Permit? What permit? The eternal wait for Spanish construction papers

If there is one universally known Spanish expression, it is mañana. Foreigners use the expression when referring to things that likely wont happen. In Scandinavia, we speak of ‘mañana culture’ when referring to anyone with a lax attitude towards timing, especially when it comes to commitments and promises.

Mañana means both morning and tomorrow. Therefore, mañana por la mañana. though literally meaning tomorrow morning, practically means any time between now and Kingdom Come. The wider meaning of mañana is ‘some time in the not too distant future, though at the present moment the specific day can not be pinpointed’. Especially when dealing with Spanish bureaucrats, mañana is an open-ended term. When a contractor promises to do something mañana, do not hold your breath nor expect to see him the following day. Mañana can mean anything between a day to a fortnight. ‘Next week’ in the mouth of a bureaucrat allows for between 2-6 weeks. If  a contractor claims a job will be completed in two months, be happy if it is done in half a year, and so forth. The Latin time issue can be further explained by the Spanish word for afternoon, ‘ la tarde’. The afternoon does not start at one minute past noon as it does for us northerners, but rather some time around 5 pm, when the population leisurely emerge from their siesta. A Spanish afternoon can go until 10 or even 11 pm. Then again, the word tarde also means ‘late’, which basically sums it all up. It is all about later here.

After this long, but necessary verbal detour, I will bring you back to the saga of our little Andalucian house. Merely a couple of months after leaving for an open-ended European sabbatical, my husband and I found ourselves as legal owners of our very own Spanish house, or shall we say ruin. Though we did not know how long we would stay (I still only spoke a few sentences of Spanish…), we knew that we could not afford to buy something at home in downtown Vancouver, so why not invest in a pied-à-terre in Southern Spain? Real state prices are very reasonable and property taxes are a fraction of what we would pay in Canada. It seemed like a no-brainer. Within a few weeks, we had paid for the property, as well as taxes, back taxes, and even managed to transfer the electric and water bills to our name. All that remained was the building permit. How hard could it be?

Building permits in Andalucía are divided into major and minor works. Minor works or obra menor is internal, non-structural changes. Usually the builder applies for this and can get it within a few days, if not as quickly as mañana… Anything requiring moving, tearing and rebuilding external walls, digging into the ground or rising roofs becomes an obra major and requires more serious permits. Depending on the laws of the area and the location of the property, this may be a more or less complicated affair. Apparently, some towns on the coast pride themselves on giving an answer to a building permit application within three weeks. Not in Ronda. Our neighbours said this could take a long time, some suggesting that we just start constructing and hope for the best. They mentioned illegal house extensions and pools on our street alone. Worst-case scenario we would have to pay a fine, they said. As we tend to be law-abiding citizens and since we had heard of building projects that had been stopped due to lack of permits, we wanted to do everything by the book. After all, how long could it take? We were not applying to make a high-rise or a hyper-modern construction. All we wanted was to make the house safe and livable, which means that the roof had to be lifted so we did not have to bend over to enter upstairs. We would keep the exterior walls, not touch the façade and reuse all the lovely mossy Arab roof tiles. We had meetings with our architect and the town’s head architect, who encouraged us to raise the roof higher still. Our application went in in January, volumes and stacks of bound papers in triplicates with air photos and minute description of the pre and post building details. We had great hopes of starting the demolition once the spring rains ended and complete the construction during the summer, ready to move in before the fall. A reasonable expectation, we foolishly thought.

Many mañanas, weeks and months passed without a word. Since the house we had bought was located in the historical part of Ronda, actually where the Arab grave yard used to be 800 years ago, we were told that our application had to go to the culture department in the provincial government in Malaga, for short called ‘cultura’. People here fear having to go via ‘cultura’, as permit-times tend to expand tenfold. Yet, we were rather confident, knowing we had the blessings of the city architect. While waiting, I kept restoring furniture and my husband had about half a dozen builders make a quote for the construction.

In the early summer, we finally had a breakthrough. We received an official registered letter from Malaga and later two identical official copies from the town hall. Naively, we hoped it was the permit. Instead, it was a letter giving us a week from the date the letter was mailed to remove the interior dropped ceilings of both floors and to photograph beams, ceilings and roof to prove that we indeed needed to rebuild them. We thought this was a rather tight deadline, given that they had taken almost six months to come with this request, yet we were thrilled that we were one step closer to construction. A neighbour helped us remove the ceilings to expose the rotted, bug-infested wood beams. Our architect took photographs and the entire application went in again, revised, in triplicates. We were positive it was just a matter of time.

