Monday, March 31, 2008

The Battle Of The Prado

Anyone who thinks that the political battle between Esperanza Aguirre and Madrid mayor Alberto Ruiz Gallardón ended when Aguirre blocked Gallardon’s chances of getting into the Spanish parliament could not be more wrong. The battle between the two rivals has taken a new twist in the last couple of weeks in a tussle over plans by Gallardón to reform the area of Recoletos and the Paseo de Prado in the centre of Madrid. As work is about to begin, Aguirre’s regional administration has stepped in to request an environmental impact assessment on the project and to stress that a significant part of the area affected falls under regional control. It is a move which would hold up the project for a minimum of several months.

Now both Aguirre and Gallardón have past form when it comes to avoiding environmental impact studies of their great projects. In Gallardón’s case the European Union got involved over the giant project to bury the M-30 ring road and to replace it with an innovative urban desert. Unfortunately by the time the EU turned up asking to see the environmental report the project was more or less over. Meanwhile, Aguirre pressed ahead in similar fashion with a controversial project to straighten and re-route a road running through the countryside near Madrid; a project widely believed to be linked to plans to urbanise as much as possible of the area. This was in spite of the existence of a negative environmental impact study. This project has ended up in the courts, but again much of the damage has been done before any action has been taken; this being truly a country where facts on the ground count for much more than anything the law might say.

The Prado-Recoletos reform is the flagship project of Gallardón’s current term and has already undergone much revision as a result of the Baroness Thyssen threatening to lie under the bulldozers unless she got her way on preserving the area around the Thyssen Museum. It is a bit ironic that the attempt to enforce environmental assessment should come with perhaps the only one of these mega projects that potentially increases the amount of space available to pedestrians rather than cars. The regional government seems to think that what the project needs is a new tunnel underneath into which they can funnel even more traffic through the heart of the city. Now tunnels are something that Madrid does well, which is perhaps not surprising as much of the past (and future) city budget has disappeared into the multiple tunnels that honeycomb the city.

Gallardon’s administration has responded with a fairly common deceit. Instead of treating the project as a whole, they now propose to break it up into several mini projects and start work immediately on those parts where the regional government has no competence. Blessed as we are with such far sighted visionaries as our municipal and regional leaders, there is clearly no reason at all why the execution of a massive civil works project in the city centre should be allowed to take priority over yet another bout of political infighting.

Meanwhile Gallardón has ended his post-election period of reflection on his political future by deciding that he likes his job after all, at least when the only available alternative is not having any job. He has also transformed himself into a fervent Rajoy loyalist, knowing as he does that there is no realistic possibility of him successfully challenging the current PP leader. Last week he poked Aguirre supporters in the eye by presenting a motion pledging allegiance to Rajoy to the entire PP group in the city administration – a group which contains several Aguirre supporters; none of whom felt able to refuse support to the motion. In the case of the Espe and Alberto show, we are just witnessing the end of the beginning.

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