One battle lost, but the war for democratic planning continues

Demonstrating at the Knesset against Kahlon’s move [Photo: Dov Greenblat]

Another chapter of Israel's pressing housing issue has continued to unfold. The fight by The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, and a coalition of organizations for the public’s interest continues as we balance development needs with legitimate concerns about the planning process as proposed.  In July, Minister of Finance Moshe Kahlon received a major green light for his dramatic power grab while implementing a ‘quick fix’ attitude to the highly complex matter of solving Israel's chronic housing shortage. 

 

“The Planning System at a Crossroads”

A special conference addressing this burning issue titled “The changes in the planning system – what does the future hold?” took place in Tel Aviv on 8th July, and so many attended it was standing room only at the Z.O.A. House. The conference was initiated by SPNI, the Ben-Gurion University, the Hebrew University, the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, Urban Planners Forum and, the Forum for Democratic Planning.

The speakers included Dr. Shuki Amrani, Director-General of the Ministry of Interior; Ophir Pines, former Interior Minister; architect Edna Lerman, chairperson of the Israel Planners Association; and various academics

According to Ophir Pines, “the Ministry of Interior has turned into a crippled, pathetic and weak office; it breaks my heart. The notion that moving the Planning Administration under the Finance Ministry will rescue Israel is complete populism.”

 

 “The planning system is currently at a crossroads," opined Shuki Amrani, "requiring steps that will ensure necessary checks and balances are in place, so the public interests are being served. Planning is not just drafts but a whole world of consequences affecting the entire population.”   


Ophir Pines at the conference. Photo: Dov Greenblat

“The Interior Ministry is gutted”

Following the March 2015 elections, Minister of Finance Moshe Kahlon sought a serious structural and procedural changing in Israel's planning processes, demanding the government's Planning Administration and Israel Land Authority will be moved from the Interior Ministry to Finance, giving him the power to appoint new heads of the National Planning Council and the regional planning councils, replacing the Interior Ministry regional managers who traditionally filled this position.

On 13th July the Knesset confirmed Kahlon’s demand, as 51 Knesset members supported the shift while 45 members opposed it. SPNI campaigned strongly against this move, calling Knesset members to object and halt the progress of the Finance Ministry's narrow agenda, which not only disregards national master plans but undermines the professional and democratic values of the planning process, leaving it susceptible to private financial interests.

Following the vote, SPNI warned that fast-track solutions created as a response to the housing crisis might entail heavy toll down the road, such as further deterioration affecting already underprivileged population, damage to open spaces and nature conservation areas, and neighborhoods that fail to provide residents with sufficient quality of life.

“Anti-Democratic Changes”

SPNI’s head of planning Itamar Ben-David insisted that “this is not just a quality of life issue; the changes endorsed by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon are anti-democratic. Centralizing things can ease the decision making process but can also lead to corruption, create links between capitalists and the government - resulting in the public and local authorities losing all trust in the government.”

In June SPNI established the Forum for Democratic Planning that urged the cabinet to keep the planning system independent and professional. Over 20 different organizations joined SPNI’s initiative. This wide support is based on a shared concern for the public’s health and wellbeing, and obviously considerable concerns for the environment.

Some of the planners and architects that joined the forum serve as contractors under governmental projects, but felt professionally obligated to voice an alternative to Kahlon’s plan.

The forum’s experts, highly knowledgeable of the housing shortage in Israel, drafted an alternative plan that responds to the dire need for adequate housing that will also provide residents with convenient access to education, business and employment centers.

 

Ben-David added that a thorough report conducted in 2014 clearly concluded there are hundreds of thousands of housing units in different stages of approval by the Housing Administration that are being overlooked, including 140,000 units in the in-demand Tel Aviv and Central regions which have already been approved.

Ben-David explained these existing plans are not being executed, despite their definite benefit to the public, since they spread over many small plans of few hundred units each, in dense urban areas and therefore are less appealing to developers and politicians aiming to gain a substantial profit along with credit for relieving the housing crisis.

SPNI vigorously supports the construction of new apartments in order to increase the supply within existing local, regional and national master plans. We especially support building under National Masterplan 35, which sets out plans for the spatial development of Israel until 2020.