Cabinet Okays Planning Bill to Dismay of Environmentalists

The cabinet approved a bill yesterday that would substantially alter the existing planning and construction system in the country. The proposal will now be sent to the Knesset for discussion and cabinet members hope it will pass a preliminary reading there in the coming weeks.

The sole minister opposed to the new legislation was Environment Minister Gilad Erdan.

The way was paved to cabinet approval of the bill after the Supreme Court rejected on Friday a petition by environmental groups protesting the short amount of time they had to formally oppose the proposal.

The court accepted the stance of the ministerial committee on legislation, which agreed to review the bill in a month and to respond to any opposition to it.

Environmental and other experts argued yesterday that the current bill is worse than previous versions of it because it grants greater control over the planning process to developers at the expense of public and environmental interests.

According to the Prime Minister's Office, the new legislation would shorten the process of planning and construction, and thus allow increased access to more construction plans, which will then lead to a drop in the prices of housing. In addition, said the PMO, if the new legislation is passed, developers would feel more secure about the chances of their plans being approved. In terms of the citizen, it will be easier to receive the green light for various building schemes.

The PMO also argues that the new bill will facilitate greater efficiency in the dealings between various professional bodies, not only within the civil service.

In his opposition statement, Erdan reflected the views of environmental groups as well as professionals in the planning sector. The environment minister noted that should the legislation be passed, representatives of government ministries will for the first time constitute a majority on the National Planning and Building Council, while the Parks' Authority will not be represented there at all.

He also predicted that his ministry will be severely constrained in its ability to oversee the impact on the environment of construction plans, prior to the granting of their approval.

"The reform of the planning and building is heavily skewed in favor of developers' interests, as opposed to the interests of [environmental] preservation," Erdan claimed.

Among the concerns of environmental groups is that the mainstay of the proposed legislation is the principle of "one plan through one committee": That is, it essentially empowers a single committee to discuss proposals, which will make it difficult to reevaluate and fully discuss them properly.

"Last week the national council canceled a plan to build a gas station in the Dead Sea area, which would have severely damaged the landscape there, [even though] it was approved by a local planning committee," said Eli Ben-Ari of the environmental group Adam Teva V'Din. "If the new legislation had been in effect, the plan would have been approved."

Environmentalists are also concerned that special new panels will be set up as part of the legislation, and that they will approve plans for residential and infrastructure projects too hastily.

Sources at the Health Ministry also expressed concerns last week that the bill might prevent their input and supervision, and lead to the approval of plans that pose public health risks.