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Estepona, a case study in good governance

The occasional woes and mismanagement of towns such as Marbella and Manilva tend to overshadow the good news and hard work done by mayors and town halls in Fuengirola, Benahavis and Mijas. However, the impressive success of Estepona’s mayor, José María García Urbano, has been such that it has caught the attention of the public on a nationwide scale.

Estepona is an ancient coastal settlement that traces its earliest roots as a fishing and fish salting village to Phoenician times. So it remained through the centuries, emerging into the 20thcentury as a charming little seaside town full of Andalusian character. This attracted visitors and early foreign settlers, who bought homes along the beach near the town’s historic centre, leaving Estepona to be the ‘rustic’ little brother of more glamorous Marbella.

This difference in character and status has suited many a local and also foreign buyer or tourist just fine, and so the market has been largely self-selecting, though by the time the financial crisis hit it had become clear just how poorly run the town hall was. Put differently, Estepona had become bankrupt, a little rundown and somewhat sorry for itself. ‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man’ is an English saying, and it perfectly summarises what happened next.

The mayor that turned around Estepona

At the darkest hour, Estepona had the good luck of having a new mayor who would transform its fortunes and do it with a certain style. As a successful lawyer and notary who had been active in the area for many years, he rejected the usual payment and benefits to receive a symbolic salary of one euro per year. This was the first saving in an extremely tight budget, but next he set about auditing the books and reviewing the operational structure of the town, only to find that there were hundreds of people on the municipal payroll, some without clear job descriptions but virtually all with mobile phones and other perks paid for by the ayuntamiento (town hall).

He had the guts to dismiss many of them, cancel dozens upon dozens of mobile phone contracts, reduced the number of municipal cars, lunches, trips and many other forms of waste and corruption by eliminating hidden privilege and making the town hall more open, communicative and transparent. Though he will have no doubt made enemies in the process, the public began to take note, especially when the new mayor also announced a clean-up and beautification process in the town. Where public authorities tend to do this over the heads of the citizenry, García Urbano consulted and actively involved local residents, working hard to spark their civic pride as he initiated the painting of walls, fixing of streets and public amenities, and also inspired people to be proud of their streets and squares newly adorned with brightly coloured pot plants.

The town looked fresh and pretty, all done with public involvement and on tight budgets, and as the financial situation improved, the mayor and his team began a series of projects that include the Orchidarium, an athletics facility, artistic murals adorning apartment blocks, park restoration, and the construction of a new state-of-the-art hospital to serve the town. Other retail projects are also in the offing, as the town expands, prospers and attracts a growing number of tourists, homebuyers and investors.

A buoyant property market

The mayor has been keen to ensure any growth in the area will benefit the town and its people as a whole, and as such he has promoted the development of tourism, retail, gastronomic, educational, healthcare and residential amenities in the area, always attempting to ensure the focus is more on quality than quantity. He has shown a great willingness to work with property developers and streamline the bureaucratic procedures, and the fact that Marbella has been partly paralysed by the on-going town planning debacle has boosted growth and investment in Estepona no end. More and more luxurious modern property developments are arising, and with them the need for more beach clubs, restaurants, cafés, shops and a host of other facilities.

José María García Urbano is already somewhat of a legend in these parts, but in May this year the full impact of his eight years in charge became clear when he received the mandate for a third term in office – with his 75% of the vote the highest of any mayor in the country. At this point, the names of Estepona and its mayor resounded across Spain, and for once the Costa del Sol was a glowing example of inspired governance.

By Adam Neale | Property News | October 11th, 2019

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Estepona, a case study in good governance
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