Comporta, Monte Gordo, and the Ria Formosa islanders' victory

Dear reader

A week’s news and views from the Algarve...

What happens in Spain tends to be repeated in Portugal a few years later so with this in mind it is worth reading of the problems mass tourism is inflicting on our neighbours.

The rise in private bookings though platforms such as Airbnb has brought a rapid shift in consumer buying pattern in both countries.

In Spain, Barcelona’s City Hall has imposed fines on bookings websites rather than on property owners - it seems that pinning down rental property owners is a low priority in both countries.

Portugal’s answer was to create an Alojamento Local scheme for rental property owners. This scheme has attracted not more than 20% of those still in this business and widely is considered a failure.

Next came the proposed 2017 hike in the tax rate on rental property income to make this activity as fiscally punishing and unattractive as possible, short of actually banning it.

The market tells us Portugal should stop building hotels and should make the encouragement and expansion of the private rental market a key part of tourism planning, especially in the Algarve where tourism is far and away the most important industry.

Yet the hotel segment’s associations have lobbying power, many suspect that these associations were behind the Alojamento Local scheme’s deliberate complexity in order to thwart what hoteliers see as ‘competition’ rather than a different slice of the tourism pie.

Spain now is suffering from imbalance and overload, Portugal already is showing signs of following Spain’s lead but has a period in which alterations can be made to cater for changes in consumer demand.

Remaining in Spain, on the plain, where wind power now is providing electricity for 30 million households. Although not any cheaper for consumers, the electricity generated from this low-impact industry means Spain is becoming cleaner and is importing less fossil fuels.

The Pamplona area of Spain is said to be ‘the cradle of wind power.’ Portugal needs to jump ahead of Spain and become an alternative energy ‘go to’ destination for companies involved in wind, wave and solar power development and generation - what better place can there be in Europe - yet our alternative energy industry remains controlled by big suppliers whose main business is selling energy produced by CO2 heavy methods including oil, gas and bio-fuels.

Domestic electricity production from photovoltaic systems is licensed by EDP which makes sure that demand is stifled and the current piecemeal licensing of larger, more efficient solar farms already has led to a fragmented market.

Around 20% of Portugal’s land has no registered owner and the Alentejo region, last time I looked, is pretty much full of land, yet energy production from solar farms in un-populated areas is not yet the big business it should be.

As for the oil industry, the Amorim family continues to influence the direction at Galp with old man Amorim, still the richest man in Portugal despite a recent expensive blunder, recently handing over the chairmanship to his daughter.

The current chief executive of Galp, Carlos Gomes da Silva, remains highly irritated at the anti-oil lobby which forced the Galp/ENI consortium to postpone its 2016 Alentejo offshore drilling programme.

Moaning that ‘the window of opportunity has closed’ for 2016 drilling, Carlos Gomes da Silva just had to bring up the old chestnut of, ‘we just want to know what resources are out there.’

Nobody is fooled by this excuse, but it remains the one most used by the government when challenged.

The concession holders have the right to survey, drill for and extract oil and those that believe that the government will call a halt to the oil and gas programme when extraction licenses are applied for, can be counted on one hand.

Galp has applied for new drilling licenses for 2017 so there is no room for complacency from the anti-oil associations, especially as a legislative proposal that environmental impact studies be carried out before the oil companies start their work, rather than after, was defeated in parliament last week.

Back to hotels where the first historic building in the Revive scheme has been leased to a company in the private sector.

The Vila Galé Hotel Group is to spend €5 million on the Convent of São Paulo in the centre of Elvas, the city near the Spanish border at Badajoz. A smart hotel is planned.

The beaming Group chairman did not reveal where the development money was coming from but as the government set up a fund to lend money to those companies who sign leases, the Elvas money more than likely was a taxpayer loan.

The Revive programme is for the leasing of historic yet poorly maintained State-owned buildings that the government has tired of, or has never been interested in. The idea is that these become hotels, bars, or any business with the word ‘boutique’ in its title.

In the Algarve, the Forte de São Roque da Meia Praia in Lagos is listed as one of the buildings for which a private sector custodian is sought.

This old fort successfully has been ignored by both the State and the local council for countless decades and now that the government wants to give the building a use and a future, the council is up in arms despite not actually owning the property.

I was against the Revive programme when it was launched but with the passing of time and the Elvas hotel announcement, I can see little alternative for these buildings as their treatment by the State already had led to degradation and closure.

And now, the weather: Faro, Albufeira and other towns and cities across the Algarve were flooded last Monday as the seasonal rains brought spectacular lighting shows and a few unwelcome tornados.

Albufeira shopkeepers again experienced water flowing past their premises and all feared a repeat of November 1st 2015 when the downtown area suffered widespread damage - an estimated €25 million. Thankfully, the government stepped in with promises of relief fund grants.

Almost a year later, the Ministry of Internal Affairs has paid compensation for the some of the uninsured damage caused last November. The less than impressive sum of €135,000 at last has been released from its Emergency Account.

As for building flood defences for Albufeira that actually function when needed, no civil engineering work yet has started although plans have been drawn up.

Had last week’s rainfall been as heavy and prolonged as that in 2015, shopkeepers, the council and householders would be facing another €25 million bill as former mayor Desidério Silva’s inept attempt at controlling nature on the cheap remains the only defence system in place.

The pressure was on Portugal's prime minister last week as the rights and legitimate claims of the Ria Formosa islanders looked set to be ignored by the government as another demolition day approached. This was despite pre-election promises from the socialists that island homes would not be demolished to make way for sand.

We questioned whether Antóio Costa would stand by his word to the residents of Farol and Hangares and call off the attack dogs at Polis whose president has been slavishly dedicated to plan to knock down 800 island properties.

