I mentioned in a previous blog post (the Gargoyle Folk), that I'd been lucky enough to cadge a ride with a local vet into the wild mountains of Albacete while he visited remote farms to inspect their goat herds. One of the eye-opening revelations of this visit was that one of the farmers offered me a house for 8000 euros. It was a big house and not in a bad state of repair! The problem is that it was so remote it would have been difficult to live there. How folk survived there in the old days before cars is quite a mystery to me. This smallholding was about an hour's drive from the nearest petrol station or anything resembling a shop!
Another town I visited near Hellin was in obvious decline. There were signs that it had once been a bustling place, with a town square, fountains, and some quite impressive public buildings that were now abandoned. There was a general store come grocers but that was about it. My guide explained to me that everything the townspeople need now is brought in on wheels, gas bottles, bread, green-grocers, even a mobile pharmacy visits the town on certain days. All of the public services once enjoyed by the town had gone and the town hall had closed. Even the school had closed since there were no longer any children. Most of the few residents remaining in residence were pensioners. The town was a victim of a phenomenon known as rural depopulation.
This comes about for a number of reasons. Clearly in the past, Spain had a labour-intensive, agrarian economy. With the advent of machinery and modern intensive farming techniques, the demand for labour reduces, so technological unemployment is a factor. Young people are more avaricious than in the past, lured by film and TV their horizons are widened beyond the humble life of agriculture and farming. They are drawn to life in the city with better wages and prospects. Gradually the population ages, the town hall's ability to raise revenue decreases, and the value of property and land depreciate. There comes a point when the town ceases to function economically. It simply dies.
While this is not a phenomenon unique to Spain, (parallels can be seen across all of Europe, even the UK), there is something particularly eerie about dead Spanish towns which may be to do with the hot dry weather. As you may have seen with old Spanish farmhouses decaying at the roadside, there is an epic quality to the crumbling ruins which in other countries might be camouflaged into the landscape in a covering of moss and plant growth. Not so here. Ruins tend to stick out like markers in time, poignantly reminding observers of a once-great past. There is a phrase used here to describe such places: La España vaciada – “the hollowed-out Spain”
An article in an online newspaper caught my eye in 2017 which claimed four out of ten villages in Malaga province had experienced such a decline in population over the last decade. Some of these are towns I know. The article doesn't offer any solutions though it does highlight some of the contributing factors as poor communications and inadequate utilities such as electricity supply and water treatment plants that are lacking in towns with small populations.
My feeling is the problem won't be fixed without incentives. As I mentioned in a Facebook post in 2017, if it was up to me I'd give the villages free fibreoptic internet and incentives in the forms of tax relief and grants for local people to create global-reaching cottage industries. The opportunities to sell locally based products of everything from espidrils, leather sandals, wicker baskets and those cute flamenco chairs to sought-after agricultural and religious artefacts remain largely under-exploited in a place and time where such manufacturing skills are dying out through lack of local demand. As someone commented, this should be done 'without burdening them with a 270 euro 'autonomo' bill before they even pick up a handful of clay or a bodkin'.
Tourism also plays an important role. In the North of England, York is a vibrant, thriving town, in part because it is a popular tourist location. Ten minutes drive down the road there are umpteen towns in decline because they lack the very popularity with tourists that York enjoys. One of the reasons I feel 'safe' living in Olvera is that our 12th century castle and massive 18th century church will always draw tourists. Every village here has in my view, an important duty to make the most of its tourist identity. There are things of interest in every town I've visited in Spain, though sometimes one has to dig deep to reveal their stories. Towns should be shouting these from the roof-tops.
One final thought. Olvera and any other town seeking to attract passing tourists should be doing everything in their power to attract and incentivize the installation of charging stations for electric vehicles. The last time I looked, these are mainly clustered in big cities like Madrid or in coastal towns. There are hardly any in rural locations between say, Madrid and Malaga. If I was a German holiday-maker planning to drive down from Berlin in my Tesla, I wouldn't want to have to drive down through Barcelona and around the Mediterranean coast because my GPS software planned the route according to where the EV charge stations are, I'd want to drive down direct through Madrid to Malaga via the shortest route. However this is barely possible at the moment. If Olvera had a charge-point, the growing number of tourists driving electric cars would be able to choose to make a required stop in our lovely town.
This sort of thing is not without historical precedent. I was born and bred in a town in the South of London called Surbiton, part of the borough of Kingston Upon Thames. Kingston was a grand old town mentioned in the doomsday book, and it grew as an important stopping point for travelers from London to the naval port of Portsmouth. From the 15th century onward, Kingston built a significant coaching-house industry. During this time Surbiton was little more than a hamlet surrounded by fields. In the early 19th century, a new Railway, the London and Southampton line was proposed to run through Kingston, however, the plan was rejected by Kingston Council, who feared that it would be detrimental to the coaching trade. They really shot themselves in the foot! The line was re-routed to go via Surbiton, where a new station opened in 1838. As a result, Surbiton profited and became one of the first towns in London's commuter belt. Kingston attracted a branch line in 1869 which is all it has to this day whereas Surbiton is a now major mainline station connecting London to the South Coast. This example serves to illustrate why transport infrastructure is crucial to a settlement's growth and why the placement of charging stations for electric vehicles could be a key driver in reviving the fortunes of rural populations in inland Spain.