18 November 2022, 10:09
How to ensure transparent land use during the war?

Transparency and accountability are key aspects of local governments' work, especially in land use. The more transparent a city or community is, the better the quality of governance, the greater the ability to respond to challenges, and the better the opportunities for economic growth. What are the benefits of transparency for all stakeholders, and how can local governments master effective tools during wartime? You can find the answers to these questions in our article.

The land sector is one of the most corruption-sensitive areas of public policy. There are many abuses and schemes, and governance is often characterized by opacity and lack of accountability, both at the national level — due to improper regulation at the level of legislation, work of national registers, certification of surveyors, agrochemical certification, and at the regional level — due to poor work of local self-government bodies.

There are cases when land is transferred uncontrollably for garage and housing construction free of charge, its purpose is unreasonably changed to alter its value, and privatization is carried out bypassing auctions and transferring into ownership without complying with the law. Some local governments do not pay enough attention to land issues and treat them almost as administrative services, simply making decisions under the batch principle.

The best way to prevent such abuses is to make land policy transparent.

What do the authorities, residents, and businesses gain from transparency in land use?

When all the necessary information is available and open, crime can be prevented or even made visible to the public. 

All stakeholders benefit from the availability of land information in the public domain. Taxpayers, for example, would suffer less from inefficient use of taxes or lack of revenues that they could redistribute. Businesses, in turn, would spend fewer resources on their operations. That means lower transaction costs for “rent” to some dishonest officials, faster processes, and easier access to information, which is also essential for journalists and investigators.

For example, the simplest geoportal at the local level provides access to zoning plans and detailed plans of territories, possibly even height standards, sanitary requirements, etc. When everything you need is at your fingertips, you no longer need to read all the possible documentation from executive committee decisions and dig through resources with dubious reliability.

Local self-government bodies will be able to optimize their work, making it easier to keep records, control, and update information. A proper analysis of land data could be the basis for further evidence-based policy. Without the geoportal, this information has to be searched for separately, through other specialized registers and portals, digging through city council decisions, etc.

How is it going in Ukraine?

In the Transparency Ranking of local councils, the area of land use and construction remains average in its implementation — at 43%. Over the past five years, it has increased by only 9%, while the situation in the Accountability Ranking has worsened, and over two years, the indicators have fallen from 23% to 19% of implementation.

The most problematic indicators are those related to the publication of a list of project decisions on land issues. Only 32 city councils out of 100 made decisions on land issues object by object, while the majority made decisions in a “batch” manner.    

The situation is similar with auctions for the alienation of municipally owned land plots — 68% of city councils did not hold them, and many withdrew land plots from municipal ownership outside the auction.

The situation with the publication of registers of land lease agreements is sad. Three-quarters of city councils do not publish this information or publish it partially without specifying the amount of payment or lease agreements or for an incomplete period.

City councils often do not comply with the requirements of the law, do not publish mandatory data, and it is unknown whether they collect them at all.
Only a few local governments try to implement good practices and publish other data sets besides those required by law.

Specific problems are often related to low technical capacity in work. For example, the publication of master plans, zoning plans, and detailed plans of territories requires a certain skill level in working with data and geodata. Local authorities may not have geoportals and only publish files in graphical form with documentation. However, this is a bad practice because the ability to process information and build effective tools based on it is low. 

Local governments should learn how to work with such data and properly systematize it. To do this, they can attract donors or submit applications for competitions or grant funding. For example, USAID has funded the creation of exemplary geoportals in many Ukrainian cities:  Khmelnytskyi, Mykolaiv, and the Hornostai community, and the EUACI helped develop geographic information systems in Chernivtsi, Chervonohrad, Zhytomyr, and Nikopol before the war.

The impact of war on open data

Today, the main challenge for transparency and accountability of land policies is the russian invasion. The open data portal with many valuable land use datasets has already been opened, but the datasets managed by local governments function more like archives — they contain information about the past, but they are not updated properly. 

Access to most geoportals due to the war is limited, especially in the frontline regions. Work there has not yet resumed, for understandable reasons. But in general, city councils decide whether to publish something or not because they lack priority, resources, and sometimes just the capacity.

In August, the Ministry of Digital Transformation proposed an updated list of open data that is mandatory for publication. However, new possible regulations are still being discussed.

In land issues, the address register, master plan, zoning plans, urban planning regulations, and detailed territory plans are to be removed. The Ministry also proposes to make the publication of any new data optional. It means that city councils will continue to be able to share this information at their discretion. 

There is a large amount of sensitive information where transparency can be harmful. For example, detailed plans of territories in frontline regions or personal data. However, the war is not a reason to completely forget the open data policy.

What should be done?

The main way to ensure transparency is to act at the local policy level. For example, city councils have four main collegial bodies: city council meetings, executive committees of the city council, standing committees of the city council, and coordinating bodies (not always available in small cities).

To ensure full transparency, the following should be done regarding each decision of these bodies:

  • draft decisions and agendas to be published;
  • public access to the meetings to be provided;
  • minutes of the meetings to be published;
  • online streaming of meetings to be provided
  • each land decision to be registered separately, rather than voting by a “batch.”

The official explanations on data publication also include a three-part test for local authorities. To figure out whether it is necessary to hide certain information, it is necessary to:

  • determine the type of information — whether it is confidential, service, or secret;
  • analyze whether the requested information is related to the interests of national security, territorial integrity, or public order, whether there is a possibility of riots or crimes if access to the requested information is granted, or whether it is a restriction in the interests of public health;
  • understand whether the harm from disclosure of such information outweighs the public interest in obtaining it.

Responsible local authorities should use this test to understand whether it is appropriate to disclose/hide certain data. After all, we need to move from the practice of total closure of registers or sets to limiting specific critical information.

We urge self-government bodies to implement transparency tools in their work. It not only makes everything clearer but also attracts foreign investors because funds will go only to those places where there is confidence in transparent and accountable work.