Finnish government initiative to streamline environmental permit application

Projects affecting the environment may require different permits and decisions from the authorities, which often need to or can be applied for simultaneously. However, no system currently exists for processing applications in a consolidated manner, which causes both unnecessary overlaps in the related procedures and sometimes even all-round confusion in the decision making.

With the aim of streamlining and speeding up the permit application processes for environmental projects, a Ministry of the Environment working group has prepared a draft government bill to integrate various permit application processes. The proposal is based on a single-window approach (Fi: yhden luukun periaate), which allows different applications concerning the same project to be considered in a single process.

A legislative initiative, consisting of a new act on coordination of environmental permit procedures, was open for consultation earlier this year; the next step will be for the government to submit a finalized government bill to Parliament. The plan is for the new legislation to enter into force in January 2020.

Which matters are affected?

Under the draft government bill, the new procedure commences if the applicant is applying for an environmental permit under the Environmental Protection Act (527/2017), a water permit under the Water Act (587/2011), or a permit under the Land Extraction Act (555/1981). The consolidated process commences if the applicant simultaneously, and in addition to one of these permits, applies for an exemption under the Nature Conservation Act (1096/1996), a permit (e.g., building, action or demolition permit) under the Land Use and Building Act (132/1999), a permit under the Mining Act (621/2011), or a permit under the Act on the Safety of Handling Hazardous Chemicals and Explosives (390/2005). However, the applicant can always choose to apply for different permits separately, at the applicant’s own discretion.

The new National Supervisory Authority (Fi: Valtion lupa- ja valvontavirasto), which is yet to be established, would be responsible for coordinating this application process. Alternatively, the municipal environmental protection authority (Fi: kunnan ympäristönsuojeluviranomainen), may be responsible, depending on the permits in question. However, the coordinating authority would only facilitate the application processes, and the final decisions regarding the relevant permits would still be made by the respective authorities.

What does this mean for the applicant?

Because the different application processes would be coordinated by a single authority, the process should be less burdensome and time consuming for applicants. Instead of having to communicate separately with each authority, requests for additional information and opinions regarding different applications would be compiled and reported to the applicant by the coordinating authority. Correspondingly, the applicant’s responses to requests for additional information and opinions would only need to be submitted once to the coordinating authority. Decisions on the permits included in the consolidated procedure would also be given simultaneously, albeit by different authorities and as technically separate permits.

Additionally, applicants would receive greater support from the authorities throughout the application process. Guidance would start when the applicant files an application or contacts the authority before filing the application. The consolidated procedure may also begin even after the applicant has filed the applications. The coordinating authority will arrange one or more meetings where the applicant and relevant authorities can agree on timelines and other practical matters concerning the consolidated process.

It is also worth noting that the new consolidated procedure is optional and would only begin when explicitly requested by the applicant. Therefore, applicants should consider this option at an early stage when planning a multi-permit project. The greatest benefits are indisputably achieved in projects where many permits should or can be applied for simultaneously. On the other hand, there will be instances where it is preferable to apply for permits separately and consecutively. Under the draft government bill, applicants will maintain the right to terminate the consolidated procedure at any point, in which case the relevant applications would be processed separately.

Author

Jannika Harries 
Associate
Helsinki