In the Flemish Region of Belgium, a new decree on complex projects has been adopted by the Flemish parliament. “Complex projects” are defined as projects with significant social and spatial importance which require an integrated permit and zoning process. They are considered to be necessary to improve the quality of life, quality of the environment, economic development or mobility of the citizens of the Flemish Region. Examples might be large-scale city (re)developments, industrial or retail developments with a significant environmental impact and infrastructure projects, etc. It should be noted that the concept of “complex projects” is not exclusively linked to public projects but also applies to projects in the private domain.
Complex projects require existing spatial plans to be modified, or possibly even the adoption of a new spatial plan. To limit the time taken by this process, a more integrated and streamlined system is being introduced by the new decree.
When developing a complex project, it is now possible to choose to follow the new integrated process or the existing “sequential trail”. The latter means that a zoning plan needs to be made for the project before the necessary permits can be obtained. This aspect of the process falls mainly to the authorities, with only a limited role for the developer. When the new integrated process is applied, a much more active role is given to the developer (see further below) and the process of drafting or modifying zoning plans and obtaining the necessary permits will be compressed into just three phases.
The core of the integrated process is characterized by what is known as the “three- stage rocket”.
First, there is the exploratory stage. Here, the developer works with the Government to discuss the project and possible solutions to any potential problems. Other relevant parties may also be involved in this discussion. At the end of the exploratory stage, a “supporting” authority (such as a local authority in the Flemish Region) takes the decision on whether to allow the developer to follow the integrated process. If no such decision is taken, the developer may still fall back on the classic sequential trail.
After the go-ahead is given by the Government, a second stage is initiated, which is the research stage. During this phase, all possible alternatives which resulted from the discussion on potential problems identified in the exploratory stage are examined. Thus, all relevant alternatives are discussed at the outset and no further examination needs to be undertaken at a later stage. In this part of the three- stage rocket, it is sufficient to draft a general environmental impact assessment concerning the preferred alternative option. A more detailed and complete environmental impact assessment is undertaken in the third stage. The research stage is concluded with a statement by the Government, which gives its “preferred decision”. In this decision, the Government describes its preferred option and explains why it was chosen. Following public consultation on the decision, it will be declared final. The option chosen will be developed further in the final stage.
The final part of the three- stage rocket is the development stage. In this phase, the preferred option is developed into a feasible project and a detailed environmental impact assessment is now required. All advisory bodies are involved at this stage. A final decision is made by the Government, known as the “project decision”.
This decision gives substance to the final preferred decision noted above. The project decision is again submitted for public consultation, however, the consultation process cannot lead to a reconsideration of the final preferred decision. The relevant authority will declare the project decision to be final after the approval of the environmental impact assessment. The final project decision can cover all necessary permits and approvals which are within the scope of the regional legislation (this does not include a socio-economic permit for large retail businesses, which falls within the scope of federal legislation).The final project decision may also cover the new spatial plan, or modification to an existing plan.
It is clear that this new integrated procedure is much more efficient, with the interests of all relevant parties being considered as early in the process as possible. The rationale behind this approach is that all possible problems will be detected and resolved at an early stage, avoiding time- consuming conflicts during later stages. With the integrated process, developers are not reliant on the creation or modification of zoning plans in order to obtain the necessary permits. These permits will follow automatically from the final project decision.
Under the new system, only the preferred decision and the project decision can be subject to a suspension and/or annulment appeal before the Council of State. In the current “sequential” system, a wide variety of decisions (concerning zoning plans, building/ subdivision/environmental permits (which will be integrated in a unique “environmental permit” in the course of the coming year, by virtue of additional legislation also recently adopted), decisions relating to waterways, minor slow-traffic roads, decisions on road layout, etc.) could each be subject to different appeals.
To conclude, it is expected that the new decree on complex projects will create a more attractive environment for developers interested in undertaking a complex project in the Flemish Region. One reason why investing in complex projects will be more attractive is the fact that the developer is no longer on the sidelines; he takes an active role throughout all three stages. Further, there is no delay in the commencement of the process while a detailed environmental impact assessment is made. This assessment will be integrated into the three-stage rocket and will therefore develop alongside the three stages, ensuring that no valuable time is lost.