On 23 February 2017, the Flemish government and provinces introduced the so-called single permit (omgevingsvergunning) which replaces and consolidates the urban development permit (stedenbouwkundige vergunning), the environmental permit (milieuvergunning), and the permit to divide up land (verkavelingsvergunning) into one permit of unlimited duration. Rather than having to apply for multiple permits with various public authorities, businesses can now file a single application for a single permit, thereby saving time and money.
Past situation: many permits and procedures
Until recently, a business seeking permission to construct a new factory or storage facility was obliged to obtain an urban development permit from the municipality. This permit, however, only allowed it to build, demolish, renovate or change the primary use of a property. In order to engage in economic activity with potentially adverse environmental effects an additional environmental permit was required.
The type of environmental permit required depended on the nature of the potentially adverse environmental effects: a permit from the provincial authorities was required for the most harmful types of activities (class 1) whereas permits for less harmful (class 2) and notifications of the least harmful activities (class 3) were issued by the municipal authorities.
Since the term of an environmental permit was limited to 20 years, a company had to renew its permit upon expiry and go through the entire process again. In practice, acquiring different permits via various procedures proved to be relatively time-consuming and cumbersome.
New situation: a single permit
In 2014, the Flemish Parliament heeded the calls of the business community for smoother and more efficient permit procedures by enacting legislation providing for a single permit.
Under the new legislation, the environmental permit and the urban development permit are integrated into a single permit of indefinite duration. The idea is to authorize both urban development and the operation of a business by means of a single permit on the basis of a single application, public inquiry and consultation procedure.
In order to obtain a single permit, an application must be filed with the Environmental Agency (Omgevingsloket). The various procedures have been reduced to two and have been simplified, updated and digitalized. The entire procedure is thus significantly faster.
In principle, the Environmental Agency will direct the applicant for a single permit to the competent municipality. The Flemish Government and provinces, however, are responsible for granting single permits for projects whose size and impact necessitate review at the regional or provincial level.
Another major change isthat a single permit will be granted for an indefinite duration, although certain economic activities are subject to ad hoc assessments. It will thus no longer be necessary to request a new permit every 20 years. In certain cases, a single permit with a fixed term can be obtained.
Finally, the new legislation provides for administrative referral (bestuurlijke lus). If the decision of a municipality to grant a single permit is being challenged before the Council for Permit Disputes (Raad voor Vergunningsbetwistingen), the Council may allow the municipality to correct certain irregularities in the decision pending appeal. This will most likely save both sides time and money.
Implementation by the Flemish municipalities: an uphill struggle
Implementation of the single permit has presented a number of technical challenges for most Flemish municipalities. Only Dilsen-Stokkem, Herstappe, Langemark-Poelkapelle and Staden managed to meet the implementation deadline of 23 February 2017. The majority of the other 304 municipalities have been granted an extension until 1 June 2017.
Between 23 February 2017 and 1 June 2017, most municipalities will thus continue to apply different procedures for the urban development and environmental permits. However, once an environmental permit is granted, it will have an indefinite duration.
Existing permits remain valid until their expiry date. The holders of a valid environmental or urban development permit need not apply for a single permit.
The Flemish Government aims to integrate all other permits (such as the socio-economic permit, the timber permit, etc.) into the single permit eventually. In time, the single permit will thus become even more important.