Nearly six years after the Bill was drafted, it is still in  limbo

Yangchen C Rinzin

Five years ago in 2015, the Ministry of Works and Human Settlement drafted a Spatial Planning Bill. The Bill was to guide development plans being implemented across the country and those in the pipeline. The Bill had never reached Parliament.

Last December, the Royal Audit Authority (RAA) during its performance audit report on urban planning development in Thimphu Throm came across the Bill. The audit observed that the ministry should expedite the enactment of the Spatial Planning Bill. The Bill if approved, would minimise the damage being done to development plans currently being implemented, the audit pointed out.

That same year, the ministry submitted to the Cabinet for further submission and deliberation in Parliament. The Bill, according to ministry officials was also submitted to the Cabinet during the People’s Democratic Party government’s tenure.

However, today, no one is aware of the status of the Bill.

An official from the human settlement department, MoWHS, said that the Bill was discussed at the Dhensa Meet at ministers’ enclave where cabinet ministers meet. It was decided to “hold” the Bill. “By then the government had approved the National Human Settlement Policy. The ministry was asked first to observe the impact of policy, and after that, there was no follow up.”

Recently appointed Cabinet Secretary, Sangay Duba said that the Bill was not with the Cabinet and that his office was informed that after the Dhensa meeting, the Bill was sent back to the ministry.

MoWHS minister, Dorji Tshering, however, said that the Bill has been already submitted to the Cabinet and the ministry is waiting for a response.

While the status of the draft Bill is in limbo, the RAA pointed out that had the Spatial Planning Bill became an Act, it would have addressed issues such as lack of clarity on legislation and policy framework governing urban planning and development, roles and responsibilities of the relevant agencies with regard to planning and implementing spatial plans.

A Spatial Planning Act would provide a legal mandate to the existing plans and delineate roles and responsibilities and accountabilities associated with the implementation of the plans, the audit observation stated. “It’ll also provide clarity on decision making powers and roles and responsibilities of agencies involved in the implementation of structural plans.”


The Spatial Planning Bill

Spatial by definition means ‘relating to, occupying, or having the character of space’ and the objective of spatial planning is to provide for fair, orderly, economic and sustainable use of land, according to the draft Bill.

The scope is to implement in spatial terms, the plans, policies and regulatory requirements of the national and local governments. Apart from that, an Act would have a regulatory effect in determining the conditions for the location and execution of development, coordinate with, and seek to integrate the plans and policies of all sectors.

The Act would have also clearly spelt out the powers and function of the ministry, Dzongkhag thromde, Yenlag thromde, and gewogs in different structural planning. It also covers the planning permit and clearance and forms a development review committee.

Its framework would comprise three levels, national spatial plan, regional spatial plan, local spatial plan (comprising the valley development plan, structural plan, Local Area Plan, and Action Area Plan).


Importance of Spatial Planning Act 

An official from the human settlement department said that ministry had submitted the Bill recognising the urgency of a Spatial Planning Act besides the audit observation.

He said that without legal teeth, in the form of an Act, the ministry has to base plans on the specific provisions from Local Government Act of Bhutan 2014 and Land Act of Bhutan 2019 during the implementation of any structural plans.

“Without an Act, many have often questioned even the basis of the Thimphu Structural Plan (TPS),” the official said. “There are several incidents where people who are aware of the lack of such an Act had questioned interventions from the ministry. A few have also moved the court to challenge our planning process.”

Another official said that one among many reasons the ministry lost court cases was because the court questioned the ministry’s legal standing for implementing the TPS. An example they cite is how the Thimphu Thromde lost the land case to Tashi Group of Companies in the land case at the entrance of the Norzin Lam.

“Thimphu Structural Plan was not implemented the way it should be because there was no legal backing to support the grand plan.”

Planning officers also said that landowners aware of the missing legal basis in the planning process even opposed the land-pooling concept.  “There are cases where Local Government and Thromdes do not agree with the ministry’s structural planning.”

A former senior official from the ministry who was involved in the formulation of the Bill said that if there was an Act, the ministry would be able to have a hand in the structural plans and ensure changes if the implementation of plans failed.

“Thimphu is growing, and its structural plan should change with changing times and demands. Although many expressed views and comments on the needs for such an Act it never got through,” he said.

He added that unless the government of the day takes a strong stand and approves the Bill may not come through with few interested groups or influential people opposing.

Meanwhile, the National Human Settlement Policy is, for now, seen as the saviour in providing the legal backing. “We hope that the Bill will be discussed in the upcoming Parliament session,” an official said.