Green bodies slam decision to extend mandate of fast-track planning committee

Opponents say top-down Committee for Preferred Housing Sites builds on too much open space, fails to construct basic infrastructure needed by new homes

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Construction of new residential buildings in a new neighborhood of Beer Yaakov, on March 26, 2020.
Construction of new residential buildings in a new neighborhood of Beer Yaakov, on March 26, 2020. (Flash90)

Green organizations on Monday slammed a decision of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation to extend the mandate of a controversial fast-track planning committee for another four years, subject to Knesset approval, saying it tramples environmental concerns.

Critics such as the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel have long argued that in the rush to build, the so-called Committee for Preferred Housing Sites known by its Hebrew initials as Vatmal, overlooks environmental considerations and approves too much construction on virgin or rezoned agricultural land. With a little more effort and research, it argues, space for more intensive building within city boundaries can be found.

Many mayors say that the government’s overriding focus on massive residential construction fails to take sufficient account of the need for capital investment in additional infrastructures such as roads, sewers, public transportation, schools and hospitals.

Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg, farmers and green groups have all opposed extending Vatmal’s term.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, who favors the extension, has reportedly agreed to meet the relevant ministers next week.

On Monday, she said that with rising housing prices, the Vatmal was more important than ever, adding that it would operate “with minimum harm to agricultural land,” and pledging that plans that did not negatively affect agriculture would be given priority.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked speaks during a Yamina party meeting at the Knesset on July 5, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

By 2050, Israel’s population — the fastest-growing in the developed world, increasing by two percent annually — is set to almost double from the current nine million to 17.6 million, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.

That’s in a dot of a country, just a little bigger than New Jersey in the US or Wales in the UK, that already has one of the highest population densities in the West and rapidly depleting open space.

Like many countries facing exponential growth, the state is trying to grapple with the implications and, following massive social protests in 2011 over the cost of living, of housing in particular, has been focusing on the need for a massive number of new affordable homes.

'The people demand social justice' was a catchphrase of the social protests that erupted around the country in the summer of 2011. The Trajtenberg Committee was established following the protests. (photo credit: David Katz/The Israel Project)
‘The people demand social justice’ was a catchphrase of the social protests that erupted around the country in the summer of 2011. (David Katz/The Israel Project)

The Vatmal was set up by temporary order for four years in 2014. In 2018 it was extended for another year. It continued its work through the two years in which four elections were held. The third extension — this time for four years — is what is stirring controversy now.

The Vatmal’s brief is to approve large, national building projects quickly, in areas defined by the government, and in a way that bypasses nearly all other plans and runs parallel to the regular tiers of local, district and national planning committees.

A large majority of its 18 members are drawn from government departments. Public objections can be lodged but are rarely accepted, and there is no right of appeal against its decisions.

Amit Bracha, executive director of Adam Teva V’Din, said the decision to renew the committee’s mandate would cause “severe harm to the foundations of planning in Israel, to the public interest in proper planning and to its involvement in the planning process.”

Amit Bracha, Executive Director, Adam Teva V’Din. (Courtesy)

Regular planning committees had approved some 700,000 housing units over the past decade, he said, while the Vatmal had greenlighted more than 200,000.

“Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked is lying to the public when she claims that the existing planning system, with the checks and balances it has to protect the public interest, represents an obstacle to the approval of building plans,” Bracha said.

He added, “The moment a Vatmal plan can override national, district or general master plans, not only is open space threatened but also the ability to ensure quality of life in an urban environment that is home to around 90% of the population.”

An SPNI spokesman said that for a government promising change, the move to extend the Vatmal’s mandate was a change for the worse.

The extension proposal will now go to the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee.

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