The Culture of Hasty Building

If the gov't really intends to make planning procedures more efficient it should complete the reform of the planning system.

Much has been said and written about the undemocratic and harmful character of the Economic Arrangements Bill, used as a vehicle for trying to quickly legitimize, sometimes almost furtively, far-reaching changes in essential areas. Prominent in the list of the law's damages, currently under discussion at the Knesset, is the repeated effort to weaken and crumble the planning system.

In the guise of better efficiency and the need to develop Israel, some governments in recent years have tried to do away with the planning institutions and find accelerated tracks for building plans, thus creating a shorter and more profitable way for financial and real estate tycoons to get what they want. Senior officials in the Prime Minister's Office and Finance Ministry are convinced this is a matter of stimulating economic growth; the environmental and social price does not interest them.

The latest attempt to weaken the planning system and subordinate it to the exclusive interests of development and construction will reach a decisive stage today in the debate on the Economic Arrangements Bill by the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee. Members of the committee will be asked to decide whether they approve additional amendments to the Planning and Construction Bill, or whether they choose to make it clear to the government ? as committees have done in the past ? that the changes in the planning and construction system must be done in a way that takes into consideration as wide a range of interests as possible.

One of the proposed revisions is to significantly reduce the authorities of the Committee for Preserving Agricultural Land and Open Spaces, a planning committee that operates in the Interior Ministry. The approval of this committee is a necessary condition for advancing construction plans in open spaces in Israel. Granted, the committee does need some change and renewal to better fulfill its role of protecting the state's open spaces, but the government proposal is contrary to this goal. By cutting back the committee's authorities, the government is trying to get rid of one more obstacle in the way of approving building plans. This would prevent the committee from discussing projects with the greatest potential for harming the environment.

The fact that the Interior and Environment Committee already discussed a similar proposal in the past in the framework of the Economic Arrangements Bill makes the current attempt particularly disgraceful. In the previous case, two and a half years ago, MK Yuri Stern, then a member of the coalition, was chairman of the committee. Stern understood the problematic nature of the blanket and swift approval of reducing the authorizations of this Interior Ministry committee and demanded a comprehensive study of the way it functions.

Stern demanded that the required changes be made outside of the budget framework and Economic Arrangements Bill. Instead of this kind of study, an additional hasty initiative is coming to a vote at the committee that Stern formerly chaired. Last week, Stern commented on this, quite rightly: "This involves an extreme lack of integrity and lack of basic decency in the relationship between the government and Knesset."

Another proposal in the planning and building clauses of the Economic Arrangements Bill calls for expanding the authorities of the local planning and construction boards. Behind a web of legal formulations stands a proposal that would enable these committees, among other things, to convert areas zoned for residence to commercial areas. This would allow the carnival of establishing commercial centers on agricultural land to continue. The words of explanation by the proponents of these amendments to the law elicit bitter laughter. The drafters of the Economic Arrangements Bill explain in their traditional way how convoluted and inefficient the planning system is and how much more efficient it would be if additional authorities were granted to the local boards.

The planning system is indeed cumbersome, but it also suffers from the irresponsibility of numerous local boards, especially those operating in the rural sector. In many regions, these committees disparage the law ? as the state comptroller's report demonstrates time and again. These committees approve illegal construction and retroactively legitimize nearly every type of planning violation ? from illegal quarrying of sand to building wedding halls in prohibited locations.

Instead of reinforcing the oversight and control mechanisms for these local planning boards, and adding public representatives and professionals to make their work more efficient, the current proposals would help enable the committees to approve additional commercial construction in rural areas. One can already see the various real estate developers and land speculators who sprouted in the agriculture sector rubbing their hands in glee in anticipation of the enactment of the Economic Arrangements Bill.

If the government really intends to make planning procedures more efficient, while also implementing its decision for Israel to operate according to a policy of sustainable development, it should complete the reform of the planning system, which is already in the preparation stages at the Interior Ministry. This reform must undergo a public debate and, if necessary, go through the standard legislative processes in the Knesset. The Interior and Environment Committee must today convey this message to the government by removing the planning and construction chapter from the Economic Arrangements Bill.