Imagine a town of 26,000 inhabitants set in the beautiful chaparral landscape to the west of Madrid — a town largely unaffected by the property boom, that hasn’t (yet) become a dormitory for workers from the capital, a town that earns its crust from wheat and winemaking and tourism, a rural idyll only a half-hour’s drive from the big city. What sort of debt would you say a town like this would be reasonably assumed to accrue? One million euro? Two? Five? Maybe at a push ten? The town is Navalcarnero and the debt being reported is ninety million euro — a staggering figure of €3,455 for every man, woman and child resident there.
This must be the most lavishly appointed town in Spain, you might speculate. It must be the envy of all the other towns in the country, with excellent health care facilities, public transport and amenities, football pitches, swimming pools, parks, museums, the sweetest, safest drinking water on the peninsula . . . You would be wrong. What Navalcarnero has are sculptures. Plenty of them. About a hundred. Fifteen million euro worth. And a further 150 granite cruceiros (a type of Galician high cross), coming in at ten million euro.
But it’s not just overground extravagance that the town hall has been engaged in under mayor Baltasar Santos’ almost twenty-year reign. An attempt to develop Navalcarnero’s extensive system of underground caverns (medieval fresqueras, stores for keeping wine and other foodstuffs fresh), to connect them all together, pretend they were always so, call them catacombs and set them up as a tourist attraction has (to date) cost in the region of twenty-five million euro. In fairness to Santos, he has thrown money at other projects of a more utilitarian nature, one example being the ten-and-a-half million euro sports centre. Unfortunately, work on this stalled in 2008 and who would not bet on this crumbling, concrete, one-tenth-finished eyesore falling into a sinkhole created by the extensive subterranean rootings around demanded by the creation of fake catacombs, the chef d’équipe of which is neither a structural nor mining engineer but a local plumber. (I would be loathe to speculate on the friendship between the said plumber and Señor Santos or his membership of Santos’ Partido Popular!)
Walking around Navalcarnero is a strange trip, a bit like being given a tour of a rock star’s house. There is a mixture of hideously expensive tat, expensively hideous tat, high kitsch, low kitsch and the odd genuine work of art by a world-renowned sculptor. An example of the latter would be The Crystal Garden by conceptual artist and body art pioneer, Dennis Oppenheim. The piece does provoke thought about our relationship to structures and space, but is a roundabout in a small town the proper place for such contemplations? By the way, The Crystal Garden itself cost €250,000, while the roundabout in which is set came in at the slightly dearer €350,000.
At the opposite end of the scale in terms of taste is El Calvario, the crucifixion scene that seems more than a tad out of place on another roundabout. Rather than giving the impression that it was sculpted by a world famous artist, it looks like the job was given to the mayor’s second cousin’s brother-in-law’s dim-witted pool attendant. (The sad thing is that it quite possibly might have been.) The questions this work of art prompts are: why is the Roman centurion’s horse more Connemara-pony-like than charger?; who are the three dudes in robes standing around and studiously ignoring one other?; how in the hell did the sculpture cost €212,280?
The tragedy for Spain is that the Navalcarnero case is far from unique. As well as dozens of cities such as Jerez de la Frontera, with a debt of €1.2 billion in addition to a similarly decadent fetish for elaborate roundabouts, there are hundreds of towns burdened by levels of debt that will take decades to clear.
As if this wicked and profligate mortgaging of the future by corrupt and inept town halls was not enough, there is a seemingly endless list of one-off projects sponsored by regional and national government and which were probably always destined to become white elephants. Just taking a handful of new regional airports, we have Castellón (€140 million), Ciudad Real (€450 million), Murcia (€200 million) and Lleida (€100 million). Only the latter is currently operational, albeit at a level thirteen times below break even costs. Zaragoza’s Expo 2008 cost €2.25 billion. Galicia’s City of Culture cost €400 million. Barcelona’s massively over budget Parc del Fórum set the city back a couple of billion euro and Line 9 of its metro some €16 billion. And to top it all off, the grim joke of Alcorcón’s Circus City, intended to become some sort of university for circus performers and clowns, remains unfinished at a spend of over €120 million. The only clowns passing through its doors so far have been the politicians who have landed Alcorcón with a debt of €600 million.
How does Spain move forward from such mismanagement? How can a population turn around and blame its political classes for landing them in the doo-doo when the likes of Navalcarnero’s Balthazar Santos are elected time and time again? Local elections are next year. What is required is a cull of the old guard of clientelist mafiosi and the emergence of a new type of civic-minded politician. If the status quo remains intact however, do not be surprised. People here seem to vote based on habit. It is more important to keep the “other crowd” out and elect a politician from your own side of the Civil War divide — one with a track record of doling out goodies to party loyalists and their extended families (including your own) — than choosing someone who might just be out to do some good for their city or town. The one ray of hope is what happened here recently for the European elections; the two main parties lost significant shares of the vote and new voices — especially those of the Podemos party — were seen to emerge. Will a snowballing of this phenomenon see a cleaning up of politics in the future?