Even though no one from the country's planning agencies will say it, the authorities are admitting that Israel's blueprint for development has been a failure. Discussions are under way on big changes to the program, National Master Plan 35, or Tama 35 in Hebrew. The changes would ramp up the number of housing units in the center of the country and cut the number elsewhere.
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The changes have been supported by the government for years; further progress was made after the cost-of-living protests in 2011. A cabinet decision in March 2012, which set planning goals under the plan's four districts, showed a preference for building in Tel Aviv and the central district around it.
For example, the decision calls for nearly 50,000 units in the central district between 2012 and 2016, and another 35,000 in the Tel Aviv district. The numbers are 21,000 for the south, 23,000 for Haifa, and 30,000 for the north. Actually, the target for the center has already been exceeded.
The drive to shift priorities is being orchestrated by the head of the Interior Ministry's planning administration, Binat Schwartz, and sources involved in the process say the Prime Minister's Office is pushing for the change. The biggest change involves expanding housing north and south of Tel Aviv, including in Netanya, Kfar Sava and Petah Tikva.
The plan increases the number of housing units in the center by 90,000 units, calling for 180,000 units by 2020, 330,000 by 2030 and 550,000 by 2040. And approval is expected in the coming months that would open 18,000 dunams (4,500 acres) for construction.
The municipal boundaries of Sharon towns Netanya, Ra'anana and Kfar Yona, and more rural communities such as Gan Yavneh and Bnei Ayish, both near Ashdod, are to be expanded through the annexation of hundreds of dunams.
Critics say the changes are being pushed through too quickly without sufficient public debate. Still, the timetable doesn't appear too rapid either. Initial ideas were sent to the National Planning and Building Council in December, the Interior Ministry says, and four sessions on the proposals have been held since.
The plans are being considered by two subcommittees, one on national infrastructure and one on planning principles. Meanwhile, the central district planning and building committee is putting together commentary. The proposal will come before the National Planning and Building Council in July, with October and November the target months for approval.
A naive effort
The basic idea underpinning National Master Plan 35 was to develop three metropolitan areas in the country in addition to Tel Aviv – Jerusalem, Haifa and Be'er Sheva. To this end, construction targets were crafted to encourage migration to the north and south.
Now, however, many city planners say this policy was a mistake, leading to a severe housing shortage in the center. Hence the changes.
"Tama 35 was an unsuccessful, naïve and ambitious effort to disperse the population to the Negev and the Galilee," said one senior planning official. "This idea that you could create a [housing] shortage in the center of the country to make sure that young people didn't leave cities like Haifa is bankrupt."
But critics argue that the new proposal would upset the original idea to develop the country's outlying areas.
"The State of Israel is again trotting out a building plan for the center of the country due to public pressure, when experts are saying that this will lead to a drop in housing prices in the center," said Shlomo Buhbut, the mayor of the northern town of Ma'alot Tarshiha and the chairman of the Union of Local Authorities.
"Flooding the market with housing will cause serious transportation and infrastructure problems. I call on the Interior Ministry to examine the national master plan that is already in place and not change it. Changing the national master plan requires thorough public debate that takes into account connecting outlying areas to the center."
Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav says the proposed change would hurt his city. "What the State of Israel has been doing over the past 25 years is building the State of Tel Aviv," he said. "Where are the people going to come from to live in the 90,000 additional homes planned for the center of the country? From the rest of the country. It’s an existential danger. No country in the world is based on a single center."
And after years of efforts, net migration from Haifa has been halted, Yahav said. "Now with one government decision, everything we built could collapse," he added.
According to a presentation prepared by the National Planning Administration, "Tama 35 set goals for population distribution in the belief in the state's ability to influence regional distribution based on national considerations and the public good, even when that is not consistent with market forces."
The planning agency said it discovered major gaps between the goals for population dispersal and the population patterns on the ground. The data show that by 2007, the population in some cities in the central district had already exceeded what was planned for 2020.
Meanwhile, Haifa and Be'er Sheva had not reached a quarter of the growth slated for 2020. As a result, over the past year, the new approach has focused on the center of the country.
In any case, Forum 15, a group of cities that receive no special subsidies from the central government, opposes the proposed changes. The association includes Tel Aviv, Ramat-Gan, Ra'anana, Rishon Letzion, Haifa and Ashdod.
"These changes are not just amendments as the government is trying to present them," said Eitan Atia, the head of Forum 15. "They involve major changes, and we're worried they're about the obliteration of Tama 35."