Controversy Erupts Over Planning Reform in Israel


A building under renovation in Tel Aviv - Jaffa. Photo by Jesse Fox.

Israel's planning system is inefficient, and long overdue for a reform - on this, almost everyone agrees. What kind of reform? On this there is no consensus, but plenty of ideas are floating around. In the meantime, an expeditious attempt to reform the system has ignited a storm of controversy, and even the High Court has been drawn into the dispute, issuing an injunction last week temporarily preventing the government from even discussing the matter.

What is it about planning reform that has so many people in Israel in an uproar?Reforms for Economic Growth
When he took office a year ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced his intention to push through radical reforms in three areas: land, transportation and planning. The first reform passed, the second was whittled down significantly and the battle over the third is currently raging.

The PM makes no secret of the fact that he represents what can be called a "pro-market" perspective, emphasizing economic growth. He views the country's planning system in its current form as an impediment to growth, calling it a "bureaucratic monster" with a "choke hold" on the construction sector.

There is plenty of truth in this description, as even environmental groups admit that planning procedures under the current system are unreasonably long and convoluted. For example, obtaining a permit to produce electricity from wind turbines is a process that can take at least five years.

However, when the details of the government's proposal for a new planning law were unveiled last month, after several months of closed-door discussions, a storm erupted that led all the way to the High Court.

Fundamental Changes to the Planning System
In Israel, a tiny country the size of New Jersey, the planning system consists of three levels: local, district and national. The reform proposes transferring the bulk of responsibilities for approving building plans to the local level. It also proposes shorter approval times, with planning bodies given up to 90 days to approve large building plans.

But the reform goes much further than that. Containing almost 600 clauses spread over nearly 250 pages, the new law would abolish planning bodies charged with protecting coastal areas and agricultural land from development, along with a host of other fundamental changes. Despite its complexity, the public was given only 21 days to comment on the legislation.

More Time Needed for Discussion
The reform drew plenty of criticism, much of it on environmental grounds. Emergency conferences were organized, Facebook groups and online petitions set up. Some are even planning to take to the streets in protest. A group of NGO's put together a proposal for an alternative planning reform. Four thousand letters poured in from citizens expressing their opposition to the planned reform. Even local planning councils, which would be given greater authority under the new law, came out against it.

In a letter to the Prime Minister, the Environmental Protection Minister wrote: "The bill may lead to severe injury to the environment, nature, open spaces and the quality of lives of the residents of Israel. Both I and the professionals in my office believe the proposal will prevent adequate planning of the state's lands, meddle with the planning hierarchy and limit proper public oversight on planning regulations."

A coalition of environmental organizations took their case to the High Court of Justice, arguing that the public and government bodies should be given at least 90 days to submit comments on the new law (the same amount of time the new law gives the planning system to discuss and approve large construction projects). The court granted a temporary injunction, and is expected to discuss the case this week.

More updates to come soon...

Tags: Conservation | Israel | Urban Planning

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