What is the background to the procedure of public inquiries and the consultation committee?
The procedure has barely been changed since 1979
The basic principles of the system have been set out in the Brussels Town Planning Code (CoBAT. / BWRO)[i]. Its modalities have been set down in detail in several implementing decrees. However, the legal provisions of the Regional Land Use Plan (PRAS / GBP) determine in which case the prior advice of the consultation committee is required.
The system was introduced in March 1976 by Paul Van den Boeynants, who was minister of Brussels Affairs at that time, by means of the approval of the draft Regional Land Use Plan[ii]. The Royal Decree provided for the first time that in the case of certain building applications a public inquiry was to be held, which needed to be announced in advance by means of red posters, and in addition, it provided for obligatory advice from a municipal consultation committee.
A major difference compared to the situation today was that only written reactions of the public at large were allowed at the time. Only the representatives of employers and workers could request to make representations to the consultation committee. Legal recognition was required to provide others with the same statute. At present, any resident or user of the town may react, in writing or orally during the public hearing of the consultation committee.
When the Regional Land Use Plan was finally approved three years later, the procedure was amended by means of a new Royal Decree[iii]. That Decree dating from November 1979 is still the foundation for the present system[iv].
The regional development plan of 1979 cornered by large projects
The origin of the system of public inquiries and consultation committees needs to be viewed in reference to the spirit of the time. At that time, urban planning was still a federal matter. The 1962 act determined the hierarchy of the plans. It was decided that for the 19 municipalities or communes of Brussels only a Land Use development plan would be established. The Regional Land Use Plan for the Brussels-Capital Region (1979) was elaborated under very difficult circumstances and therefore did not include the ambitious objectives that really were highly needed at the time.[v]
The type of Regional Land Use Plan that had been set down in law was suitable for Flanders and Wallonia, but it was not adapted to the very mixed and quickly changing city. Vague zoning indications such as residential, industrial or rural areas for instance were not accurate enough to control office developments. Brussels developed its own system: instead of establishing zones with one single land use, zones were demarcated with a main land use and a number of secondary land uses that were limited in floor area. After a public inquiry and on condition that the consultation committee gave a positive opinion, these secondary land uses could be allocated a larger floor area under specific conditions.
The draft-Land Use Plan of 1976 was the first plan for Brussels that had an official statute. However, other plans had been elaborated before that time, such as the preliminary study of the draft-Regional Land Use Plan by the Alpha Group [vi] and the plan prepared by the research consultancy Thekné [vii] for the City of Brussels. Although these documents had no legal status and they were never subjected to an organised debate, they did have an impact. The largest demolition projects for Brussels were even inspired by those plans: the continuation of the motorways into the centre, the extreme separation of land uses, the Manhattan Plan for the North Quarter with its demolition and expropriations, the extension of the Justice Palace, the demolition in the neighbourhood of the Marolles, etc
These developments provoked a lot of popular protest; the most important examples of this were the fight by the inhabitants of the North Quarter and the Marolles. Against this background, various local committees and regional organisations like ARAU (Atelier de Recherche et d’Action Urbaines), Bral (Urban Mouvement for Brussels) and IEB (Inter-Environnement Bruxelles) saw the light of day. There was also quite a lot of resistance against those major demolition projects among the young administrations in Brussels.
One of the consequences of the first oil crisis during the mid-seventies was the delay or even scrapping of many of those large projects. Therefore, there was time for reflection. Within that context, the real Regional Development Plan was drawn up, from a clearly defensive and a literally conservative point of view, for the concern of the policymakers to stop or prevent large real estate projects was greater than their willingness to design a true vision of the future for Brussels.
Twofold purpose and two parts
It is important to point out that the purpose of the system of public inquiries and consultation committees is twofold. Most of all, the system is intended to be a planning tool, because the individual evaluation of a building application can control the execution of the proposals submitted. The second ambition is to effect a wider involvement of the local residents in the decision-making. It cannot be denied that the public nature of the policy for granting building permission is enhanced by the organisation of a public inquiry and the associated consultation committee.
The procedure itself can also be divided into two parts. The first part, the public inquiry focuses in particular on the input from the residents. Anyone, resident, commuter or visitor to the area, each association or enterprise is entitled to study the file of the application or the project of the design, without having to demonstrate his direct or indirect interest. Anyone is entitled to express his remarks to the members of the consultation committee, either in writing or orally.
The consultation committee constitutes the second part of the procedure, and it organises the consultation between the various administrations, semi-governmental services and the town council. The committee where the real consultation takes place meets behind closed doors. The public part, which also refers to the ‘consultation committee’, is formally no more than a hearing. Therefore, in contradiction to what its name suggests, the consultation committee is not an ultimate participative device, but a tool for providing information and a hearing.
[i] Art 6 and art 9 of the Brussels’ Town Planning Code (CoBAT /BWRO) decree of 9/4/2004 amended several times
[ii] 22/03/1976 – Royal Decree for the foundation of a consultation committee for local town planning for each commune of the Brussels Capital Region and for the regulation of disclosure in reference to the activities and building work, which are subject to prior consultation according to the provisions of the draft regional plan and the regional plan of the agglomeration of Brussels.
[iii] 05/11/1979 – Royal Decree setting out for the Brussels Capital Region which special rules of public disclosure need to be followed in reference to some applications for building and land development and including the organisation for each commune of the Brussels Capital Region of a consultation committee for local town planning.
[iv] 23/11/1993 – Decree of the Brussels Government for the procedure of public inquiries and the consultation committee
[vi] Structure plan Alpha Group 1947, characterised by a clear separation of land uses.
[vii] On behalf of the City of Brussels1962, the Research Consultancy Thekné drew up a plan for the pentagon, with an inner ring road around the historical centre and residential high-rises along approach roads.