In Barcelona, buy-to-leave properties have criminal consequences

“The greed of banks destroys neighbourhoods”. Image: Acció Reina Amalia.

The buy-to-leave properties that dot London’s skyline are a riling reminder of our housing crisis: how it has made homes into financial assets, how rising property values have encouraged speculation, and how these forces have pushed people out of the city.

In Spain, though, empty houses have criminal consequences of a different sort. Narcopisos, which translates as “drug flats”, are the dark face of property speculation in Spanish cities like Barcelona and Madrid. These empty properties, many of which are owned by banks and private equity funds, have been converted into distribution points and shooting stations for cheap heroin.

El Raval, a central district in Barcelona, was notorious for a heroin epidemic in the 1980s. Now, the drugs have returned. Armed police break into apartments on a weekly basis, lining users up against the wall outside as local residents congregate to watch. There are an estimated 50 narcopisos across the four-mile radius of El Raval, though figures are difficult to verify, with dealers’ locations changing regularly.

For their neighbours, street life is grimy and antisocial; users come and go at all hours and leave used syringes in their wake. Local activist groups have taken to the streets in anger, bashing pans in traditional Spanish cacerolada protests and rallying together under the banner “contra narcoespeculación” (against narco-speculation).

“After the crisis, many people couldn’t afford to pay their mortgages and were evicted from their homes. Then banks started to swoop in and buy up whole blocks of flats”, Andres Perez Conte of Acció Reina Amalia, a neighbourhood action group in El Raval, tells me.

“We’re trying to get more detailed data, but as it stands, it seems that around 65 per cent of the empty apartments taken over by narcopisos are registered to banks like BBVA and real estate funds like Blackstone”, he says, adding that the city’s rising property values following its tourism boom means “banks just sit on these properties, speculating on their future value”.

I first meet Andres at a neighbourhood gathering where activist groups affix green stickers to a street map marking the presence of narcopisos. Acció Raval, one of the most prominent groups of neighbourhood vigilantes, has created a digitised map of different drug flats across the barrio.

“Some people are calling for more police on the streets to deal with this issue. But we want to avoid the war-on-drugs scenario that can end up basically just pushing out poor people – and instead, we’re focusing on rehabilitating users and tackling the financial speculation that is the cause of these empty buildings”, Andres tells me.


But not everyone agrees with him. The drug squatters have exposed a deeper tension over property rights in the city. For people like Andres, their existence points to a systemic problem whose cause is the banks and private equity firms that hold empty properties. For others, it’s a different problem that causes the narco-squatters: the failure to enforce property rights coupled with Barcelona’s anarchistic political culture.

This division came to a head in a fractious debate on Facebook earlier this year, when the owner of an empty apartment cautioned members of a “Barcelona Expats” group to beware invasion by drug dealers who target the holiday pads of foreigners.

“Respect for private ownership is key [to] any society”, one member said, while another excoriated a squatter-sympathiser to “set down the bong and your dog-eared copy of Proudhon”. Some see narcopisos as the result of moral failings, pitting drug dealers and squatters against those who have worked hard for their multiple properties.

But Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, appears to side with an explanation that points to structural rather than individual problems. In April earlier this year, she got behind a policy that will force banks to hand over repossessed properties that stand empty.

At a talk alongside sociologist Saskia Sassen in May, Colau referred to narcopisos as a “vicious circle”, and cautioned attendees about reactionary approaches that only serve as cover for broader political projects intent on gentrification.

“There are hundreds of flats owned by large banks left empty to speculate. Drug dealers use them – and then the right wing takes advantage of the situation to accelerate the evictions of vulnerable people", she said.

As with London, criminality in Barcelona is a contested concept: its meaning depends on whether or not you’re a property owner.

 
 
 
 

Here’s how we plant 2 billion more trees in the UK

A tree in Northallerton, North Yorkshire. Image: Getty.

The UK’s official climate advisor, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), recently published a report outlining how to reduce the 12 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions that come from land use by two thirds by 2050. Alongside recommending cutting meat and dairy consumption by 20 per cent, the report calls for the annual creation of up to 50,000 hectares of broadleaf and conifer woodland for the next three decades. This would increase forest cover from 13 per cent to at least 17 per cent – a level not seen in Britain since before the Norman invasion.

