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Planning and building in Spain: points to bear in mind in Catalonia

Planning regulations in Spain vary from one autonomous community to another, so what you are allowed to do in Castellón province or Teruel may differ considerably from what’s permitted in Catalonia.

Catalonia’s planning laws are basically those laid down by the Generalitat, the autonomous government of Catalonia. Other regulations can be imposed by the Urbanisme (planning) departments of each province, and in particular, by the Ajuntaments or local councils.

In broad terms and since 2007, all land in Spain is now effectively divided into two types:

suelo urbano or suelo urbanizable — buildable, residential land
suelo rural — non-buildable, rural land

‘Urbano’ land includes residential areas of towns and villages, and residential estates (urbanizaciones).

Rural land encompasses almost all land in the country: irrigated or non-irrigated farmland, scrubland, forest, etc.

Rural land next to towns or villages, or adjacent to existing residential estates, may be re-zoned as urban land. The re-zoning process is lengthy and complicated and may be reversed at any stage, so be sure to take legal advice if you are told that the rural land is going to be re-zoned.

You can find out whether land is rural or urban at the Catastro, the Spanish tax office’s land register, principally used to calculate taxes.

Building on rural land in Catalonia

In general terms and in nearly all areas:

New building on rural land in Catalonia is now effectively limited to storage buildings (almacenes). The square meterage and height allowed varies from village to village, and is often linked to the amount of cultivated land.

Permission to build an almacén entitles you to build somewhere to store your tools and crops. While it may be reasonable to include an open fire, an area to prepare food and a WC and washroom, note that the council is not giving you permission to build a dwelling.

Note that, in any event, some councils no longer allow you to build an almacén of any size unless you have a minimum amount of land, or can prove you are registered as a farmer and make part of your income from that land.

In most areas you will need plans from an arquitecto (architect), an aparejador (technical architect/surveyor) or an enginiero agrónomo (agricultural engineer) to build an almacén.

Recently, in the Terres de l’Ebre area (the comarcas of La Ribera d’Ebre, Baix Ebre, Terra Alta and Montsià in the south of Tarragona provinces), proposals have been made to allow a new category of rural construction known as a maset, which is basically a small cottage for part-agricultural, part-leisure use. The idea is that these cottages can be inhabited on a weekend/ocasional basis.

These proposals have been approved in principle and are now in the community consultation stage, with definitive regulations expected in 2012. It is likely that to get a licence for a maset you will need a minimum amount of land, which will have to be in production.

Renovating an existing building in Catalonia is nearly always possible, provided you a) respect its existing footprint, height and volume, and b) maintain the same use.

For example, in the case of small country ‘casitas’ that were clearly not multi-room dwellings in the past, the use of the building cannot be changed, so basically a small barn cannot become a home.

Larger buildings that were clearly inhabited year-round in the past can be renovated as dwellings, subject to approval from the local council, and from Urbanisme and other departments of the Generalitat. The planning process requires basic architect’s plans and usually takes six months at the very least.

You may be asked to use certain finishes and materials (terracotta pantiles, pointed stonework or lime render, wooden windows, etc), and the building will be expected to blend in with the local architectural traditions.

In our view, an application for permission to extend significantly a country property in Catalonia is unlikely to be granted. We have found that sometimes it’s possible to get permission to enclose and roof a corral: an adjacent livestock enclosure.

Extra care needs to be taken if rural land is in a protected wildlife area or PEIN. There are many such areas in Tarragona province, and within them building an almacén may be forbidden and permission to renovate an existing building harder to obtain.

If you are intending to renovate an existing building or build an almacén and need some guidance, please feel free to drop me an email. We have some experience, and can put you in touch with with local councils, technical architects and builders.

Building on urban land in Catalonia

Building in Catalan villages, towns and residential estates is much less restricted, and specific regulations about how big you can build etc in any area, are available from the local council.

Likewise the renovation of village houses: there are for example specific guidelines as to how many floors a building can have. You may be required to renovate facades in a specific way.

With regard to renovating village houses one area needs mentioning: in Catalan villages you are not allowed to directly overlook your neighbour, unless he or she specifically agrees that you can.

Consequently, new windows, terraces and balconies need to be set back from your property boundary, typically by one or two metres although this distance appears to vary from village to village. Existing windows etc that overlook your neighbour are usually OK.

Catalonia does have a listed building system, but it appears to be less extensive than that of some other countries.

It seems that inside a building you can generally do pretty much what you want provided you meet structural and habitation standards. If in doubt, ask the municipal architect at the Ajuntament.

Building licences for refurbishment work: obras mayores and obras menores

Licences are divided into two types, according to the nature of the work:

OBRAS MAYORES (‘major works’) apply where the work to be carried out involves changing a building’s structure. Examples include changing a roof*, putting in a new floor or stairs, or extending a building. Obras mayores usually require at least aparejador’s plans.

OBRAS MENORES (‘lesser works’) are for when the work does not affect the structure. For example, interior refurbishment work that does not affect load-bearing elements.

* Some villages allow re-roofing of areas of under 30 m2 with an obras menores licence.

Getting started

Your first step should be to talk to a registered local builder, aparejador or architect.

They will be able to tell you whether the work you want to do is possible, and the types of permission involved.

The next step is usually to make an appointment with the local council’s técnico (municipal technical architect) and take a few rough sketches, and a plan and photos of the property.

Depending on the council’s reply, you can then get the aparejador or architect to prepare plans and submit an application.