) south of Madrid. Across an open field from the once-sleepy town of 7'000 people, situated among olive groves on the plains of Castilla la Mancha, stands a forest of cranes building enough apartment blocks to house 50'000 people. The first occupants are due to move in next year but, as yet, the small city has no plans for hospitals, libraries, emergency services, courts or enough schools, says Sesena Mayor Manuel Fuentes. The development will probably not even be connected to water supplies until 2009 or 2010, said Fuentes, a fierce critic of the project. “A clear example of what can happen when the economic interests of private promoters come above the general interests of the people,” is how Fuentes describes ‘Residency Francisco Hernando', named after the project's billionaire backer. Hernando, who bought the land two weeks before it was rezoned for building, is suing Fuentes, who asked police to investigate how planning permission was granted. “When I arrived here nine years ago, all Sesena had was a man with a cart and donkey. The land was here for anyone who wanted it,” Hernando told newspaper El Pais recently. “Nobody tells me how I should build.” Two Sesena councillors resigned earlier in December. They said it was impossible to work due to insinuations and lawsuits, bringing to six the number who have stepped down from the 13-member administration since it ratified the project in 2003.
The Sesena investigation has yet to reach its conclusion. Spain's Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has recognised corruption is a major problem and affordable housing is becoming a hot political issue. In October, the government said it would make it more difficult for town halls to rezone land and promised corrupt officials would be punished.
But campaigners say the proposed law will have little effect so long as town halls continue to rely on building permits for anywhere from a third to more than half of their revenues.
No big political or business name has been dragged into the affair but the sleazy image generated by the building permits scandal is beginning to hurt Spain's international standing. At a dinner with European leaders in October, Russian President Vladimir Putin responded to a question about human rights by snapping back that Spain, with its “corruption”, had nothing to teach Russia.

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