Reforestation at that rate would mean creating roughly the area of the city of Leeds every year for the next three decades. At typical stocking densities of 1,500 stems per hectare, the ambition is to establish some 2.25 billion additional trees. Given that the UK, as with most of Europe, is in the grip of ash dieback, a disease likely to prove fatal for many millions of native ash trees, the scale of the challenge is massive.

On a crowded and intensively farmed island like Britain, unlocking a million and a half hectares of land will be no mean feat. But it’s not impossible – and is an unprecedented opportunity not only to tackle the climate crisis but also the biodiversity crisis that is every bit as detrimental to our wellbeing.

Trees and farms

One million and a half hectares is just 6 per cent of the mainland UK’s land area. To give some sense of perspective on this, 696,000 hectares of “temporary grassland” were registered in 2019. So if land supply is not the problem, what is? Often it’s cultural inertia. Farmers are firmly rooted to the land and perhaps understandably reluctant to stop producing food and instead become foresters. But the choice need not be so binary.

The intensification of agriculture has caused catastrophic declines in many species throughout the UK by reducing vast wooded areas and thousands of miles of hedgerows to small pockets of vegetation, isolating populations and making them more vulnerable to extinction.

Integrating trees with the farmed landscape delivers multiple benefits for farms and the environment. Reforestation doesn’t have to mean a return to the ecologically and culturally inappropriate single-species blocks of non-native conifers, which were planted en masse in the 1970s and 1980s. Incentivised under tax breaks to secure a domestic timber supply, many of the resulting plantations were located in places difficult or in some cases impossible to actually harvest.

Productive farmland needn’t be converted to woodland. Instead, that 4 per cent of land could be found by scattering trees more widely. After all, more trees on farmland is good for business. They prevent soil erosion and the run-off of pollutants, provide shade and shelter for livestock, a useful source of renewable fuel and year-round forage for pollinating insects.

The first tranche of tree planting could involve new hedgerows full of large trees, preferably with wide headlands of permanently untilled soils, providing further wildlife refuge.


Natural regeneration

Where appropriate, new woody habitats can be created simply by stopping how the land is currently used, such as by removing livestock. This process can be helped by scattering seeds in areas where seed sources are low. But patience is a virtue. If people can learn to tolerate less clipped and manicured landscapes, nature can run its own course.

A focus on deliberate tree planting also raises uncomfortable truths. Most trees are planted with an accompanying stake to keep them upright and a plastic shelter that protects the sapling from grazing damage. All too often, these shelters aren’t retrieved. Left to the elements, they break down into ever smaller pieces, and can be swept into rivers and eventually the ocean, where they threaten marine wildlife. Two billion tree shelters is a lot of plastic.

The main reason for using tree shelters at all is because the deer population in the UK is so high that in many places, it is all but impossible to establish new trees. This also has serious implications for existing woodland, which is prevented from naturally regenerating. In time, these trees will age and die, threatening the loss of the woodland itself. Climate change, pests and pathogens and the lack of a coordinated, centrally supported approach to deer management means the outlook for the UK’s existing treescape is uncertain at best.

An ecologically joined-up solution would be to reintroduce the natural predators of deer, such as lynx, wolves, and bears. Whether rewilding should get that far in the UK is still the subject of debate. Before that, perhaps the focus should be on providing the necessary habitat, rich in native trees.

A positive response would be to implement the balanced recommendations, made almost a decade ago in a government review, of creating more new habitat, improving what’s already there, and finding ways to link it together. Bigger, better, and more connected habitats.

But the UK is losing trees at increasing rates and not just through diseases. The recent removal of Victorian-era street trees in Sheffield and many other towns and cities is another issue to contend with. As the climate warms, increasing urban temperatures will mean cities need shade from street trees more than ever.

Trees aren’t the environmental panacea that the politicians might have people believe – even if they do make for great photo opportunities – but we do need more of them. Efforts to expand tree cover are underway across the world and the UK will benefit from contributing its share. Hitting the right balance – some commercial forestry, lots of new native woodland and millions of scattered trees – will be key to maximising the benefits they bring.

Nick Atkinson, Senior Lecturer in Ecology & Conservation, Nottingham Trent University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.