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Embattled Barcelona mayor fails to hit tourism and housing targets

Ada Colau is once more politically isolated, while long-standing problems in the city remain unresolved

Ada Colau at the opening of the Smarty City Expo World Congress on Tuesday.
Ada Colau at the opening of the Smarty City Expo World Congress on Tuesday.

Two-and-a-half years ago, Ada Colau and her party, Barcelona en Comú, took power in the Catalan capital after a campaign during which they promised to address the key issues of housing and sustainable management of the city’s extraordinary tourism boom.

It was a tight victory – there were just 17,000 votes in it – and Colau and her party secured just 11 of the 41 councilor seats in City Hall. They formed a minority government until May 2016, when they entered into a partnership deal with the Catalan Socialsts (PSC) – an agreement that provided stability and helped build bridges with the city’s business and culture communities, while helping reduce the workload for Colau and her party.

Internal City Hall politics will continue to interfere in municipal activity for the remainder of Colau’s mandate

But after 17 months, the marriage of convenience is over, and not because of local issues. After controversially consulting the grass-roots membership, Colau and her party have decided to split with the PSC over the Socialists’ support of Madrid’s invocation of Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which saw Catalonia’s regional powers suspended in the wake of the recent unilateral declaration of independence that was voted through the Catalan parliament.

As a result, two-and-a-half years after coming to power, Colau is now alone once more at the head of government of a city that is receiving more tourists than ever, and which, last summer, saw its first ever anti-tourism attacks. Meanwhile, the business community has condemned the mayor over the criminalization of the sector in the form of illegal holiday apartments.

An official poll carried out in early summer – before the terrorist attack on La Rambla and before the crisis over the independence issue took hold – shows that housing remains a major concern for residents of Barcelona: an unprecedented price hike means it is now nearly impossible to find a place to live for less than €800 a month.

Barceloneta beach in Barcelona.
Barceloneta beach in Barcelona.

So serious is the housing situation in the city that Colau has even been criticized by the Mortgage Victims Platform (PAH), an organization she founded and the place where she gained her political chops. The group has taken the mayor to task for failing to complete a census of empty apartments in Barcelona that could be used to house low-income families or finalize the roll-out of an online reference tool designed to cool rental prices by offering renters comparative information on how much they should be paying.

Colau has also failed to reduce the earnings gap between Barcelona neighborhoods, with 53 of 73 areas coming in below average in terms of salaries. At the same time, the number of middle-income families has plummeted.

All the above comes in spite of the fact that during her time in charge, the mayor has focused precisely on these three problem areas of tourism, housing and inequality.

A total of 53 of 73 Barcelona neighborhoods come in below average in terms of salary levels

In terms of tourism, Colau has launched the city’s novel official tourism planning strategy, known as PEUAT, which bans the building of new hotels in the city center and moves new projects out to the periphery. A new campaign against illegal apartments has also seen 1,000 closed, about 20% of those on the market.

When it comes to housing, the government of Colau has approved an ambitious plan to increase the supply of public housing stock from 6,500 to 10,000 through a public-private partnership that will build and manage new apartments. This company has not yet been formed but public land for the construction of more than 1,000 apartments has been made available.

Meanwhile, in the fight against inequality, Colau has persisted with the widely applauded policies of previous left-wing coalition governments, investing some €150 million in neglected city districts along the Besòs river.

City Hall has also called a moratorium on new entertainment venues in areas such as Poble Sec, Sants and Sant Antoni, where nightlife is causing problems. Studies are now being carried out to look at current supply and determine if, and where, future growth should be allowed.

It is now impossible to find a place in Barcelona to call home for less than €800 a month

But with just a year-and-a-half left of Colau’s mandate, it doesn’t take a fortune-teller to see that internal City Hall politics will continue to seriously interfere in municipal activity. The mayor will find it hard to push forward with her plans for housing, tourism and social equality as well as other projects including, for example, joining up the two tram lines in the city’s outskirts, the creation of a public funeral service and an overhaul for rules governing on-street seating of cafés and restaurants. With Colau’s party counting on just 11 councilors, it is going to be an uphill battle.

English version by George Mills.

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