Israeli Planning Reform Gets Last-minute Revision, Drawing Environmentalists' Ire

Government claims bill will allow for quicker approval of construction plans, but green groups worry it could harm the landscape and the public's ability to oppose plans.

Critics of a proposed reform of Israel's planning establishment were shocked to discover this week that changes suggested by environmental experts had been dropped from the latest version of the bill, while last-minute changes inserted by the government could allow for construction in sensitive open spaces.

Last Thursday, a battery of planning experts, headed by Interior Ministry Planning Administration Director Binat Schwartz, marched into the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss the planning and building reform bill, which is being prepared for its two final readings in the Knesset.

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The bill, which Netanyahu considers one of the most important of his term, is meant to allow the government to advance construction plans more quickly.

Schwartz told him there were still changes that had to be made to make the planning process more efficient, among them giving more power to the local planning committees and doing away with the obligation to conduct environmental impact studies on construction plans.

Those present agreed to include Schwartz's changes, and the rush was on to rewrite the bill to include them. Officials of the Environmental Protection Ministry, who were not invited to the meeting, suddenly found themselves having to respond to major changes to the bill with only a few hours' notice.

"That's what staff work in this government looks like," a government environment expert said bitterly. "We're debating this bill for almost two years and suddenly, in one day, they insert changes that could have a significant impact on Israel's landscape."

This little coup by the Planning Administration intensified the frustration of experts and environmentalists who have been testifying for months before a joint panel of the Knesset Interior and Environment, and Economics committees, which is preparing the bill for its second and third readings.

The bill was born around two years ago, and was initially meant to be formulated by a small team of senior officials and approved in an accelerated process. However, following an outcry, the government agreed to a more comprehensive process in the Knesset committee.

The committee held a series of exhaustive hearings, during which government representatives presented the government's position. Environmental and social organizations, meanwhile, proposed amendments to the bill which they claimed would provide a better balance between development pressures and the government's desire to advance housing and infrastructure plans, and conservation of natural areas and the public's right to file objections.

It seemed to be working. After hearing all the environmentalists testify, the head of the joint Knesset panel, MK Amnon Cohen (Shas), declared that "after all the changes we make based on what we've heard in committee, this bill's mother won't even recognize it."

But when the updated version of the law was distributed earlier this week, it emerged that not only had the government ignored almost all the suggestions made by the environmental experts, the bill also included changes not debated by the committee at all, including those suggested by Schwartz.

The new law is aimed at helping bridge the increasing gap between housing demand and supply by speeding up planning procedures, which often hold up construction plans for years. The hope is that increasing the housing stock will lower home prices, though no government entity can say by how much, and when.

The Prime Minister's Office sees the reform as a response to issues raised during the summer's social protests, including the lack of affordable housing in Israel. However, while the bill calls for including "affordable housing" in building plans, it does not specify how such housing would be funded.

According to the bill, housing plans would only pass through one planning committee - the local planning committee - which would receive considerable authority to prepare "general plans" for their locales, which would replace existing regional master plans.

The bill also establishes a number of subcommittees and special infrastructure committees that would approve plans in an expedited process, and restricts the ability of the public to appeal or object to them. The bill would also limit the Environmental Protection Ministry's ability to request environmental impact studies.

Public and environmental groups say that the regional master plans the bill wants to cancel have already allocated enough land to build many years' worth of housing. Their position was reinforced by a committee of experts appointed by the Interior Ministry, which reached a similar conclusion.

Green groups say the bill would enable local planning committees to rezone open areas or cut down forests for housing. It could also lead to the revival of various building plans that had already been dropped after long battles by environmentalists, such as the "Safdie plan" to build over 20,000 homes on the ridges west of Jerusalem.

Iris Hann, a planner with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), pointed out that the bill would remove the obligation of planning committees to publish their transcripts and expert opinions submitted to them within a week. Planning panels could thus delay the release of information and deny the public sufficient time to respond to plans that could affect their property values or their quality of life.

"Instead of trying to repair the damage wrought by such an aggressive bill," said Hann, "the government is continuing as it pleases and has submitted for a vote a version that not only totally ignores the thousands of comments made, but integrates, in an underhanded fashion, even more destructive proposals."

The Interior Ministry responded by saying, "The bill on the planning and building reform is in the process of being legislated in accordance with the regular Knesset procedures. The updates inserted in the bill will be debated in the Knesset in accordance with accepted procedures."

The Prime Minister's Office said the reform would "save Israeli citizens from the current convoluted process of obtaining building permits and will fight corruption."

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