Summer came, July passed and then August when all take holiday and nothing happens in southern Spain, certainly not in any government offices. We pleaded with our architect to contact the person in charge of our case in ‘cultura’, whom he vaguely knew from his student years. He reluctantly did, saying that being too keen may have the reverse effect and cause our application to ‘accidentally’ be placed at the bottom of the pile. In September, we finally received a notice about yet another a registered letter from Malaga. After having gone to the post office, showed ids and signed in several places to allow them to release the precious letter, we ripped it open. Page upon page with bureaucratic language and finally on the last page the information we were looking for. Not what were hoping for, mind you. REFUSAL to ‘completely demolish and build a brand new house’ it said. As we had not applied for a total demolish and new build, we could only conclude that the person in charge of our application had not actually read it. Back to meetings with our poor architect, who diligently made the necessary adjustments and clarifications to each page of our already voluminous application. Once again the books where sent in triplicates via Ronda town hall to the dreaded ‘cultura’.

Fall and winter came without a word. We had owned our tiny slice of Andalucian paradise for soon a year. We were dying to put a sledgehammer to a wall, but without the permit we could do nothing. Another spring came and we pleaded with the architect to contact Malaga. He was told not call again if we wanted an answer at all. With Easter finally past, another registered letter arrived. This time we opened it more carefully, reading it with much trepidation. Last page, again ‘REFUSAL. This time they did not have problems with the construction as such, but did not approve the colour choice of the PVC window frames at the back of the house. We had applied to have these in an imitation wood colour, like virtually every other house on our street have. It seems like the bureaucrats in ‘cultura’ have to find something to refuse in each application simply to justify their existence. With less building in Andalucía than, the pencil pushers need to fill their desks with stacks of paper to look indispensable for their departments.

“Which colour can we use?” we asked. We were told that any colour was fine, other than the one we had chosen. As changes are not allowed to be sent by email, the application stacks were again adjusted on hard copy, with brown PVC windows towards the back (the façade had to have wood windows) and sent via the town hall to Malaga. They had approved the build; they had approved the blasted brown window frames, so how long could it be? The architect and building inspector said that the approval should come very shortly. Weeks became months and we found ourselves in our second summer of waiting. Like waiting for Godot, the building permit seemed more illusive than ever. Finally, our architect told us that the permit had been sent from Malaga. All that remained now was a few signatures from Ronda town hall. Just a breeze!

A week went by and finally we went to the building office, who already knew us from several prior visits. We inquired about our permit, which had been couriered to them from Malaga and the clerk pulled out a file box with thick client folders. She leafed through not finding what she was looking for, then bringing up another file box. Finally, she located our file, including letters back and forth between Ronda and Malaga in no apparent order. (God forbid a 21st century town hall should have digital case files….) She looked through the letters and stamped copies, while unruly pieces of paper slid from the folder off the desk to mix with other files, possibly ending in the hard copy version of lost in Cyber-space. Yes, she seemed to recall having seen a permit, but it was not there anymore. In other words, when we finally had gotten our official permit, the town hall office had managed to loose it. She assured us that she would call us back mañana, as soon as she could find the letter.

Actually, she did call us the next day, confirming that they were still looking for it, though a short Spanish week later it magically appeared on the desk of one of the people who needed to sign it. The Spanish love their signatures and stamps… All’s well that ends well. We finally had our construction permit after an endless trial of our patience and almost two year of waiting. In Spain, the squeaky wheel does not seem to work. Only family members of politicians seem to get permits overnight. With Andalucía full of abandoned houses and thousands of homes for sale, it would behoove the local, provincial and national governments to update some of their antiquated red-tape permit procedures and to give new owner a chance to inject capital and some desperate needed TLC into many Andalucian towns unwanted treasures.

Relieved and happy, we read our permit again. Coming to the very last paragraph on the very last page, we discovered a small hitch. After giving us our building approval, it stated that we had ten days to make an archeological dig beneath the house. This was not only unreasonable, but dangerous and virtually impossible. If we would be lucky enough to find an available archeologist, our rotten roof and crumbling walls would bury them. So, how to dig without digging? Seemed like we had to send in more applications.

But that is a story for another day…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.