Planning reform leaves citizens behind

It is regrettable that the government once again views planning and economics as a closed science separate from the society it serves.

Construction 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Construction 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Land use and planning are currently undergoing an unprecedented overhaul in Israel. This week, under the auspices of a reform meant to shorten bureaucratic procedures, the New Law for Planning and Building will be approved by a special joint Knesset committee (the law will likely be presented to the Knesset for a vote when the plenary reconvenes in May). The prior law, passed in 1965, was the first planning law in Israeli history. The legislation of a new planning law is a historic event that will dictate the future of Israel’s landscape and fundamental social structure.
Unfortunately, however, planning tends to be a closed discussion reserved for professionals. This despite the fact that the new law will directly affect the lives of each and every one of us, by establishing, among many other things, which areas will be developed and which will remain open space, what kinds of housing will be constructed, and where new infrastructure and industrial zones will be built.
One of the primary impetuses for the reform was the burdensome bureaucracy of the existing planning regime, under which it often took decades to complete a building project. But rather than examining the processes and streamlining the licensing procedures, the new law goes a giant step further, fundamentally changing the structure of the planning system by eliminating the hierarchical structure designed to ensure oversight, prevent corruption and facilitate the realization of public interests.
As a result, the reform has been met with severe criticism from across the social, industrial and political spectrum – local and regional councils; unions and trade organizations of architects, engineers and assessors; academics; environmental protection groups; members of Knesset; disabled persons’ representative organizations; and social organizations from all over Israel have opposed the reform in its current form.
Planning is one of a government’s most influential tools for effecting social and economic policy. The unique characteristics of land use policy – the scarcity of land, the expense of development and the permanence of the decisions made in this arena – require long-term strategic planning that incorporates society’s values and goals for the future.
Without adequate protection for the common good, development left entirely to the free market will inevitably result in the disappearance of open space, the destruction of local ecologies, the widening of the gap between rich and poor and the marginalization of the weakest segments of society (the working class, minorities, disabled people, etc.). For this reason, in the Western world planning is a progressive field in which policies are developed to protect the public interest and balance the goals of development and social justice.
Yet despite the dramatic social and environmental consequences, and in disregard of the widespread criticism voiced against it by key actors, the proposed reform bill remains regressive, lacking in proper supervision and control mechanisms, and vulnerable to special interest groups furthering their interests at the expense of the public.
The Knesset held hearings that included approximately 50 rounds of discussions with dozens of academics, local government representatives and representatives of NGOs. Ultimately, however, it failed to implement the thousands of comments raised in these discussions; the wording of both its structural approach and most minute details remain almost unchanged.
The result is a reform which has no vision or social sensitivity. Although it would be impossible to list all of the reform’s failures and problems, examining a few of the more glaring omissions is illustrative of just how regressive it is.
Among other deficiencies, the reform: has no clause that defines the social goals expected of the planning process (goals such as advancing equality, reducing disparities, environmental protection, public participation and transparency); has no procedures for public participation, other than the right to file objections at the end of the planning process; has no guidelines for the relevant planning authorities to promote social objectives (such as affordable housing, integrating disabled persons and establishing public institutions); does not provide for social consultants to the planning authorities who would present the needs and social implications of proposed programs, as is customary in progressive Western planning regimes; does not include public representatives in the local planning committees, who would speak for the relevant communities and represent their needs and concerns; and does not include an affordable housing provision strong enough to facilitate the integration of populations with medium or low incomes.
The significance of these omissions is that the planning will be carried out without bringing into account the needs, desires and preferences of the populations affected. Unlike elsewhere in the world, social values and objectives such as reducing disparities and inequality will not be advanced through the planning system. On the contrary: marginalized populations will be excluded from the procedures and will suffer from self-serving, and sometimes even corrupt, planning.
It is regrettable that the government once again views planning and economics as a closed science separate from the society it serves. The government is missing a historic legislative opportunity with the New Law for Planning and Building – to offer a social and environmental law, promote rights and social interests, promote social justice, and prevent the domination of narrow interests. Instead, we get a regressive law with profound implications and irreversible effects on Israel’s environment that will accompany us for years.
The author is an attorney for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. This article was originally published in shorter form in Hebrew in The Marker on February 22, 2012.