Legally, that is not the case. The Unified Building Law No. (119/2008) explicitly states that community participation is an important cornerstone of urban planning operations, which is to be achieved by presenting plans, while they are being laid out, to the Local Popular Councils (LPCs) and local development partners. The law also stresses the necessity of the validation of these plans by LPCs before their official approval.
But does this mean that community participation, conducted in accordance with the law in a way that ensures the contribution of a large number of citizens, is effective and influential?
This article will discuss public hearings as one of the legal mechanisms available for citizens to exercise their rights to community participation in the preparation of urban plans. It also addresses how effective and realistic such a mechanism is, and what could be done to make this mechanism a better tool to enable citizens to be a real part of the decision making processes that shape the future of their cities and villages.
What are Public Hearings?
Public hearings are considered to be one of the most important tools that officials resort to in order to involve the citizens in the decision making and implementation process. However, public hearings vary in terms of their significance and the degree of participation, as well as the presence of real willingness on the part of the decision makers to listen to the citizens and take their opinions and comments into account. For example, there are public hearings that only aim to inform and familiarize citizens of decisions that were already taken by the officials; such sessions cannot be described as a discussion, but rather they are sessions with a sole speaker (the decision making entity) and listeners(the citizens).
There is another type of public hearings; discussion sessions, in which all parties exchange views and proposals, noting that the results of these sessions are usually not binding to the decision makers. Finally, there is a more serious type of session, which is distinguished from the former types by debate and a process of voting in favor of a definite decision that is to be taken during the session. These sessions usually result in binding decisions to be undertaken by the executive entity. To ensure effectiveness and efficiency, the meetings should be transparent and the public should have access to all the information related to the topics under discussion well in advance of the hearings, so that they can review all the relevant information. All interested parties must participate without any exclusion and there must be freedom of speech and opinion for all, with no preference for one party over the other.
The Importance Of Strategic Plans at The Local Level and Their Direct Impact on Citizens
In Egypt, the General Organization for Physical Planning (GOPP) prepares the “strategic plans”, which are plans that determine the future vision for urban development, at the national, regional, governorate, city and village level. These plans present the objectives, policies, and economic and social development plans, as well as the urban environment needed to achieve sustainable development. The strategic plans also determine the future needs of urban expansion, different uses of land, the programs, priorities, and mechanisms of implementation, and the sources of funding at the planning level.
The general policies in strategic plans are then translated at the regional level or at the governorate level into general strategies at the level of cities and villages through coordination between the GOPP, and the Regional Centers of the GOPP, which are distributed among the seven economic regions of Egypt. Finally, these strategic plans are carried out at the local level through the drafting of the “the detailed plans” by the General Administrations for Planning and Urban Development located in the various governorates. The detailed plan outlines the planning and construction requirements, as well as the operational programs for the areas of land usage and infrastructure in the certified general strategic plan for the city or village. It includes all the integrated development projects from urban design to division of land and coordination of proposed areas for implementation within the overall strategic plan.
In other words, this planning process affects different aspects of the lives of citizens, whether through proposing projects that have an indirect national revenue, or local projects with a direct return to the citizens such as infrastructure projects, education, health, economic development and services. These schemes also determine the forms of current and future construction by specifying the different uses of land, and by determining the height and densities of buildings. Therefore, the positive and effective participation of citizens in the formulation and adoption of such plans is considered to be of the utmost importance, since the citizens themselves are the primary beneficiaries of these strategic plans.
Public Hearings in Egypt – The Path for Citizens to Participate in the Local Development of their City or Village
Public hearings in Egypt are considered among the fewlegal means for citizens to exercise their right to participate in the planning of the future of their city, neighborhood, or village. According to Article 11 in the Unified Building Law No. (119/2008, the General Administrations for Planning and Urban Development on the governorate level are tasked with preparing reports on the needs and priorities of urban development at the local level. These administrations are required to submit their suggestions for the necessary projects and the action plan for achieving the best outcomes, with the participation of the competent administrative authority, LPCs, relevant executive bodies, and representatives of civil society.
Civil society representatives participate in this planning process through public hearings, since the Unified Building Law obligates the General Administrations for Planning and Urban Development to involve members of the Local Popular Councils, as well as independent citizens in the preparation of these plans. But the law does not identify the mechanisms of, or how to initiate, this participation. It only stipulates the procedures of calling for a general meeting in which the urban plan under discussion is to be agreed upon.
The absence of detailed mechanisms for community participation was rectified through terms of reference issued by the GOPP to the consultants in charge of the planning process. These terms of reference stipulate that public hearings are held between the consultancy offices charged with the preparation of the strategic plans for cities or villages on the one hand, and representatives of the local society on the other hand. This procedure aims to identify, in the initial stages of the project, the problems and aspirations of the residents of the area to be developed and opportunities for development.
In another stage, article 12 of the same law stipulates that a general meeting is to be held with all development partners in the city or village, which include citizens, representatives of the civil society, private sector, NGOs and specialized local council, as well as all the departments concerned with local administration, in addition to a representative of the Regional Center for Planning and Urban Development. This general meeting aims to discuss the final project results of the strategic plan of the town or village and its various outcomes.
