Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Former judge Manuela Carmena and activist Ada Colau are each ready for a fight in their respective hometowns.
A golf course is an unlikely place to start a revolution. Nonetheless, that’s where the opening shots of a new battle for Spain’s cities have just been fired. Madrid’s Club de Campo Villa de Madrid is arguably Spain’s most exclusive country club, a high-society meeting place on the city fringe where the King’s sister is known to stable a few of her horses. Now, Madrid’s probable soon-to-be new mayor, left-winger Manuela Carmena, wants to tear down the fence surrounding the club and let the public in. If Carmena gets her way, the club’s two swimming pools would become accessible to the public, its restaurants would be converted into a hospitality academy, and the golf courses would take on new life as a farm school. To the club’s regulars, this assault on their second home is nothing short of a declaration of class war–newspaper El Mundo quotes one regular swearing: “I won’t go back to Prada. One of the managers told me he was voting Carmena”.
The move is just one of a large number of controversial plans being proposed by the two women poised to become the mayors of Madrid and Barcelona. These left-wing leaders, Madrid’s Carmena and Barcelona’s Ada Colau, are giving urban policy a firm shake-up. In targeting wealthy preserves like the Club De Campo, they’re also trying to make it clear to Spain’s traditional elite that they no longer call the shots.
To understand the position of both women, you need some background—and a vital caveat. Neither of Spain’s soon-to-be new mayors have the reins of power just yet. This is because Spain’s political scene is currently broken into smaller groupings, mainly thanks to the arrival of many new left-wing platforms allied to, but independent from, national leftist party Podemos (“We Can”). At the helm of an anti-austerity movement forged in the wake of Spain’s financial crisis, Podemos and its allies have challenged not just the country’s right-wing, but also Spain’s Socialist Party, which they see as implicated in promoting inequality and corruption.
With the left now shared among several parties, it has become rare for one single group to gain an absolute majority in a city. Thus, future Barcelona mayor Ada Colau’s party (and Podemos ally) Barcelona en Comú came first in elections, but is still putting together the coalition necessary to hold down City Hall. Madrid’s Manuela Carmena of the Ahora Madrid party (another Podemos associate) actually came in just behind the ruling right-wing People’s Party, but will also likely gain power because she can find coalition partners the PP lacks. Both have a time limit of twenty days from the May 24 elections to get their coalitions set up. However, Spain’s media has already acknowledged that, given the spread of votes, it’s Carmena and Colau who will rule.
What makes their arrival so striking is that neither Carmena nor Colau has professional politician past. Prior to the downturn from which Spain is only just recovering, the names of both future mayors would have probably drawn a blank with most citizens. A few years ago, 71-year-old Carmena was still just an ex-judge, running a small social enterprise called “Entrepreneur Grannies”. Meanwhile, Barcelona’s Colau was a controversial thirty-something anti-eviction activist only just catching the public eye. When Colau described her success as a “victory of David over Goliath”, that wasn’t far from the truth.
Among their promises, both mayors have proposed the same highly unusual move: official pay cuts. The mayor of Madrid currently gets paid €100,000 (just under $110,000) per year, but if Manuela Carmena gets her way, she will get just €45,402 (just under $50,000) instead. Over in Barcelona, Colau plans to accept €37,000, while additionally capping the salaries of elected officials at €2,200 ($2,417) a month and cutting unnecessary extras, such as official cars. The cuts aren’t just being proposed for the sake of economy. Spanish politicians have developed a popular reputation for lining their own nests, and the salary reductions are partly a message to voters and officials that the fat years are over.
Both mayors have also vowed to stop evictions of residents from their primary homes. If their plans work, they could halt a wave of repossessions that has beset both Madrid and Barcelona ever since Spain’s real estate bubble burst in 2008. The exact policies aren’t yet fixed, but a few possibilities are on the table. One option open to either might be setting up an intermediary office to negotiate with defaulters and banks to design a mutually acceptable agreement, a move that has already been successful in Spain’s Basque Country. Another possible option could allow each city a right of first refusal on repossessed home sales, a move similar to one already adopted in Paris. This would give Madrid and Barcelona the option to convert these homes into public rental housing, possibly even retaining the tenant. Furthermore, Colau has already promised to build 8,000 new public housing units and give up on chasing squatters out of public buildings.
Beyond housing, life should get a little easier for poorer citizens in general. Both candidates want to cut public transit fares, while Madrid’s Carmena wants to earmark €79 million of the annual budget to ensure the city’s poorest citizens can manage their food and fuel needs.
When it comes to Spain’s wealthiest institutions and individuals, however, the attitude toughens. In Barcelona specifically, banks and corporations leaving residential real estate unused will face fines, penalties that Colau insists will be “big and not symbolic”. And just as Carmena has zoomed in on the Club de Campo, so has Colau chosen another high profile urban battle against the elite. At the heart of Barcelona’s waterfront is the Port Vell Marina, a private luxury yacht haven whose site was leased from the city under Colau’s predecessor Xavier Trias. While the marina is popular with paying guests, the public can’t access it, even though Barcelona’s citizens jointly own the land. Colau has promised to review the lease—a strike aimed not just at creating more public ground, but against the idea of a fenced-off luxury preserve in the heart of the city. This is likely to be highly contentious, but if Madrid and Barcelona’s soon-to-be mayors have shown anything yet, it’s that they’re up for a fight.
Top image via CC License.