On July 17, 2023, Syrian Prime Minister Hussein Arnous issued Circular No. 15/17-B, which prohibits modifications to general and detailed zoning plans to protect these plans and preserve urban cohesiveness. However, preventing these modifications means halting the routine process of amending zoning plans and building codes to adjust to ongoing urban changes. This new circular could also expand the scope of what administrative units consider to violate their zoning plans and building codes.
The circular included multiple instructions regarding zoning plans, most notably prohibiting changes to the building codes, especially in terms of increasing the number of storeys in a building. Each administration unit in Syria has a building code that outlines the conditions and specifications for construction in various urban areas. The July circular prohibits any changes in setbacks, which are requirements imposed by the building codes on the proposed construction plot, in terms of size, dimensions, allocations, height, and more.
The purpose of preventing modifications to building codes and setbacks in a given area is to maintain that area’s general zoning plan, which provides a vision for future residential neighbourhoods and their expansion. A general zoning plan sets the urban boundaries, the road network, and land uses for the administrative unit in a given area, distinguishing between private and public property. The July 17 circular prohibits any changes to the zoning categories of properties in a zoning plan’s area, especially public buildings and parks, to prevent affecting the plans and the future vision for the site and to maintain urban planning principles. Such plans are the foundation upon which the process of zoning plans, detailed and otherwise, and building codes for each administrative entity are based. They identify the current and future needs of the population within the administrative unit in line with current conditions, population density, and public services and facilities.
The circular also specifies procedures for adopting vital public benefit projects, such as hospitals, schools, and tourism projects. The process for such projects begins with a proposal from the local administrative unit, then the governor’s approval, followed by permission from the minister concerned with the project, and final approval of a special committee known as the Services and Infrastructure Committee.
The Services and Infrastructure Committee was created by Prime Ministerial Decree No. 38 in July 2016, aiming to study and audit legislative projects referred to in its field of competence. The body also prepares studies, discusses emerging issues in its field, offers proposals and solutions, and studies all other matters referred to by the Council of Ministers. The committee comprises 11 members, chaired by the Minister of Local Administration. It includes the ministers of Public Works and Housing, Tourism, Administrative Development, Health, Communications and Technology, Transportation, and Water Resources; the Minister of State for Affairs on Following up on Southern Region Projects; the Head of the Planning and International Cooperation Commission, and a representative from the General Secretariat of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers.
Notably, the July circular contradicts Urban Planning Law No. 5 of 1982, which regulates the mechanisms for issuing zoning plans. Law No. 5 allowed the Ministry of Public Works and Housing to modify the zoning programmes for populated areas. The 1982 law also allowed local administrative units to introduce modifications required by public interest into such plans or building codes, provided they are consistent with local urban planning and zoning programmes. Law No. 5 did not prohibit the modification of regulatory categories that lead to the development of plans, such as the construction of buildings, facilities and other installations that meet the needs of residents after studying those needs and objectives.
In contrast, the most recent circular did not specify the methods to modify such plans. According to Law No. 5, amending a given area’s general and detailed zoning plan, and the building code, is a routine procedure that follows the following steps: The administrative unit declares the proposed modification by decree of the Minister of Housing after one year has passed since the first issuance of the zoning plan or building code in question. Afterwards, objections to the modification are received within a specified deadline. Then, the modified plan or code must be re-announced every three years.