Tel Aviv beachfront property
A beachfront property in Tel Aviv with a controversial building plan. Photo by Nir Kafri
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Members of the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee must be feeling quite foolish these days. They recently spent hours at committee meetings to prepare the new planning and construction law, which is supposed to streamline planning procedures. And now the prime minister manages, in under a week, to approve the promotion of a bypass law that enables the establishment of new bodies that answer to the name "national housing committees."

The purpose of these committees is swift approval of construction plans that include 200 or more residential units. They will be able to approve construction plans after abbreviated checks of environmental effects, with the help of private consultants.

Although the committees are supposed to take into account national planning considerations, it is clear that a mechanism of this type, which enjoys broad powers, will be able to skip easily over obstacles such as the Committee for the Protection of the Coastal Environment, which operates in the Interior Ministry and currently prevents many construction plans.

The problem of housing prices that the committees are supposed to solve is real, and part of the solution lies in increasing the supply of apartments on the market. But the fact that the prime minister and his team of economic advisers repeatedly ignore real planning and construction data raises questions regarding the true intentions of the new initiative.

It is hard to understand how planning committees are established so hastily, at a time when according to the statistics of the Israel Lands Administration there is an inventory of 160,000 residential units approved for construction on public land. According to figures gathered by the Interior Ministry, there are land reserves approved for residential purposes that cover an area of almost a millions dunams - more than all the built-up areas at present.

Recently the Open Landscape Institute, which operates as part of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, conducted an analysis of plans approved for construction that have not yet been carried out. The analysis indicates that most of the barriers to housing construction are not related to a lazy official on a planning committee, or a boring bureaucratic procedure. The barriers are for the most part an absence of transportation solutions and infrastructure facilities, and budgetary disputes among the government ministries.

Defense concerns also impose various limitations on implementing construction plans.

There is no escaping the conclusion that there are political elements in the government that are interested in obtaining greater control over the administration of land resources, in a manner that will serve financial or political sectors close to them. This will also serve the policy of privatizing lands and national planning, in the spirit of the prime minister's economic and social philosophy.

After seeing that the process of formulating a planning and construction law was being delayed in the Knesset, these elements, headed by Netanyahu, circumvented the normal processes by establishing the national housing committees.

In order to promote construction plans for which there is broad consensus, including that of environmental groups, there are many additional actions the government could adopt in order to streamline the planning process, without any need for harmful legislation. Among other things, the planning committees can be reinforced with professional manpower, permit processes can be simplified, and there can be coordination among the various ministries for the purpose of streamlining the construction of infrastructure.

The national housing committees will apparently follow in the rotten footsteps of similar committees that operated about two decades ago. They will approve construction on unique natural areas, including coastlines, and will lead to the construction of neighborhoods that lack public spaces and access roads. They will encourage the construction of neighborhoods of private homes for a well-to-do population, for whom even today's housing prices are no problem. These well-off buyers will be glad to invest their money in places with a particularly beautiful view, a view which will have been stolen from the public.