The COVID-19 outbreak has not only created an increasing need for care facilities and medical supplies, but it has also had a far-reaching impact on the ongoing procedures for granting environmental permits. In order to tackle these issues, the Flemish Parliament voted on an emergency decree on 18 March 2020 with the following objectives:
- to ensure sufficient capacity for hospitals, care facilities and laboratories; and
- to ensure continuity in issuing integrated environmental permits and the procedures to be followed.
All possible measures came into effect on 20 March 2020 when the Flemish Government declared the civil emergency. As of that date, permits are no longer required to increase the capacity of hospitals, care facilities, research institutions, and establishments that manufacture medicines or medical equipment.
Any entity that relies on such exemption, still has to abide by the general and sectoral environmental exploitation conditions. In addition, the entity must notify the general public as well as the Flemish and local authorities of its intent to invoke the exemption.
The emergency situation can last up to 120 days. The Flemish Government may additionally extend this period once by a maximum of 120 days.
In addition, the emergency decree grants the Flemish Government the authority to:
- amend the rules concerning the suspension or extension of procedural deadlines (e.g. if this proves necessary due to understaffing of the Flemish and local administrations); and
- amend the procedural and administrative requirements (e.g. the organisation of hearings, public inquiries, etc.).
The Flemish Government has exercised this authority and has taken several measures that has affected the integrated environmental permit(s) requests between the 24 March 2020 and 24 of April 2020.
The Flemish Government suspended the ongoing public inquiries from 24 March 2020 until 24 of April 2020. From the 25 April 2020, local authorities could resume or start new public inquiries. These authorities will need to provide updated information on their websites, as well as update the typical yellow posters located near public roads with the latest public enquiries’ status and timing.
However, notes and objections on a permit request, filed during the suspension of the public inquiry, will still be valid.
Extension of procedural deadlines
The Flemish Government has extended several procedural deadlines:
- the period in which the authority, in the first instance, decides on the permit request - under the “normal” permit procedure - has been extended by 60 days;
- the period in which the authority, in the first instance, decides on the permit request - under the “simplified” permit procedure - has been extended by 30 days;
- the deadline to appeal an administrative decision, in the first instance, has been extended by 30 days;
- the period until a permit holder can begin to act on the permit, has been extended by 30 days;
- the period in which the authority, in the last instance, decides on the permit request has been extended by 60 days.
Extension of the validity of permits
The expiry periods for permits that have already been granted, were also extended
The validity of perpetual permits and notifications that would, in principle, expire between 20 March 2020 and 31 December 2020, have been extended by an additional six months.
Additionally, the validity of permits and notifications, with a limited duration that would expire between 20 March 2020 and 31 August 2020, has been extended by three months.
Adjustment of proceedings
The Flemish Government has provided local authorities with the possibility to adjust the hearings and sessions for providing information concerning permit requests. To comply with the health measures in place relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, authorities may conduct these proceedings in writing or by tele- or videoconference.
In addition, advisory opinions which statutory advisory bodies provide too late, are no longer deemed to be tacitly favourable for the permit request. However, the competent authority is allowed - but not obliged to - to continue without the advice provided.