Israeli Homeowners Win Battle for Eased Small-scale Construction

Cabinet approves legislation known as the 'Pergola Reform', which creates a fast-track process for approving simple construction projects such as enclosing balconies and greatly expands the local authorities’ planning powers.

Israeli gomeowners will no longer need to obtain a building permit to construct a pergola, fence or other minor structure under a change in the Planning and Building Law, unanimously approved by the cabinet on Sunday morning.

Popularly known as the “Pergola Reform,” the legislation also creates a fast-track process for approving simple construction projects such as enclosing balconies, and greatly expands the local authorities’ planning powers.

“This is an important first step for changing the face of the state’s planning and construction system,” Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar said after the vote.

“The reform will make it easier on Israelis and reduce bureaucracy and centralization in the planning system,” said Sa’ar, who spearheaded the plan.

Sa’ar told ministers that the reforms include substantial measures that will lead to an improved and more efficient service to citizens, while reducing the workload of the planning committees. This, he said, will allow the committees to devote more attention to ensuring that more housing is being developed, helping to push prices down.

At the beginning of the cabinet session, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu referred to the bill as a “reform in a reform,” alluding to Sa’ar’s downsizing of the so-called “Balconies Reform” initiated by Netanyahu during the previous government. Large sections of that reform − much more complex and broader in scope − were eliminated in the framework of the current measure.

“We want to simplify these procedures, cut bureaucracy and shorten timetables,” said Netanyahu. “I think it’s very important to pass it, since this is one of the main ways to lower housing costs in Israel, or at least create a trend opposite to the trend of rising prices − and this is vital. I’m convinced the government will approve it, and I expect to see the implementation of the reform soon.”

Not everyone saw eye to eye with Sa’ar, though. In advance of the cabinet session, the Forum for Responsible Planning − representing 30 environmental and social organizations − sent cabinet members a list of changes they said were needed in the bill to “prevent serious damage” in Israel’s planning procedures.

“The bill doesn’t adequately incorporate the social and environmental considerations in the planning system, and restricts the possibility of protecting the public and the environment,” the group said.

The forum added that many economic resources need to be invested to bring all of Israel’s local committees up to a proper professional level and grant them all identical powers − except for nonurban local committees that shouldn’t have their authority expanded due to the likely harm to land resources and open spaces.

MK Dov Khenin ‏(Hadash‏) also objected to the bill in its present form.

“The planning system baby mustn’t be thrown out with the bathwater of the struggle against bureaucracy,” he said. “A strong and independent planning system is vital for protecting us from narrow interests. Rather than weakening it, it must be reinforced with additional professional force and strengthened in its independence from various pressures.”

Moti Milrod