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Watchdog pans proposed construction law
4 Aug 2014 Beata Balogová and Radka Minarechová Politics & Society
SLOVAKIA is changing its construction act after 38 years with the Ministry of Transport, Construction and Regional Development promoting the new legislation as a set of rules making procedures at construction offices more effective and addressing the country’s problems with illegal constructions. However, the legal ethics watchdog Via Iuris does not share the enthusiasm of the ministry claiming that the new laws contain several loopholes that might limit the rights of citizens to decide about their own land.
Last year, the ministry submitted the draft that will replace the law from 1976 to a wider public debate that generated about 700 comments, of which 140 made it to the advanced version of the draft, the public-service broadcaster Radio and Television of Slovakia (RTVS) reported.
At the moment the draft is undergoing an inter-departmental review until August 18, before being reviewed by the cabinet and then going before the full parliament. The new law should become effective as of July 2015, a year later than originally planned, with the ministry explaining that the delay is due to seeking compromises.
“We have managed to prepare a construction law suited to the requirements of a new millennium,” František Palko, state secretary of the Ministry of Transport, Construction and Regional Development said when introducing the draft bill last year. “The current law, which is almost 40 years old, will finally be replaced by a piece of legislation that reflects a long and demanding discussion among experts from all relevant spheres.”
Via Iuris however now argues that while trumpeting the positives of the law, the ministry has failed to inform about “many dangerous provisions that will significantly curb the rights of the citizens in the process of permission of construction”. The watchdog argues that the draft includes provisions that will limit the possibilities of towns and villages to decide about their own territory, according to a Via Iuris release from July 31.
“If the law is passed in its current form it will be a huge step back,” Via Iuris claims. “The approval of the construction will be taking place with an even larger exclusion of the public than before, while the citizens will not have the possibility to efficiently protect their health and environment.”
The ministry promises faster and less bureaucratic proceedings for smaller construction by both private individuals and businesses, thanks to a new category of construction project. Instead of four proceedings, there should be only proceedings on the location of the building and on the change to use of the lands, the SITA newswire wrote.
The ministry will also not require any proceedings when building small family houses which would accelerate the whole process, as reported by RTVS. In addition, the ministry will require professionalisation of employees at construction offices, so they will be able to apply the laws on specific cases.
The set of laws also aspires to address illegal construction in Slovakia by boosting the authorities of the Slovak Construction Inspection. Moreover, it will no longer be possible to legalise the buildings at a later date. The law introduces a one-year transition period after it gains force, till July 2016, for the people to legalise their illegal constructions.
The constructors will be obliged to immediately remove the illegal building at their own expense. If they fail to do so, the construction office will be entitled to initiate an execution, the ministry said.
However, Via Iuris sees shortcomings in the law when it comes to the public’s right to participate in the proceedings.
“The law makes it possible for the people to participate in the proceeding only if they are affected by ‘the operation’ of the construction only after finishing this construction, but not when they will be influenced by its extraordinarily burdening construction,” Via Iuris argued.
The ministry also failed to inform that the new law will make it possible for the offices to cancel the citizens’ right to participate in the process of approval of a construction and will allow the offices by far too flexible provisions to brush aside comments of the affected citizens, Via Iuris argued.
The watchdog also says that the new legislation does not secure appropriate informing of the citizens about the prepared construction sites: it orders only the publishing at the notice-board of the given construction office, which often is several kilometres away from the homes of affected citizens, and at the webpage of the office.
“From the past but also current times, there are several cases known, when citizens learned about serious constructions and operations only after these were already permitted by the offices, or when the construction already started and when it was not possible to do anything,” said Peter Wilfling, a lawyer cooperating with Via Iuris.
Problem with Roma settlements
The draft law also stipulates that every municipality will have to adopt a master plan, which is currently required only from those having more than 2,000 inhabitants. Part of these plans will also have to be sites where “marginalised groups of people” live, the Sme daily reported.
Some experts, however, disagree with the proposal.
“We should say whether we aim to integrate the socially excluded groups into society or segregate more,” head of the Institute of Urban Development Juraj Suchánek said, as quoted by Sme.
He explained that the master plans belong to the most important documents of towns and villages that set their development for the following years. If we include the localities with marginalised communities into the plan that determinates places for accommodation, sport and administration, we will “fix the creation of ghettos into master plans”, Suchánek said.
The Transport Ministry, however, explains that the proposal should only document the current state, which is necessary for solving problems with settlements. Many of them stand in localities that are defined for other purposes.
“This is an obstacle when preparing projects with applications for subsidies from EU funds, as well as when building transport infrastructure and ducts,” Gabriela Jarošová from the ministry told Sme.
Government Proxy for Roma Communities Peter Pollák agrees with the intention, saying he has already been discussing similar problem with EU officials who refused to accept allocating money for investments in settlements since they only saw support of segregation there.
“I had to explain them for months that we should do something with settlements since it is naïve to think that we will abolish hundreds of them from one day to another and will move people to majority,” Pollák told Sme.
On the other hand, he disagrees with another proposal of the ministry to expropriate the lands under Roma settlements. According to the proposal, while owners of illegal buildings will have to remove them if they fail to legalise them within one year, the marginalised communities will have an exception.
The measure made it into the law last year, when Roma activists warned against problems that might occur after mass demolition of Roma homes.
Suchánek considers the proposal discriminatory and says that it may evoke negative feelings in the public.
The Transport Ministry explains that the expropriation is only the last possibility. The owners of the lands will first of all be compensated, Jarošová stressed.
Pollák, on the other hand, proposes land exchanges. His office has already approved a subsidy for the pilot project in Krásnohorské Podhradie, Košice Region, which is the chief example of the problem with illegal Roma settlements. The co-owner of the lands in question is far-right extremist and current Banská Bystrica Region Governor Marian Kotleba.
If the project is successful, the state will be able to draw up to €316 million from the EU funds by 2020 for land exchanges, Sme wrote.
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