Brussels-Capital Region: Urban Planning and Environmental Law Changes in 2018

The Brussels-Capital Region has undertaken an ambitious reform that will affect all aspects of urban development: planning regulations, building and environmental permits, environmental impact assessments, etc. On 13 October 2017, the Parliament adopted a draft ordinance modifying several important pieces of urban planning and environmental legislation in the Brussels-Capital Region. The ordinance must still be promulgated and published in the Belgian State Gazette before it can enter into force.

Please find below an overview of the main changes that will be introduced in 2018. The overall objective of the reform of the Brussels Code of Urban Planning (Code bruxellois de l'aménagement du territoire) is to simplify the urban planning rules and procedures. The ordinance on environmental permits of 5 June 1997 has been modified as a result.

Building permits

  • Strict deadlines for issuance

The deadlines for the issuance of building permits are currently indicative in nature, leading to procedures that can take up to two or even three years.

The reform introduces strict deadlines for the issuance of building permits. The municipality will have 75 to 160 days to issue a permit, depending on the applicable procedure (public enquiry, mandatory opinion from other authorities). The deadline can be extended under certain circumstances. If the permit is not issued by the indicated deadline, the file will be automatically transferred to the responsible regional official (fonctionnaire délégué).

When the regional official is the competent authority for issuance of the building permit, the official will have 75 to 450 days to take a decision, depending on the applicable procedure (public enquiry, environmental impact assessment).  The application will be considered refused if a permit is not issued by the indicated deadline. In this case, the applicant can appeal to the regional government.

  • Extended period of validity 

Under the new rules, a building permit must be used, i.e. substantial works must have started, within three years from its date of issuance (as opposed to two years as is currently the case). If works are to be carried out in phases, the three-year period of validity will apply to each separate stage rather than to the project as a whole. It should be noted that the permit will expire if works are interrupted for a period of more than one year.

The period of validity can be extended for an additional year under certain circumstances, such as the need to respect public procurement rules or in the event of force majeure.

The period of validity is suspended in the event of proceedings before the Council of State or other courts.

  • Fire brigade approval

It will no longer be necessary to submit proof of prior approval of the project by the fire brigade (Service d'incendie et d'aide médicale urgente) along with the initial permit application.

However, the fire brigade must be consulted at a later stage by the competent authority, the same way that other bodies are consulted.

Commercial establishments

In 2014, the Brussels-Capital Region abolished the socio-economic permit for commercial establishments (previously governed by federal law) and integrated socio-economic aspects into the building permit. This reform was never fully implemented, however, as certain concepts related to commercial activities proved too difficult to combine with urban planning law.

The 2018 reform will abolish all specific provisions introduced in 2014 in relation to commercial establishments. The normal circumstances in which a building permit is required will apply in the same way to commercial establishments (construction, extension, change of intended use or usage, etc.). The obligation to file a prior declaration will also be abolished.

In addition, the environmental impact assessment thresholds will be raised. A report will be required when the establishment's surface area exceeds 1,250 m² (instead of 1,000 m² as is currently the case). A study will be required when the surface area exceeds 5,000 m² (up from 4,000 m²).

Environmental impact assessments

When an environmental impact assessment or EIA is required, the public inquiry will now last for 30 days, regardless of whether the project necessitates an EIA study or report.

The preliminary stage entailing the preparation of draft technical specifications for an EIA study has been abolished. The authority can now use a single model of technical specifications for all EIA studies. The EIA study must be finalised within a period of six months.  

Some EIA thresholds will be modified:

  • Parking lots: an EIA report will be required for parking lots with more than 50 places (up from 25); an EIA study will be required if there are more than 400 places (up from 200).
  • Commercial establishments: as mentioned above, an EIA report or study will be required if the surface area of the establishment exceeds 1,250 m² or 5,000 m², respectively.

- Housing: an EIA report will be required when the surface area of the project exceeds 2,500 m².

Mixed projects

Mixed projects (projets mixtes) require both a building permit and an environmental permit (category 1A or 1B).

After the reform enters into effect, applicants will be able to file a single application for both permits with the responsible regional official who will transfer the environmental permit application to the Brussels Institute for Environmental Management (Institut bruxellois pour la gestion de l'environnement). This will facilitate simultaneous issuance of the two permits.

The deadlines for the issuance of building permits will be aligned to those for environmental permits. If the application procedure for the environmental permit is suspended, the building permit procedure will be automatically suspended as well and vice versa.

Subdivision permits

The new Code simplifies the rules on subdivision permits, both in terms of their scope and the procedure to modify existing permits. A subdivision permit will now be required only when the division of the property entails the creation or extension of a road. The responsible regional official is in charge of issuing such permits.   

Development master plan

The Brussels Code of Urban Planning introduces a new urban planning tool: the development master plan. This new tool will indicate the regional government's main urban development objectives and will help ensure the implementation of projects in strategic priority areas selected by the government such as Tour and Taxi, the Canal Zone, etc.  While the development master plan will have indicative value only, it will be possible to assign regulatory value to certain provisions. In this case, in the event of conflicting provisions, the master plan will take precedence over other instruments.

Statute of limitations for construction violations

The reform introduces a new statute of limitations for construction violations. It should be noted that the limitation period will not apply to the perpetrator of the violation or to persons who knowingly continue it. Indeed, as construction violations tend to be continuous in nature, the statute of limitations only starts to run when the illegal situation arising from the violation ends. The limitation period will run for ten years from issuance by the competent authority of an official report establishing the violation.

Entry into force

The provisions on planning regulations will enter into force ten days after their publication in the Belgian State Gazette. All other provisions (including those relating to permits, commercial establishments, environmental impact assessments, etc.) will enter into force one year after publication. The authorities will have to adopt dozens of decrees to allow implantation of the new rules.