Politics: Who's afraid of the big, bad bill?

The fight over the Law for Building and Planning has begun.

construction modiin 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
construction modiin 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Tensions ran high in the standing-room-only meeting in the Knesset’s Galilee Hall. Contractors, environmental activists, opposition MKs and civil rights organizations squeezed by each other, pushing past ushers and television cameras, while some of the Prime Minister’s Office’s heavy hitters looked on at the political feeding frenzy. The focus of the carnival lay scattered on the meeting tables, a plump blue-covered book whose front read simply: Government Bill: The Law for Building and Planning.
Kadima’s opposition leaders were not alone in hoping that the more than-300-page-long bill – Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s legislative brainchild – would prove to be the political tar pit of the Knesset’s brief but steamy summer session. But a week after the televised first meeting of the joint committee of the Interior and Economic Affairs committees – tasked with steering the bill through the Knesset – that signaled the jump-start of the legislative process, the potentially landmark legislation seems at risk of fading into the political doldrums of potentially endless hearings picking through its dozens of clauses.
It is easy to understand why: The bill is heavy, complex and highly technical, making it hard to pry out headlines and catchphrases. An early attempt by the coalition to market the streamlined ability to close balconies to form rooms fell flat on its face, and did not garner any prominence during last week’s meeting. Nevertheless, however esoteric, the bill does have bitter opponents as well as enthusiastic proponents. And the outcome of the struggles between them is likely to have almost immeasurable impact on where we live, how we live – and what it will all look like.
The bill is technically one-third of its way through the Knesset, although its journey has just begun. The government went into full gear talking up the bill in January, and in mid-March, it passed its first reading at the very end of the winter session by a vote of 60 to 37. Coalition critics, most prominently Environmental Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan, who had indicated that he opposed the bill, voted with the coalition during the first reading.
Although the initial vote may have seemed promising, the building and planning reform bill then met with an obstacle that few could have predicted. Less than a month after the vote, the Holyland scandal captured headlines with what may be the most infamous building and planning-related investigation in the country’s history. According to investigators, the Jerusalem local planning council and the Jerusalem district planning council are both suspected of accepting bribes to allow the massive Holyland project to exceed its original specifications.
Amid public – and political – outcry, Netanyahu asked Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman to review the new bill’s oversight provisions. Neeman, however, has yet to publicly offer his opinion on the bill, which is expected to be debated – clause by clause – in committee.
SO WHAT will the bill actually do?
Its proponents have emphasized two aspects of the legislation. The first is the streamlining of all the procedures for individuals and developers alike in securing building permits and registering plans. During the Knesset meeting last week, Prime Minister’s Office Director-General Eyal Gabbai focused on that aspect of the legislation when he presented the premier’s argument. Among the simple steps expected is the digitalization of many of the forms and documents required to reduce what Netanyahu described to his ministers in January as “the journey of tortures that every Israeli citizen must undergo when they want a building permit.”
“The bureaucratic monster that we have here creates in the State of Israel a situation that is not found in barely any other country,” continued Netanyahu, adding that his bill would “bring down the walls of the bureaucracy, strip down the processes” as part of his larger plan to “change the Israeli economy and make it more efficient.”
The building-reform aspect is the more popular part of the legislation – and for those who have ever tried to build a house or even an addition – the part to which more of the public can relate. For the more than 90 percent of Israelis who do not live within sight of the Holyland, planning protocols seem a much more distant issue than the endless visits that would-be builders must pay to permit-granting bodies along the way. As a result, even Kadima has made it clear that it would like to separate the two aspects of the bill and would likely support permit and registration if it were separate from planning reform.
The planning reform part of the bill centers around a clause requiring every local government to draw up a master plan within the next five years. These plans will be crucial, as the legislation would strengthen the importance of the local planning councils, including adding three public representatives to each council and dissolving other, competing zoning bodies including councils for historical preservation and for the protection of open lands. Each development plan, say the bill’s architects, will only be able to be presented before one council – a move to prevent plans from “traveling” from board to board before receiving approval.
But the newly-powerful local planning councils will also have limitations placed on that power. The planning councils will not be allowed to grant “flexibility” after the plans have been approved – a practice seen in the Holyland affair – through which developers receive building permits for one plan, and then apply for “flexibility,” allowing them to add additional floors, reduce public space and expand the projects. The bill would also make it significantly more difficult to grant “exceptional usage” permits to change the zoned status of a building. In many cases, such exceptional usage permits are currently granted for specified and limited periods of time.
Despite those limitations, some two dozen organizations remained unconvinced that the new bill will tighten the reins on corrupt planning boards. The 23 groups, which have joined together as the “Headquarters for Responsible Planning,” say that the new bill will do just the opposite.
They complain it contains provisions to establish “special committees” that will actually shorten approval processes, “to advance enormous building projects at breakneck speeds,” allowing developers to build cities and massive expansion of neighborhoods with minimal public input. In addition, they say, the bill delegates two crucial responsibilities to the interior minister – the ability to approve of or reject the composition of planning boards, and the ability to “declare entire areas as special planning zones,” allowing rezoning with minimal public input. In addition, the Interior Ministry will have the jurisdiction to appoint planning councils for those local governments that fail to meet the new criteria to form their own planning councils.
The forum also complained that canceling out the middle level of planning – district plans – would mean that political appointees rather than professional planners would make critical decisions, and would make it practically impossible for the government to provide oversight to the 116 local planning councils.
While social justice advocates are prominent among the bill’s opponents, some of the most vocal and mobilized opposition comes from environmental activists. Beyond eliminating protection for the country’s rapidly diminishing open and agricultural lands, environmentalists complain, the bill will eliminate in many instances the need to carry out environmental damage assessments as part of development plans. In other cases, they say, when assessments are carried out, they will be done by a private contractor rather than by the Environmental Affairs
Ministry. Activists warn that skipping over the environmental assessments will create public health hazards, enable water supply pollution and lead to the destruction of unique natural resources.
Although the opposition was present in force during last week’s meeting, representatives were not allowed to address the committee. Joint Committee chairman David Azoulai (Shas) promised that in coming hearings, everybody would be entitled to speak. Even the bill’s most adamant supporters acknowledge that it is likely to undergo changes en route to its second and third readings. With the Holyland affair unfolding week by week, challenges are likely to arise from extra-parliamentary directions, too.