Dozing on Our Balconies

While a new sophisticated system might expedite the enclosing of balconies, it will limit peoples' ability to have a say about decisions affecting their quality of life.

Enclose your balcony and keep quiet - that's what Israelis need to do, according to the new planning and building bill the government recently finished working on. The bill aims to realize the prime minister's slogan that anyone should be allowed to enclose his balcony quickly. But in fact, while the new sophisticated system might expedite the enclosing of balconies, it will limit peoples' ability to have a say about decisions affecting their quality of life.

After the bill was pushed through quickly and almost clandestinely, it reached the phase for objections and comments, which is open to the public. That phase ends today. Although the law is huge (almost 600 clauses), with a heavy impact, only 21 days were allotted to the objections phase. This shows that the government really isn't interested in allowing deep criticism, but wants the Knesset to quickly vote the bill into law.

A study of the bill reveals that it's a new bureaucratic tangle, adding more than 20 new committees with broad powers to approve construction plans. It increases the role of government, while limiting the ability of the public and organizations representing the public to object to, or influence the planning process. It also decreases transparency.

A few weeks ago, concerns arose about the many powers being granted to local planning committees, which can be influenced by vested interests. But these have now been replaced by concerns about government centralism that will promote development and construction based only on the viewpoint that seems right to the government, without suitable checks and balances.

According to the new bill, the planning committees would be under the complete control of government representatives, whose numbers would increase on some committees. Members of planning institutions would not be allowed to provide information on committees' deliberations. The possibility to submit alternative plans, such as the one handed in recently to preserve Gazelle Valley in Jerusalem, has been curtailed.

Deliberations by local planning and building committees will still be open to the public, but those of the more senior district and national committees, on which government representatives are a majority, would no longer be documented at all.

The special subcommittee for national infrastructure, with an absolute majority of government representatives, would have the final say on planning any new infrastructure, and there would be no possibility to discuss it in a planning committee with a more balanced makeup. Representatives of one environmental group would not be able to take part in discussions of objections to a plan by another environmental group, which seems intentionally designed to weaken such groups.

The planning and building system in a democratic country should give the government the ability to plan and implement, but should also allow extensive cooperation by the public and protect the independence of experts. Where there is no transparency and the planning institution is unbalanced, the experts lose much of their ability to present their positions free from governmental pressure. The public is pushed aside. It is silenced and forced to seek other avenues to obtain information and stand up for its rights.

From the point of view of quality of life in Israel, the significance is clear. Real estate entrepreneurs would be able to quickly push plans through the system. The government would be able to approve roads or new communities at the expense of open spaces without taking into account Israeli society's various needs. It would always claim that it is streamlining, simplifying and shortening processes. Israelis will be able to doze happily on their enclosed balconies while the planning committees, which have carefully maintained secrecy and have not recorded the proceedings, will take care of the rest.