Flawed system a breeding ground

By Hsu Shih-jung 徐世榮  / 

Wed, Jun 11, 2014 - Page 8

The allegations that former Taoyuan County deputy commissioner Yeh Shih-wen (葉世文) solicited bribes from the Farglory Group, which was seeking to win a bid to build a housing project in the county’s Bade City (八德), has led to many detentions, and there have been reports that the scandal will grow to involve a similar affordable housing development project at the A7 Station of the Mass Rapid Transit line to Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport.

Yeh previously served as head of the Ministry of the Interior’s Construction and Planning Agency, where he was in charge of urban, regional and national park planning at the national level. Although the Department of Land Administration is in charge of land expropriation, it has conducted only nominal investigations out of respect for the decisions of the Construction and Planning Agency. So the agency could be said to be in control of the entire national land planning system.

It is a serious problem that a former agency head is alleged to have been involved in bribery. This is not merely a matter of individual morality, but rather a structural problem involving the national land planning system as a whole. It therefore becomes necessary to ask how the system could allow someone to act in the way Yeh allegedly did.

Take the A7 Station housing development as an example. This project could only be put up for tender after both the urban planning and land expropriation plans were passed. This implies that the problems do not lie just in the final stage of approval, but in throughout the process.

Urban planning and land expropriation should be aimed at meeting the public interest, which raises such questions as what is meant by the public interest and who should decide what it means and how to achieve it?

At present, these things are decided by a variety of committees made up of bureaucrats, academics and other experts. The interior ministry’s Urban Planning Commission, for example, has 27 members, 13 of whom are government representatives and the rest are academics, experts and those with a passion for the public interest. On the surface, it looks as though government representatives are not the majority, but in practice, they are.

According to the Organizational Regulation of Urban Planning Committees at Different Levels (各級都市計畫委員會組織規程), when representatives from government agencies cannot attend a meeting, they may send representatives who are allowed to speak and participate in voting. However, other committee members do not enjoy this privilege and must attend meetings in person. Given that academics and experts will not always be able to attend every meeting, government representatives still constitute a majority and as such, they gain full control of the commission.

Urban planning projects are proposed by the central or local governments, and then reviewed by bureaucrats. How can this be in line with the most basic principles for eliminating conflicts of interest from the administrative procedure?

Furthermore, academics and experts are employed by government leaders. Now, would a government leader choose an academic such as myself to be on a committee? No. Many committee members are employed for a long time, with their terms often extended or by joining other committees. For example, they may move onto a district committee, or an environmental impact assessment committee. There are also many committee members who go back and forth between the central and local governments. When their term is up on a committee in Taipei or New Taipei City, they join a central government committee.

Therefore, familiar faces are often seen in these committees, faces who often become officials themselves and who may even end up being nominated for a position in the Control or the Examination yuans.

What we really have to ask is whether such a committee mechanism is capable of serving the public interest. Is it this kind of mechanism that made Yeh so greedy? Also, if administrative officials have the same stance on issues as construction conglomerates, how can the rights of the public be protected?

Finally, one must also ask why there are so many self-help and protest groups who feel they must take their protests to the streets.

Land is a commodity that lends itself to monopolization. It involves massive interests that can be used to create political power. Therefore, more than half of all local political elites are involved in construction and other land-related industries, and as a result, local development is controlled by construction conglomerates and local factions that see land as a hugely profitable speculative tool.

Government leaders, bureaucrats, local factions, construction conglomerates and committees made up of academics and experts essentially form an alliance for speculating on land development. They use urban planning and land expropriation to carry out enclosure of land, co-opt factions and forge local support using money and connections — a practice known as bangzhuang (綁樁) — while also taking political donations. These factors have completely changed the nature of Taiwan’s urban planning.

Yeh’s alleged bribery is a serious problem for the entire land planning system. The mechanism for ruling through committee that was designed during the authoritarian era is no longer suitable. It is now used to cover up the government and business interests, as well as those of local factions, while sacrificing the public’s basic human rights as guaranteed in the Constitution.

It is time to establish mechanisms that will allow citizens to govern national land use that reflects the times we live in.

Hsu Shih-jung is a professor in the Department of Land Economics at National Chengchi University.

Translated by Drew Cameron