The maneuver that the head of the National Planning Administration, Binat Schwartz, and the National Planning Council are trying to pull off at the moment are a real bombshell for the housing market. They are trying to push through a new national master plan for housing and population distribution in the guise of making changes to the existing plan, an usual and disturbing step.
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So it should be said up front that the proposed so-called changes to National Master Plan 35, or Tama 35 as it is known in Hebrew, actually run counter to the original plan. As a national plan, Tama 35 is supposed to be underpinned by serious research - the kind that went into a plan called "Israel 2020" on which the current Tama 35 was based. But no similar planning is being carried out again now regarding the proposed changes. And in the process, planning authorities in this country are doing things that should simply not be done.
The name Tama 35 will still appear on documents including provisions that are totally contrary to the original plan, which itself was only approved seven years ago. Granted, the original Tama 35 plan was approved, but it was never really implemented, especially when it comes to its fundamental tenet that outlying areas of the country should be strengthened and the country's population dispersed away from the overcrowded center.
The planners who designed Tama 35 recognized inequalities between outlying regions and the central region, and designed the plan to halt migration from the north and south to Tel Aviv and its vicinity. This guiding principle is expressed in the plan's targets for population dispersal by 2020, which included the goal of substantial population growth for Haifa and the north, and Be'er Sheva and the south.
And why should people get up and leave the center of the country for Haifa's suburbs or Afula? The answer was that they should be encouraged to do so through major investment in outlying areas to make them more attractive. One of the facets of the plan was the creation of three other major metropolitan areas in addition to Tel Aviv - for Jerusalem, Haifa and Be'er Sheva. The goal was to give these areas relative power in relation to their surroundings and a critical mass of employment opportunities, cultural amenities, housing, education and regional economic resources.
Seven years after the approval of Tama 35, the situation has only become worse. In practice, Tel Aviv remains the only city meeting the definition of a metropolitan area. Jerusalem was never more than a city with two or three satellite towns near it; Be'er Sheva is far from meeting the definition; while over the past two decades, Haifa's standing has weakened. It's not enough to designate a city as a metropolis. Major resources must be invested there, but the state has not done that.
Due to the failures in implementing the original Tama 35, critics have argued that the time has come to end attempts to coax Israelis to move where they don't want to live, and instead we should let them live where they want. And the critics also say Israel isn't big enough for more than one metropolitan area.
It's possible that the criticism is well-taken and that Israel has only room for one metropolis, but as things are being carried out now, there is reason to fear that this is a step that will perpetuate and justify past neglect and lay the ground for more neglect in the future. Particularly if the state views Tel Aviv as the only metropolitan area, the obligation to make it accessible to all the country's residents grows, especially for those who choose to live in outlying areas but work in Tel Aviv. But in fact, on a regular basis we see that effort faltering. It is not a top government priority.
As a practical matter, the proposed plan, which could be called "Anti-Tama 35," in the guise of the idea that there is no alternative, is seeking to favor development in the center of the country at the expense of other areas. The state prefers to spend billions in freeing up land and other limited efforts to address specific barriers to construction in the center rather than addressing national impediments, particularly in the field of transportation, which could open up the housing market beyond that narrow strip between Hadera in the north and Ashkelon in the south. When driving to Tel Aviv becomes a nightmare trip taking hours, it's obvious other parts of the country haven't got a chance and that migration to the center will only continue.
The current situation is not only contrary to the logic of Tama 35, but also contrary to any well-considered planning policy. But it doesn't look like that will influence the people at the planning agencies. Trains that don't meet 21st century standards, poor public transportation and giant traffic jams on the coastal highway will be with us in the coming years as well, just as we ask repeatedly why housing prices in Tel Aviv continue to skyrocket.