The system of spatial planning in Poland: time for a change?

A completely new system of spatial planning has been created in Poland after the fall of socialism. In comparison to the previous one, it has no longer been based on the principle of centralisation. Rather, the main responsibility for managing the spatial processes was shifted towards the municipalities. Such approach was in line with the prevailing pro-growth approach, which assumed that the most important goal of spatial planning should be to facilitate new investments. Less attention was paid to other issues, including in particular the social and ecological aspects.

The first major change that the Polish planning system has undergone since 1990 was the abolition of existing land use plans. That decision was taken by the parliament together with the introduction of a new planning law in 1994, but due to strong controversies the abolition was postponed several times, and eventually took place in the year 2003. In practical terms, the consequence was that all the legally binding land use plans that were enacted prior to 1995 have lost any legal power. Many municipalities, who either did not manage to prepare new plans prior to the abolition, or decisively did not initiate planning processes in an expectation that the abolition would be eventually cancelled, found themselves in a problematic situation. In large parts of the territory a kind of legal vacuum occurred, since the old plans were not valid anymore, and the new plans were not yet prepared.

The second important change in the planning system was the introduction of an instrument that allowed for designating land uses without actually getting involved in the process of planning. With this instrument, introduced for the first time in 1994, and then re-introduced in a more permissive way in 2003, it was made possible for interested parties to inquiry the planning office whether a particular location was adapted for the realisation of a given structure. For example, if a development company would like to construct a new housing estate in a location where no land use plan was present, they would need to submit an application to the municipality, asking if such a land use would be allowed. The law has explicitly specified the conditions under which the local authorities would approve such an application.

The conditions are the following: firstly, at least one plot in the neighbourhood must be built up in a similar way, secondly, there must be access to a public road, thirdly, the necessary infrastructure (including electricity, water) is available, and finally the land is not protected by some specific laws (i.e. protection of forests and agricultural land). Please note that particularly the first condition was formulated in a very unclear way. In particular, it is not clear what is meant by the “neighbourhood” (how large area should be considered?), and what does it mean that a plot should be built up in a similar way. Also, since it is sufficient to demonstrate that just one plot is “similar” to get the land use approved, it is theoretically possible to realise structures that do not correspond with the overall character of a neighbourhood. And even if a municipality rejects an application that violates the overall spatial development concept, the decision is likely to be challenged by the courts that tend to interpret the law very literally.

The number of land use designations without plans reached the highest value of nearly 180,000 in the year 2007, and since then it has been on a downward trend (see the figure below). That decline has been caused by two factors. Firstly, there was an impact of declining investment activity after the global crisis, and secondly, the percentage share of areas covered with land use plans has increased from 20% in 2005 to 28% in 2012. So, planning plays a somewhat more important role than some years ago, but still a large part of land use designations occurs without the planning process, that is by means of an administrative decision, without democratically elected bodies like municipal councils being involved.

Spatial planning in Poland

The observations suggest that the current planning system is reaching its limits. In some cases municipal authorities tend to enact land use plans not in order to to set the rules of developing the land, but simply to prohibit investments they did not desire to take place. While this is obviously one of the ways of using the planning power, it seems that too many resources are being involved in solving problems that could be more effectively solved in other way. It appears that in order to achieve a higher degree of public control over land use, the state should be more actively involved in setting the planning rules. Since several years there has been an on-going debate in Poland regarding a reform of the planning system. However, this debate has been mostly limited to the experts’ circles, while the political bodies have shown a kind of inertia.

Currently there are two changes of the planning law being prepared simultaneously. The first is a minor one, which should correct some weak points in the system, but does not touch essential issues like the possibility of designating land uses without the planning process. The other change is intended to be a major one. Since a couple of years it has been considered to introduce an integrated planning and construction law (the Building Code), which could possibly incorporate more far-reaching changes. In particular, it is has been proposed to introduce planning guidelines that would be implemented in the case of absence of land use plans. It is also considered to oblige municipalities to delimitate so-called zones of urbanisation, where obtaining of construction permits should be made easier, while other zones would be by law protected from development. Next months will probably show what kind of changes in the law will be actually implemented.

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About Adam Radzimski

Urban geographer, postdoctoral research fellow at Gran Sasso Sciencie Institute in L'Aquila, Italy, and assistant professor at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland (currently in sabbatical). Research interests include urban and housing policies, with a particular focus on the post-socialist context.
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