how one couple's retirement hideaway turned into a pile of rubble
Published 31/07/2010 | 05:00
Len and Helen Prior always dreamed of retiring to a villa in the Spanish sun.
The couple, a retired driver and telecommunications worker, didn't make that much money.
But they had spent a lifetime improving and trading up until finally, in 2003, they could afford to sell their UK house and build a dream home in Almeria, which they named 'Tranquility'.
It had everything for a blissful retirement: swimming pool, huge flourishing garden painstakingly grown out of arid scrubland, and lots of rooms for their three children and six grandchildren.
The hot climate and easygoing lifestyle were also ideal for Len and Helen's health problems. Both now 65, they suffer from a heart condition and arthritis respectively. They made lots of friends whom they invited to dinner parties and barbecues by the pool. Helen baked and sewed; Len restored old cars. Their happiness seemed complete when their daughter moved to within driving distance.
But by the end of 2008, it had all gone horribly wrong.
Their beautiful home, like their Spanish dream, was smashed into a pile of rubble.
Now, after two years living in their garage, they have just been allotted a local council house.
The Priors are still in shock -- like most 'illegal' home-owners, they thought they had done everything by the book.
Experienced at buying and selling property, they had secured all the necessary permits from the local council before building began.
Yet, unknown to them, some permissions had been obtained illegally, as was common practice at the time, and the regional government condemned their €600,000 home.
"Their lawyers said 'don't worry, we'll appeal to the Supreme Court," says Irishwoman Maura Hillen, president of AUAN, one of many groups representing "illegal" home-owners in the region.
But one morning, when Helen tried to make coffee, she noticed the electricity had been cut off. And through the window, she saw a procession of police, cameramen, stern-faced officials and a demolition crew with diggers and trucks.
They had hours to get their belongings out. "They only just managed to do that in time because so many local people turned up to help. The Spanish people, apart from the ones who sold us these houses, obviously, are really very nice," says Maura.
Len, who had come to Spain to escape stress, finally succumbed to it as the diggers moved in. Blood pressure soaring, he collapsed and was rushed to hospital as the walls of his home came down.
The couple, like others in the same situation, are probably entitled to compensation. But Spain's legal system is as slow-paced as its lifestyle.
According to Maura, the regional government has "disgraced itself" by getting involved in an "unseemly row" with the local council over who should pay up. "We're now in the third year and there is no end in sight. It could take another seven," she adds. (Most Spanish legal battles last a decade).
By then the Priors will be well into their seventies and won't have much retirement left to enjoy.
It was no consolation to them when, last year, Spain's Constitutional Court ruled that the planners' actions had been illegal.
"They finally made a ruling on the demolition -- after it had taken place," Maura says wryly.