Can the Tories’ new Growth Plan pull Ontario out of its COVID-19 recession?

ANALYSIS: The Tories released amendments to the Growth Plan on Friday. While they’ve backed down on some controversial suggestions, the changes are almost certain to spark criticism
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Aug 28, 2020
The provincial government has indicated that it will not allow development in the Greenbelt. (Flickr/Ken Nash)

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The Growth Plan is planning for growth. This may sound like government by tautology, but it’s also the most succinct explanation of the government’s latest amendments to Places to Grow, the latest version of the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe. The Growth Plan, a document enshrined in provincial planning law by the Liberals in the mid-2000s, is intended to conserve natural areas and direct jobs and population growth to places with existing infrastructure.

Now, according to Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark, the Growth Plan will help pull the province out of the recession induced by COVID-19 and expand housing supply in the economic core of the province.

“The Greater Golden Horseshoe is the economic engine not just of our province, but of Canada,” Clark says. “Our amendments to A Place to Grow will help bring more homes, more jobs, and more business investment to the region so it can bounce back stronger than ever.”

Clark’s amendments to the Growth Plan, posted publicly Friday and provided to TVO.org earlier this week, contain a number of tweaks to the larger document published by the government last year. The decision that’s likely to have the longest-term consequences involves adopting the growth forecasts provided by Hemson Consulting Ltd. (notwithstanding concerns from government advisers on the Greenbelt Council that previous projections had missed the mark).

“Hemson was retained not just by our government, but by the previous government. I remain confident in their independent work … I think retaining Hemson for their work is good value for taxpayers,” Clark says, dismissing the idea that the government should bring this kind of long-term planning in-house instead of relying on private consultants.

Clark’s decision effectively embeds Hemson’s baseline projection in Ontario planning law; municipalities in the region will now have to adapt their official plans to accommodate at least as many people and jobs as called for in the Growth Plan. In the case of Toronto, that’s a population of 3.6 million and nearly 2 million jobs by 2051; the province’s largest city boasted 2.9 million people and 1.7 million jobs in 2019, pre-COVID.

The numbers from Hemson will now flow downward to municipalities, which will have to complete a Land Needs Assessment; in short, they’ll need to estimate how much new land they need to start planning infrastructure and services (such as roads and sewers) for, based on projections of how many new people will be coming to their communities by 2051 and of how those people will be housed and employed.

Clark’s office has also substantially modified the Land Needs Assessment process; the new version is substantially shorter than the previous version. The minister says the new process will put a greater emphasis on results and meeting market demand.

“We heard from stakeholders that the previous version of the LNA was overly complicated, cumbersome, so we simplified the process so that land requirements can be identified more quickly and municipalities can come into conformity more quickly,” Clark says. “None of the changes we’ve made to the LNA change the environmental protections in the Greenbelt Plan or other provincial policy.” Even given more growth-oriented planning, Clark and the government are still emphatic that they won’t allow development in the Greenbelt.

The changes to the LNA process could nevertheless attract a lot of criticism from conservation groups and others, who may be concerned that they will see a much larger area of Ontario designated for new development. That the new LNA puts a greater emphasis on meeting “market demand” for housing is also likely to raise concerns, since, for many communities in the region, this could be a way to continue planning for the status quo. (The Growth Plan still contains intensification targets intended to drive more efficient and densely built housing, though those, too, were modified by the Tories last year.)

Municipalities will have until July 2022 to bring their official plans into conformity with the changes in Places to Grow. Clark says his ministry will assist any city that needs help making the deadline.

Notably, the government is popping one trial balloon: the Tories had proposed to expand the areas where new quarries for stone, sand, and gravel would be allowed; that could potentially have involved habitats for endangered species. The government has abandoned the idea, Clark says, due to the overwhelmingly negative response it received from municipalities, environmentalists, and other stakeholders.

The government may still receive some vocal criticism from Toronto city council, however. Last year, the Tories identified “provincially significant employment zones” that were supposed to be protected from being redeveloped as housing — the point being to ensure that the province wouldn’t lose key tracts of employment lands and areas reserved for industrial and logistics uses. Under today’s changes, some PSEZs could be redeveloped into housing if they’re close to major transit stations. Clark says this is part of building “complete communities” with a mix of jobs and housing. In Toronto, where relatively few large tracts of employment lands remain (and where elected officials are trying to protect them from redevelopment), the council voted in July to oppose the change.

With a new flare-up of tensions around a real-estate development in Caledonia this month, it’s also notable that the government is putting new, stronger language in the Growth Plan to require municipalities to consult with Indigenous people affected by their land-use policies.

“We sought Indigenous feedback on these changes. We had a number of communities respond, and they reacted positively to our proposals to strengthen directions to municipalities,” Clark says. “I think this is going to be received positively by municipalities, and, in the long run, it’s one of the pieces of public policy that, in the changes we’re making, I’m most proud.”

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