The Environment Act, the work floor is really starting to tremble...
Who had heard of the Omgevingswet or even 'environmental law' a few years ago? In the meantime, the central government is implementing an immense programme to regulate the Dutch living environment 'better'. It is no exaggeration to say that this is a national change process with a scope and (possible) impact never before seen in history, and that is actually something to be proud of as a country. It is no more and no less about the quality of our local living environment. The concept of 'quality' is, after all, a vessel full of conflicts of interest in our country, in which every square metre has been thought about, is being thought about or needs to be thought about (again). And opinions on the word 'better' are still strongly divided at all levels. Nevertheless, this criticism and the search for 'better' is also very functional in order to develop a new, workable set of instruments and to let people think and work, build and protect in a new way. Everything is intended to give form and content to the desired quality of our 'functional living environment' together, time and again; flexible and predictable, oriented as locally and democratically as possible, presumably without too much legalisation, and with maximum deployment of modern digital tools. So what is going to change in concrete terms and what can I do, you may well think. There is no simple answer to this question, but there are three pillars that you can use to determine where your current activities have the most in common.
The legal pillar is the regulation of the entire system revision in the new Environment Act, including the division of powers between national government, provinces, municipalities and water boards, the entire legal set of instruments and (ultimately) an integration of red (spatial planning and construction), grey (environmental legislation for businesses), green (nature conservation) and blue (water legislation) in one set of rules. The Environmental Plan is central to this whole. The Environmental Plan is the successor to the zoning plan currently available for consultation on spatialplannen.nl, but it will be a much more widely deployable instrument for recording the intended quality of an area down to plot level and making it available for everyone to consult in a standardised digital format. In the future, anyone who wants to know what is possible, permitted or mandatory at a particular time will consult the digital Omgevingsplan. Applying for permissions will of course also be done digitally, but that is already done via the omgevingsloket.nl. Material environmental law is now crystallising on this track and is being discussed in depth in all kinds of scientific literature and presented in a multitude of courses. At the legislative level, there are now consultation rounds in which detailed input can be provided on draft legislation. At the municipal level, consideration is being given to incorporating municipal bye-laws into the Local Area Plan. In other words, it is a work in progress, in which detailed adjustments and decisions still have to be made. At the moment, the expectation at the national level is that the Omgevingswet can enter into force as a toolkit in 2020, but I sense that there is some room for improvement...
The change organisation is visible as the second pillar in the entire process. This involves preparing the entire civil service from top to bottom that is involved in the implementation of the Environment Act within the government. The transformation of internal departments and new forms of internal cooperation in the preparation of environmental decisions and plans. But not only that, also the cooperation between various authorities and government services involved, such as environmental services, fire brigade and Public Health Service, will have to be adapted to a new way of coordinated cooperation.
At the local level, municipal councils will be given more opportunities to give shape to the desired quality of the living environment in (parts of) their municipality, together with the municipal executive and stakeholders. For instance, by establishing customised 'environmental values', action programmes and their own rules that deviate from national rules. In other words, local regulation should be based on what can be locally regulated and considered. In any case, this will require new considerations and decisions in the political process, the potential impact of which cannot yet be foreseen. The organisation by the initiator of participation by local residents in the preparation of changes in the area is an explicit part of this new way of working.
Very important at the moment is the implementation of experiments in the country in which real-time practice, learning and evaluation can take place, together with initiators and consultancies. This is legally possible through semi-annual amendments to the Crisis and Recovery Act, which allows for project deviations from the currently applicable environmental law. In the meantime, experiments with so-called zoning plans with a broad scope are taking place in dozens of places in the Netherlands. A lot of information and support for experiments can be found on omgevingsrechtportaal.nl and other government websites linked to it. In addition, it is important to keep an eye on information meetings, expert sessions, congresses and symposia on the implementation of the Environment Act.
The third pillar is the renewal of government ICT, which is indispensable if everything is to work as intended. The new Environment Act will be a Digital Environment Act, in which everything that happens will be handled digitally with state-of-the-art ICT support. I would just like to refer to the standardised open-source approach on overheid.nl, where all kinds of (reusable) government information, legislation, announcements and notices are increasingly being made accessible to everyone. Spatialplans.nl, on which according to national standards zoning plans can now be consulted digitally by everyone as the applicable law, and Omgevingsloket.nl, on which citizens and businesses can now apply for all kinds of government permissions at the front end and check for the necessary or unnecessary permission in a specific case. At the back of the counter, the government has worked hard in recent years on standardised workflow management, content standardisation and working on the basis of reduced processing times.
Whoever, as a stakeholder, allows the above to sink in, will realise how extensive the implementation of the Environment Act is. Isn't that a challenge...?
Mr. B.J. Meruma (Barry), lawyer | director of HABITAT advocaten