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An interview with the mayor of Utrera, in Spain
Born in July 1971, José María Villalobos is an industrial engineer, with a degree from the ETSI of the University of Seville. He has been the mayor of Utrera since June 2015. Previously, he was a councilor for the Utrera City Council in the 2003 - 2007 and 2011 – 2015 terms, and a provincial deputy responsible for the Municipal Technical Assistance area.
Currently, in addition to being the mayor of Utrera, he is also the vice president of the Consorcio de Aguas del Huesna. He has been professionally linked to industry and management consulting, developing projects that have ranged from SMEs to large international corporations and the Public Administration. His hobbies are reading and travelling.
Mr Mayor, how would you describe Utrera in your own words?
Utrera is one of the middle-sized cities of Andalusia that is rich in tangible and intangible heritage and history. Historically it has been an agro-industrial city, until in the second half of the 20th century when new manufacturing was introduced, and the service sector grew. In addition, I think we have benefited from being a communication hub between Seville, Cádiz and Malaga.
Likewise, within the metropolitan area of Seville, the capital of Andalusia, we are its “southern gate”, so to speak. From a social point of view, it is a very open and welcoming city. Everyone who comes here feels at ease with the Utreran hospitality.
Your city has been recognized as the cradle of some of the most representative symbols of Andalusian and Spanish culture, such as flamenco and bullfighting. What is the story behind this?
Indeed, in terms of flamenco, Utrera has always had a very large Roma community. In addition, the Roma people of Utrera have not been discriminated against at any time in history as it had happened in other geographical areas.
As an example, the first Roma official in Spain was a slaughterer working for the Utrera City Council in the 19th century. A current example are two councilors at the Municipal Corporation, who have Roma roots.
With regard to bulls, Utrera has large areas of land where the breeding of the fighting bulls has proliferated. In fact, the first bull ever bred for fighting was born in our city. As a curiosity, the Murube family, owners of the cattle ranch, used to live in the mansion that is currently occupied by the Utrera City Council.
How is your city facing the challenges of the Covid pandemic?
With determination and courage, always trying to anticipate the facts. Two days before the declaration of the state of emergency Utrera was already a desert, there was no one on the streets and most of the bars had closed. This was due to two reasons: municipal measures and because citizens got the message early about what was coming.
Since then, we have decided to be proactive and not wait for the decisions and actions that other higher administrations have taken. In this sense, between June and October of last year, there were city councils that acted as if nothing was happening.
Others, as is our case, decided that if the competent authority at that time did not act, we could not stay quiet while the infection rates grew dreadfully in Utrera. Thus, we made very difficult decisions that were very necessary to prevent the spread of the virus.
And now speaking of the future, how do you see Utrera as a sustainable European city? Are there projects that are underway to achieve this?
Utrera is currently in a process of becoming a green and sustainable city. We have one of the most complete urban transport systems for a mid-size city: we launched it a year and a half ago. Likewise, we have carried out energy renovations in schools and installed LED lighting throughout the municipality, which means much less pollution.
For the near future, we have designed a system of bike lanes that will make us the second Spanish city with the most kilometers of cycling routes per inhabitant. We are going to implement a Smart City system with environmental and parking sensors, to promote smart mobility. In addition, we are going to improve and expand numerous parks and green areas, and we are even going to build a peri-urban park.
Nowadays, apart from sustainability, social inclusivity is considered essential. Can you highlight initiatives that your administration has implemented in this regard?
Utrera, and a large part of Andalusia, has special characteristics in this aspect derived from the structural unemployment that we have historically carried. In this sense, social policies to fight poverty occupy a prominent place in government action and since my arrival in the mayoral office, aid to people in need and employment programs have multiplied.
In addition, the pandemic has aggravated this situation and for next year we have already budgeted 100% of the social assistance funds that used to be set aside in a normal year. In addition, the Utrera Futura recovery plan includes more than 5 million euros in different employment and training programs.
Do you have any advice for your peers - the other European mayors who are struggling to achieve similar developments in their municipalities?
I am not one to give advice, and less to my fellow mayors who have been elected by their constituents. But I think that a mayor’s time is best spent by listening to his citizens.
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