Doug Ford is a radical (when it comes to building permits)

OPINION: The premier wonders why it takes so long to get anything built in Ontario. The answer is that certain interests want it to take that long. Is he ready to take them on?
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jun 17, 2020
The World Bank has found that it takes, on average, 249 days to get a building permit in Canada. (iStock.com/pictore)

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For months, Premier Doug Ford has been using his daily Queen’s Park press conferences to address the province’s efforts to combat COVID-19. On Monday, he gave us a blast from the past — the pre-pandemic Doug Ford.

“Regulations and red tape kills companies,” the premier said Monday. “We’re going to work closely with these municipalities … but why can’t we get a building permit in six months nowadays?”

The burdens of regulation have been a north star in Ford’s career since he was a city councillor, so it’s not surprising to see him return to this theme as the most fearsome part of the pandemic (we hope) recedes. Focusing on the return of public life, and on people’s jobs and livelihoods, is the natural next step for the governments of all provinces right now.

But Ford’s concern with building permits — and how long it takes to issue them in Ontario — is one of those cases where the premier is potentially being far more radical than he realizes.

Building permits are a key milestone for any construction project in most modern economies; they’re usually the final step before a builder can break ground, whether for a factory, an office tower, or a bungalow. In his remarks, the premier lamented the fact that, in Ontario, it can take years to get a building permit, while in some U.S. states, it’s only a matter of months. That time spent waiting costs money and jobs.

The World Bank, which tracks the ease of getting building permits across countries, ranks Canada 64th in the world — and, since the World Bank used Toronto as the case study to represent Canada, it backs up Ford’s complaint. Moreover, the World Bank’s methodology assumes almost the best possible case for getting a permit: building a nondescript warehouse in an area already zoned for warehouses. Still, the World Bank found it would take 249 days to get a permit, as opposed to 152 in the average OECD country.

When you start contemplating things more complicated than a warehouse — especially anything involving a change in zoning, such as a tall apartment building somewhere it isn’t currently allowed — the timeline stretches into years. Projects that are supposed to be supported by provincial policies aren’t spared: the redevelopment of the old Honest Ed’s store, in downtown Toronto, proposed a bunch of new rental housing a stone’s throw from a subway station. The first applications were filed in 2015; the city didn’t approve a re-zoning until 2017; building permits weren’t issued until 2018. Three years passed before so much as a shovel could be put in the ground — and that was for a project that provincial policy was supposed to support.

A 2018 report commissioned by the Ontario Architects Association shows that site-plan approval — one of the major procedures required before getting a building permit in most Ontario cities — takes six months on average. Larger projects often take nine months.

In short, getting something built in Ontario involves numerous different approval processes, any one of which can and frequently does take more than six months. The premier’s not wrong about that, and he’s not wrong about Ontario being behind lots of other jurisdictions.

Whether any Ontario government is willing to endure the political pain it would take to fix this is another question altogether. The hard fact is that building something in the province takes a lot of time because lots of different interests want it to take a lot of time. People in favour of careful scrutiny. NIMBYs. Cheapskates on municipal council who don’t want to spend the money to staff their planning department properly. 

All of these things are, in theory, problems the province could solve. It just wouldn’t be easy. Consider the recent example of the Tories’ attempt to rejig the way cities collect money from developers for things like parkland. There, too, the government was trying to make major changes to building rules in a way that would make it easier and faster to build in Ontario. There too, the move called into question long-held powers and procedures municipalities (and their voters) have relied on to guide new construction. But the problem is so thorny that the Tories still haven’t found an answer that wouldn’t risk enraging some large part of the province. So, earlier this year and pre-pandemic, they punted.

Creating an Ontario where businesses could get a building permit in six months would be a massively more disruptive and radical move than anything the Tories have considered to date. It could also be massively more painful, for them, from a political perspective. Maybe the pandemic — and Ford’s renewed mission to turbocharge the province’s economy — has given the premier a bigger appetite for political pain than he had just a few months ago.

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