By RON FRIEDMAN
After successfully passing the Israel Land Administration reform plan in August, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is now considering an extensive restructuring of the country's planning committees.
Next week a special ministerial committee will discuss a new draft proposal aimed at increasing the powers of local planning authorities at the expense of regional planning committees.
The ministerial committee's members have been charged with forming principles and directives to improve physical planning and building permit issuing. The committee will be made up of the ministers of finance, interior, justice, national infrastructures, environmental protection and agriculture, and will be chaired by Netanyahu.
The committee will have final say on all changes not requiring legislation and the government will not be allowed to appeal its decisions.
Construction in Israel is characterized by a hierarchy of planning bodies, which includes committees on the national, regional and local levels. This hierarchy, a remnant of the British mandate, has come under severe criticism for its bureaucratic excesses. Many building plans require the approval of both the local and regional committees. Both also have appeal mechanisms built in, something that makes rapid decision-making all but impossible.
"To get a construction permit, you need to pass through the seven levels of hell," Netanyahu said in a speech at The Marker magazine's event for the 100 Most Influential People earlier this month. "We are blessed with several tremendous accomplishments: We lead the world in percentage of households with personal computers; we are, I believe, No. 3 in terms of cellular phones per capita; with regard to receiving construction permits, we are 160th in the world... It is impossible to build, not houses or factories or hotels."
The draft reform put forward by the Prime Minister's Office aims at simplifying and streamlining the process of granting building permits, by concentrating decision-making powers in the hands of the local authorities. The restructuring would mean weakening the regional planning committees and perhaps dismantling them altogether.
The proposal raises concerns that the concentration of power in the hands of local authorities would lead to undue influence by real estate moguls and business tycoons. The local committees are manned by local politicians and council members who are considered more susceptible to external pressures than the appointed professionals who compose the regional and national committees.
"The condition under which this concentration of power will proceed is the ability to develop supervisory systems that will enable the government, through the Interior Ministry, to oversee the proceedings of the committees," said Shamai Asif, director of the ministry's planning administration.
"Up until now, there hasn't really been oversight of these processes in the local committees; the committees were an organ of the local authorities. Now that we are giving them more power, there have to be rules and regulations in place to ensure that the planning is done professionally and responsibly," he said.
According to Asif, the reform will also help advance the system technologically. The planning authority intends to have digital permit-issuing and electronic zoning and planning application in place by 2011.
"The systems will all be networked through an automatic system, substantially shortening schedules," said Asif.
Calls to reject the reform have been raised before the first meeting to discuss and outline it has even taken place.
Representatives of environmental organizations the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (Adam Teva V'Din) and the Society for Protection of Nature have been quick to warn that entrusting the country's open spaces to the hands of local politicians will lead to their disappearance.
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