The Ontario government has unveiled new plans for guiding growth in the vast region centred on Toronto — from Collingwood to Niagara, Waterloo to Peterborough — encouraging more and denser housing developments, protecting industrial lands to guarantee future jobs, and adding thousands of acres to the Greenbelt.
Minister of Municipal Affairs Bill Mauro announced the revised plans Thursday morning in downtown Toronto, alongside former mayor David Crombie, who recommended changes to the Growth Plan and the Greenbelt Plan back in 2015. Today’s document largely reflects Crombie’s advice: “complete communities” of mixed uses and mixed densities are the order of the day.
The government also heeded criticism from GTA mayors who argued the new, higher-density targets were unrealistic; it will now give municipalities more flexibility to reach them. The Liberals also plan to close the loophole the Neptis Foundation exposed earlier this year that allowed rural towns to count sprawl as “intensification.”
For a government that has made “balance” in policymaking a constant refrain, it’s been a pretty good day: the initial reaction from environmentalists and developers alike has been mostly positive. There’s been no major outcry about anything in the document.
But is the government prepared to enforce it? And is it prepared to sell the plan to voters, who’ve got one eye on their home values and another on the 2018 ballot?
Crombie urged the Liberals to do just that: “That’s the hard, day-to-day, week-by-week work. We need to measure and monitor how well we’re going to do over the next number of years so we know what to do and fix it as we go,” he said. “We need to make sure we’ve got a robust secretariat within the government that’s large and adept enough to move on implementation of the plan.”
The current Growth Secretariat, responsible for overseeing and implementing the Greenbelt and Growth plans, is relatively small and has been bounced around various ministries (as recently as 2014 it was part of the Ministry of Infrastructure). In government, that’s usually a signal that the politicians in charge know they require some sort of bureaucracy but aren’t sure what to do with it.
Marcy Burchfield, Neptis’ executive director, echoed Crombie’s call for a larger and more energetic Growth Secretariat: “Implementation is the hardest part. It’s where the rubber hits the road, and I really think there needs to be something like a Growth Plan czar to make sure the policies are being implemented in a way that follows the spirit of the plan and not just the numbers.”
This is the Liberals’ quandary, and one any future Ontario government will face: the Greenbelt is absurdly popular, and the Growth Plan is a necessary complement to it. You can’t realistically have one without the other.
Yet to make the Growth Plan work, the province will inevitably be drawn into more local planning battles — something Queen’s Park has traditionally avoided. The raison d’être of the Ontario Municipal Board, or whatever succeeds it, is to make these kinds of local decisions itself so the government isn’t stuck debating roof heights for Neighbourhood Character Lane at the legislature.
There’s also the question of whether the government will actually sell its policies to homeowners (not to mention voters). Developers have fumed, not without reason, that the government has left it to them to defend planning policies. The Liberals are happy to take credit for preserving farmland (the least controversial of the Greenbelt’s many objectives) but haven’t been quite as enthusiastic about publicly defending denser development in existing neighbourhoods.
Does the Liberal government — or any government — have the stomach to wade into local planning controversies they’d rather avoid? And will they have the spine to defend their more stringent policies when they’re tested in the real world?
At the risk of finding the one grey cloud on an otherwise sunny day, the precedents aren’t encouraging. Remember, before it became a billion-dollar black hole, the dispute over where to put gas-fired power plants in Oakville and Mississauga was an arcane local planning matter too.
Photo courtesy of Mary Crandall and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version.)
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