Article 12 gives citizens the right to make observations about and question the various aspects of the plan. It is the responsibility of the consultant in charge of preparing the plan to answer the citizens’ inquiries, while the representative of the Regional Administration of the GOPP records these observations, in order to discuss them later with the consultant in charge of preparing the plan to ensure that he makes the suitable amendments according to these observations.
The participatory role of citizens ends here. The plans go through three stages of approval: it first must gain the approval of the Ministry of Defense and the Committee for Urban Tenure. This is then followed by the LPC’s approval of the plan. Finally comes the last stage in the endorsement of the strategic plan—its approval by the GOPP and the authorization of the Minister of Housing.
The various development partners are invited to public hearings in the following ways:
Does the law guarantee serious and effective citizen participation through public hearings?
The law does not mention any details about the pubic hearings, the mechanisms of convening them, or how binding the outputs of these sessions are to the executive entities. The law considers them to be sessions that are held in order to identify the needs, the potentials, and the points of strengths and weaknesses of the cities or villages under consideration. The law also considers these mechanisms as a step to include the society in the decision making process. But in a country such as Egypt in which there are many demanding the reform of the local governance system to be more transparent and participatory, the law should be more specific in how the public hearings are to be held.
For example, the law stipulates that “the development partners and representatives of the civil society” must attend the sessions, but it does not define who those development partners are, how to identify them, or what the criteria are for selecting them. The law also does not hold the executive authority responsible for holding these meetings (whether it is the general administrations of urban planning or the consultant offices assigned to prepare the plans) to a specific number or configuration of representatives that should attend the hearings, in order to ensure equitable participation of the various spectrums of society (whether in terms of age or gender). Nor does the law specify whether the representatives are made up of both supporters and those opposed to the plan in order to achieve the largest possible scope of participation in decision making process.
The law also does not clarify the exact nature of these sessions as to whether they are debates between the entity entrusted with plan preparation and the citizens, or a vehicle for presenting the results with the possibility of modification in case there are any observations from the attendees. In addition, the law does not specify the extent to which the participants’ modifications to the proposed plans should be observed and adhered to. The law specifies the role of the regional center in recording these observations for later discussion with the decision maker, to ensure the modification of the plans according to those observations. But, what if there were disparities between the visions of the citizens and that of the regional center and the consultant?
Have public hearings been able to integrate the local society in the planning process or not?
Actual examples and practices of public hearings indicate that many of them do not end up integrating citizens and society in the urban planning process. Many of these hearings turn into a token procedure which only aim to fulfill one of the requirements stipulated in the stages of preparing the plan, with no real efficacy, or influential engagement of the citizens in the planning process.
One of these examples is the process of preparing a strategic plan for the city of al-Ghanāyim in Asyūṭ Governorate. Al-Ghanāyim planning process falls under the framework of the national development plan, which aims to implement an integrated plan for sustainable urban development for Egyptian cities. Al-Ghanāyim is a relatively small town, according to Egyptian standards, with a population of around 66,000 inhabitants according to the 2006 census. It is the capital of al-Ghanāyim Markaz, which includes eight villages, with a combined population of about 105,000 inhabitants according to the 2006 census.
The preparation for the strategic plan for al-Ghanāyim started in 2012. The public hearing for the city’s strategic plan was held on the 11th of December 2013, “development partners and representatives of the civic society” attended the session, and the proposed strategic plan was ratified in the same session. This planning process induced one of the researchers to study the extent of effectiveness of the public hearing mechanism in actually involving citizens. This was selected as a case study due to the relatively small size of the town, and relative ease in notifying a large number of its inhabitants of the hearing sessions and the importance of their participation.
The researcher prepared a survey questionnaire to research the extent of the citizens’ knowledge of the process of preparing the strategic plan for their town, and how much they participated in that process. The survey found that only about 10% of the random sample knew about the process of preparing a strategic plan for their town, and only 7% of the sample knew about the public hearing sessions. The researcher discussed these results with one of the executive officials in the town, and the official said that in his opinion citizens are not ready for such discussions. The official also pointed out that he was the one who made the contacts to invite selected individuals from the citizens whom he considered – again from his point of view – qualified and able to represent the town, to attend these sessions and discuss the plan with the consultant.
This process of “selective” community participation is customary, and stigmatizes many of the practices of urban planning in Egypt, most important of which is the process of drafting “The Greater Cairo Region Strategic Development Vision.” This plan which was carried out by the General Organization for Physical Planning in 2014, in an attempt to improve the outputs of the “Cairo 2050” plan, which was met since its release in 2008, with criticism from several specialists and citizens interested in public affairs.
What can be done to make public hearings more effective and to support the right of citizens to participate in the planning process?
With the increasing interest in community participation in the processes of strategic planning during the past decades, this practice has become, in several countries, a routine formality—a task to be implemented in order for the strategic planning process to acquire the necessary legitimacy. The situation is not much different in Egypt. For, although the Unified Building Law encourages community participation in the process of urban planning, we do not see this widely reflected in practice. Thus it is imperative of the government to provide some guarantees that can contribute in strengthening the role of public hearings, increasing community participation in preparing urban plans, and furthering its impact. This could be accomplished through:
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