There is nothing special about a law leaving parliament in a different form than the one in which it came as a proposal. After all, that’s what the delegates in the legislature are from.
But sometimes the level of intervention is surprising. The extreme occurred with the line law, approved last week. When the standard went from the government to the House of Representatives in the spring, it was a non-conflicting text of 17,000 characters. At the end – as calculated by Senator Martin Krsek, who was in charge of the topic as a reporter – the text is seven times longer. There are almost 120,000 characters.
Even veterans of parliamentary traffic do not remember such a big jump. And it’s not just about the number of letters. The resulting document amends 17 laws and brings fundamental changes in the permitting of large transport and energy constructions. It passed the Senate narrowly, but without change, and the president is not expected to raise any objections due to the small uproar in this matter. So from January the new regime starts.
Its essence was succinctly summarized by ODS senator Rostislav Koštial: according to him, strategic projects are about “facing resourceful opponents of all kinds”. According to the law, many things are strategic, from highways and railway lines to gas pipelines and power plants to lithium deposits, sand pits or new quarries, without which, according to the supporters of the changes, it will not be possible to supply builders.
Accurately and quickly
The adjustments were made after consultation with the relevant ministries and with the support of the government. But accelerated through parliamentary amendments. This is surprising given the importance of the content (the reporter for STAN Ondřej Lochman talks about “one of the biggest laws in this election period”), but from the point of view of tactics it is an expedient step. There is no need to write a reasoned report, the opinion of the Legislative Council of the Government, or the comment procedure across state administration bodies.
In addition, parliamentary interventions only reach the public at the last minute, so there is less time to form possible resistance and a greater chance of success.
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As is well known, the Czech Republic is not one of the winners when it comes to building infrastructure, and there is broad agreement on the need to speed it up. In the Senate, the bill passed by just three votes, but in the House beforehand, there was an unusual interplay across all parties, with no one opposed. Which is a surprise considering the costs that the “turbonovela” will have on those who find themselves in the vicinity of the planned constructions.
An illustrative example is the new mining regime. The change looks like a light legal finesse, but in fact it is a substantial matter. Deposits of strategic importance will be selected by the government in the form of a “regulation”, not a “measure of a general nature”, as is usual for interventions in the territory. As a result, the standard administrative procedure will not run, in which the public or municipalities can raise objections, the authorities must deal with them and then defend them in court, if the complainants are consistent. Instead, the government sticks its finger in the map and expropriates the land above the deposit.
Senator for STAN Marek Ošťádal from the village of Náklo near Olomouc, famous for its rich deposits of gravel, has personal experience in this regard. As mayor, he previously successfully pushed miners to compromise through municipal land ownership, without which mining could not be expanded. “Municipalities will lose their only lever,” the senator says of the new rules. He compares them to communism, which is why he tried to correct the relevant passage in the Senate, but due to time constraints, he said he did not have time to write his initiative in such a way that it would work, so he eventually withdrew it.
It was only in the Senate that it became clear that the expropriation clauses were being extended to mining land without a useful price clause. Today, the owner of confiscated land is entitled to eight times the market price. This practice was introduced eight years ago for transport structures for two reasons – out of decency, so that the owners are fairly compensated for the interference with their property rights, and pragmatically, so that they do not resist with subsequent lawsuits. “I asked about it at the committee and was told that the Ministry of Industry (and Trade) did not want it there,” explains the People’s Party senator Jitka Seitlová, who was the first to draw attention to the missing passage about the eight-fold increase in mining.
Power plants without appeal, railways without context
In addition to strategic deposits of raw materials, buildings needed for energy security will also have a special permit regime, where, according to the newly approved sections, “no appeals are allowed” once the building plan is approved. Newly, this includes nuclear power plants, but also a loosely defined range of related buildings, including “necessary transport infrastructure” or “spent fuel storage”. Senator Krsek spoke against the proposal, but with the fact that the newly added sections were reflected in the law so comprehensively that “even with the willing help of the Senate legislators” he was not able to prepare a proposal for their withdrawal in time.
Such a concept completely denies the essence of spatial planning.
A major simplification of permitting procedures also occurs for transport constructions, where the necessary change was proposed by the Minister of Transport Martin Kupka from the ODS – of course, not as a minister through his apparatus and with all the requisites of the standard legislative process, but again only at the last minute as a member of parliament. Here, too, it is a technicality imperceptible to the layman, the so-called “partial development plan” for projects such as the upcoming high-speed railways, where the planning encounters a lot of resistance along the future lines.
The word “partial” is significant in that it ends the previous vision, when new railway corridors were to be placed in the landscape within the framework of a national spatial plan, in order to comprehensively assess the intervention in the territory – for example, whether the acquisition of so many hectares of land on a national scale is worth it that, or whether the new line running parallel to the highway (which will no longer be visible in the “partial” spatial plan) will not burden some regions too much. “Such a concept completely denies the essence of spatial planning,” reads the opinion on Kupko’s proposal by attorneys Pavel Doucha and Jan Plšek prepared for the municipality of Košice near Kutná Hora, where the Railway Administration had already announced the intention to carry out exploratory drilling in the summer.
“If high-speed lines were assessed all at once, including existing highways, we might come to the conclusion that our country would then be so cut up and the permeability of the territory so small that the entire network would no longer be acceptable,” warns Petr Svoboda from the Department of Environmental Law at the Faculty of Law UK. According to him, the partial plan is just a “salami method” so that the price for the new lines does not seem so large and only their benefits stand out.
Everything that was approved has – as already said – the support of the government and the opposition. Probably with the calculation that there is a great demand for detonating large structures, so the end justifies the means and procedural shortcuts will be forgiven. However, the non-standard way of approval shows that government politicians, as initiators of changes, either did not have the patience for preparation and advocacy, or – rightly – did not have a clear conscience regarding the content. Or both, which is a sad balance for “one of the biggest laws in this election period”.