China co-ordinates planning rules to prevent wasteful growth

Faced with numerous often incompatible plans from different government departments, China is trialing planning system mergers to encourage the rational use of land and greater environmental protection

In a fresh attempt to improve policy co-ordination, four government bodies are testing a new combined planning regime in 28 locations. Their joint statement names 28 trial areas. They straddle China’s developed east as well as its less developed western regions.

The trials will see multiple plans combined within clearly-defined urban areas, in order to eliminate incompatibilities between individual plans, according to hydrologist Dr Chen Wen of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Nanjing Institute of Geography and Limnology. The new system aims to tackle a deep-seated problem of poor co-ordination and wasteful growth.

Included in the new mechanism are  the National Reform and Development Commission’s plans for economic and social development, the Ministry of Land Resources’ planning for land use, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development’s urban-rural plans, and the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s planning for protection of the environment.

Wang Xinzhi, deputy director of Tongji University’s Urban Planning and Design Institute, said that if implemented these measures will support positive development of land use and environmental protection in the west of China.

At a seminar on the trials held in Beijing on November 21, Wang offered Yanchi county in China’s impoverished northwestern Ningxia region as an example of how existing poor co-ordination might be improved. Eight percent of Yanchi county land that is included in economic and social development plans is also covered by urban-rural planning, but not by land use plans. Meanwhile, 12% has land use plans but no urban-rural plans; 6% is covered by both, while 74% has neither.

Wang told chinadialogue that some local governments are taking advantage of these gaps. Activities barred under land use planning regulations may be permissible under urban-rural planning rules, while activities that environmental protection plans forbid may be allowed under development plans.

As a result of these loopholes, local governments are able to undertake projects which dilute the impact of planning system safeguards. “If combined planning can be well implemented, it could prevent problems such as unfettered expansion in the west of China,” Wang explained.

Wang Jinnan, director of the Chinese Academy of Environmental Planning, said the changes are essential for environmental reasons: “In the past plans were drawn up with no thought for environmental capacity. Things are different now, and the available environmental capacity and space have shrunk, so these need to be considered.”

But Wang Xinzhe also told chinadialogue of potential problems: “Currently this is just a mechanism for coordination, there’s no obligation to enforce it.” He explained that China’s eastern coastal provinces have already seen a period of over-expansion and now need to plan for optimization, whereas western China remains less developed and suffers from weak management. Therefore, “currently for the east of China this merging of plans is a response to its own needs, while the west of China is a passive recipient.”

Wang Jinnan pointed out that the four types of plans are very different and there is still much disagreement over who will provide the framework into which the other plans will be merged – and that currently the MEP’s environmental protection plans are the weakest.