Urban Planning Law in the Walloon Region: an Overview of the Latest Changes

Please find below an overview of the main changes to urban planning law introduced in the Walloon Region in the past few months. The overarching objective of the urban planning reform is to provide developers with greater flexibility and simplified procedures while attracting more projects to the region.

Amnesty for construction violations   

The Walloon Region has introduced a statute of limitations for certain construction violations. Indeed, as such violations tend to be continuous in nature, judicial proceedings can be brought years after they were first committed, against a party that was not responsible for the original violation.

Works done before 1 March 1998

Acts and works carried out before 1 March 1998 are now indisputably presumed to comply with urban planning law. This general "amnesty" means that works carried out before 1 March 1998 can be regularised automatically, without the need for an administrative procedure: no regularisation permit need be requested and criminal or administrative proceedings cannot be brought.

However, in the interest of environmental protection and coherent urban planning, the amnesty does not extend to acts and works that (1) are carried out in violation of the zoning plan (plan de secteur) (2) are carried out on a protected green site, (3) create housing, (4) are carried out on property covered by heritage protection measures, (5) can be sanctioned under other legislation (e.g. environmental, waste management, etc.) or (6) form the object of an official report or court decision.

Works done after 1 March 1998

For acts and works carried out after 1 March 1998, certain "non-fundamental" violations will no longer be considered violations 10 years after their completion.

The Land Development Code (Code de développement territorial) lists the conditions to be met in order for a violation to be considered non-fundamental, i.e. compliance with the zoning plan and regional planning guidelines and, for noncompliance with a building or subdivision permit, a deviation of less than 20% (in terms of the surface area, volume, height, etc.) from the permit values.  All violations that do not meet these criteria will be considered "fundamental". Fundamental violations can no longer be sanctioned 20 years after completion of the works.

The same exceptions to the amnesty for works carried out before 1 March 1998 (see above) apply here. These measures were introduced by a decree dated 16 November 2017 which entered into force on 17 December 2017 and now form part of the Land Development Code.

Strict deadlines for the issuance of building permits

Previously, the deadlines for the issuance of building permits were indicative in nature, leading to procedures that could take several years. Lengthy and uncertain administrative procedures can hinder economic development and discourage investment.

The reform introduced strict deadlines for the issuance of building permits applied for after 1 June 2017. The municipality now has 30 to 115 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 transferred to the responsible regional official (fonctionnaire délégué).

When the regional official is the competent authority for issuance of the permit, the official will have 60 to 130 days to take a decision, depending on the applicable procedure.  The application will be considered refused if a permit is not issued by the relevant deadline.

Finally, the powers of the municipal and regional authorities in terms of permit issuance have been clarified as there were a number of grey areas in the legislation.

Land use: less regulation, better communication and more activities

Most of the previously applicable regulatory plans in the Walloon Region have been converted into tools with purely indicative value. Only the zoning plans and, in some cases the regional land-use guidelines, still have regulatory value. The objective of the reform is to provide more flexibility to public authorities and real estate developers.

The reform also introduced a preliminary phase in the procedure for the grant of a building permit, namely a meeting between the developer and the competent authority before the permit application is filed. Such meetings were already often held in practice but now have a statutory basis. It is hoped that this will allow developers to learn more about the position of the authorities on the project and gain time if changes need to be made before the issuance deadline.

The reform also allows more types of activities to be conducted in existing urban zones. For instance, wind turbines can now be erected in an area zoned for economic or agricultural activity or a forestry zone provided certain conditions are met.

By means of more flexible tools, simplified procedures and strict deadlines for permit issuance, the Walloon Region hopes to establish a more favorable framework for the developers of public and private projects.