Then, the almost unbelievable happened. The minister of the environment called off the demolition of 81 properties due to commence on Thursday and replaced it with a programme of engagement and discussion plus a one-by-one analysis of properties and the pledge that no owner linked to the island’s economy would be kicked out.

Minister João Pedro Matos Fernades sent a letter to Polis to halt the demolition programme and to call off the transportation of heavy machinery to Culatra island, "the houses that are used by fishermen, nurserymen and those retired from these professions should not be demolished as the new strategy for the conservation of nature favours the development of traditional activities."

Halleluja! At long last and after an emotionally wearing campaign the islanders are to have their property rights recognised after years of being treated like squatters.

This is a major victory but there is much work still to be done to ensure the ground gained last week is not lost.

The man in charge of these island clearances, the president of Polis Litoral Ria Formosa Sociedade, ‘Demolition Man’ Sebastião Teixeira, had little option but to hand in his resignation, or be fired.

He chose to quit, as did fellow director João Alves, which gave them the chance to write a long and highly critical letter to the minister. This letter was given wide press coverage.

Alves and Teixeira’s text served only to display their arrogance and their use of ‘the law’ as an excuse to dish out the sort of insensitive treatment usually associated with unpalatable military regimes.

While the islanders allowed themselves a period of well-deserved self-congratulation, the Polis directors slunk off, defeated by public protest, adverse opinion and the fact that what they had been promoting may have been technically legal, although this is debateable, but was morally reprehensible.

There was always a distinct and uneasy feeling that those at Polis were actually enjoying the persecution of their fellow citizens.

There is much work to be done in Olhão as the council has just released its vision for the future of the city. If this vision is left unchallenged and unaltered, it will result in the widespread removal of patterned calçada paving, the removal of various inconvenient buildings and the erection of a six storey viewing tower in the middle of a prime residential area.

The detailed modernisation plans are being analysed by residents, many of whom are foreigners who bought property and moved to the city as much for its authenticity and welcome as the chance to renovate one of the many historic buildings that have lain forlorn, often for decades.

It’s the locals who have the vote though and unless mayor António Pina receives sufficient complaint, the plans drawn up for Olhão by an out-of-town Lisbon firm of architects are in danger of sliding though the council chamber unchallenged.

News has come in that the Portuguese don’t trust their own justice system. I don’t suppose many non-Portuguese living here have much faith in it either.

A Deco survey, part of a wider European study, showed that few Portuguese actually understand their own justice system.

The problems in the justice system include staffing levels, deliberate delays caused by those that ‘know the system’ and misuse the appeals procedure, delays measured in years before cases come to court and a general complicity within the legal system that ‘justice takes time.’

The government is well aware of these problems and the justice minister has started to improve the system to speed things up but a full and serious review of why the judicial system can be classified as ‘not fit for purpose’ is as far away as ever.

Portugal’s Minister of Infrastructure, Pedro Marques, has blamed delays in the Algarve’s EN125 road upgrade programme on “the paperwork.”

Work halted this summer due to the impending volume of tourist traffic and did not re-start on September 1st.

‘Ministerial Excuse 52B’ then was pulled out of the bottom drawer, this is the one that says the contract with Rotas do Algarve Litoral needs renegotiating.

So, the work might continue sometime this year or next, maybe, and almost certainly will be finished by next summer, perhaps, according to a minister that really must stop treating people like idiots.

How did the work start without a contract in place and what sort of contract includes a renegotiation half-way through?

The mayor of Vila Real de Santo António has launched a tender process to remodel the seaside town of Monte Gordo in a development that modernises the seafront area and adds tourist accommodation and more hotel beds to this already popular resort.

The scale of work is massive and Monte Gordo will never be the same. Is modernisation the way forward or does the central Algarve have enough ‘me too’ resorts?

Opinions are divided as to whether or not the council will make a success of Monte Gordo's modernisation. The town's hotels already have the highest occupancy rates in the region so will changing the town’s character pay off or not? Only time will tell but during these extensive building works, local trade inevitably will suffer.

The Minister for the Sea, Ana Paula Vitorino, has decided that the way to increase income from Portugal’s waters is to have lots more marinas and wants to release marina sites from State-owned Docapesca’s control to private enterprise.

Marina busiensses do employ people but as for encouraging real jobs relating to the sea economy, a sector which quite rightly Vitorino is always going on about, this is a cheap short-cut and does little to help the fishing industry - in some areas it will put pressure on fishing boat moorings to make way for pleasure boats that sit in their berths for 10 or 11 months of the year.

Vitorino has done well in Brussels to get fishing quotas raised but her encouragement of offshore fish farming has reduced traditional fishing areas and the future oil and gas platform exclusion zones will leave even less space in which Portugal’s already depleted fishing fleet can operate.

The Comporta estate, majority owned by Espírito Santo Group’s Rioforte Investments, is in the centre of a battle between new investors and old money, or what’s left of it.

The estate is for sale by order of the Rioforte receiver based in Luxembourg but the Espírito Santo ‘clan’ has determined to see off all outside bidders so Comporta can remain in family hands.

Somehow, Rioforte’s directors managed to extract the Comporta estate from a government freeze on Rioforte assets. Comporta is back on the market but things have got dirty.

Whether the receiver knows quite what he has unleashed remains to be seen but by appointing several Espírito Santo family members to advise on the sale, the chances of Comporta fetching its true market price have diminished.

And finally, anyone interested in buying an exceptional Mercedes CLK430 V8 'Avantegarde' AMG on UK plates should be warned that this beautiful car regretfully has its top speed limited to 155mph.

Until next week



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