This is a story about land use planning in Ontario, but try to stay awake, because it’s kind of funny — that is, if you like jokes about a government nearly undoing one of its signature pieces of policy.
Most Ontarians are familiar with the Greenbelt, the protected swath of agricultural land around the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area that’s intended to restrict sprawl and preserve green space. To complement it, in 2006 the Liberals passed the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, intended to direct new construction to existing water and sewer infrastructure, not to sprawling developments on the fringes of the GTHA.
Specifically, the plan drew up “settlement areas” for large cities and towns across a massive chunk of the province, stretching from Collingwood to Niagara and from Waterloo to Peterborough. Within those areas, 40 per cent of new development was supposed to go to the “built-up areas” — places that already had the infrastructure to handle it. It was the government’s way of encouraging intensification: more and denser construction of homes and workplaces in areas that already have the services required to support them.
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The trouble started in 2008. According to a report this week from the Neptis Foundation, which specializes in land-use issues in the GTHA, that was the year Ontario made a big mistake. While finalizing the maps of built-up areas where development was supposed to go, someone inserted a key sentence stating that, in towns without a designated built-up area, the entire settlement area would be considered built-up.
The problem is that more than 400 small towns and villages across the Greater Golden Horseshoe don’t have designated built-up areas. In these primarily rural communities, which the plan was never really supposed to focus on, all of a sudden provincial policy had made an invisible but consequential change. But it would've been difficult and labour-intensive for the province or municipal governments to make detailed maps of all the small towns and villages in the region. It would also have been counterproductive: since those places often don’t have municipal water and sewer service anyway, they weren’t supposed to see much development.
The intentions behind the sentence were almost certainly innocent: governments don’t like ambiguity in policy, and it's written in a way that strongly suggests some staffer at Queen’s Park was simply trying to foreclose some possible conflict. But the effects are huge. Regional municipalities can count development in their rural towns and villages as “intensification,” because the 2008 changes call everything built-up. Since the whole point of the Growth Plan is to make intensification easier, this gives developers and compliant municipalities an express pass for home-building approvals.
Except, of course, none of this is real intensification. It’s still building detached homes on farmland, which is exactly what the Growth Plan was supposed to prevent. And while the lands we’re talking about are generally small and scattered, they add up quickly: more than 30,000 hectares are potentially at stake, one-third again as much land as the Growth Plan budgeted for, and a massive, totally accidental expansion in buildable land across the region.
“To call this intensification makes a mockery of the Growth Plan and even the idea of intensification,” says Marcy Burchfield, executive director of the Neptis Foundation.
So, oops. Sometimes governments fall in love with needlessly complex policies; other times policy is just complicated. This is one of the latter cases The Growth Plan was always going to be a complex document, and every page of additional complexity is just another place for an unintended consequence to lie in wait.
- Nowhere to grow: Is the Greenbelt hurting a small Ontario town?
- The Agenda: The Greenbelt 10 years later
- The Agenda: Ontario's planning problems
The good news is that this error seems to have been caught relatively early, and few of the 30,000 hectares at risk have actually been built upon, though not zero. The Liberals are already in the midst of the exact bureaucratic process that’s supposed to deal with these kind of issues (a combined review of the Greenbelt, the Growth Plan, and other land-use issues), so it should be possible to make a straightforward correction.
“The ministry is aware of new data and the concerns that have been raised by the Neptis Foundation and appreciates the work they have done,” the municipal affairs ministry told TVO.org in an emailed statement. “These findings will be taken into consideration as we look at finalizing the policy.”
To translate from the bureaucratese: we messed up, we didn’t intend to blow up our own policy, we’re fixing it. The Growth Plan is complicated, but remedying this should be simple, thanks in large part to the work Neptis has done identifying the problem.
One point worth dwelling on in all this is that it was Neptis, not the government, that assembled the data and analyzed it to sound the alarm on what was happening. The housing sector is one of the most important parts of the Ontario economy (for good or ill), and the government consistently has to grope around in the dark on important questions because nobody has the answers. Sometimes this is because the answers are scattered across different ministries. In this case, the ministries of municipal affairs, housing, infrastructure, or environment could all have held pieces of the puzzle, but nobody had the picture on the box.
And in other cases — as in the ongoing debate over how big a role foreign buyers are playing in Toronto’s housing market — the government simply wasn’t collecting that data, though the Liberals said they would start after last fall’s mini-budget.
Either way, there’s little excuse for the lack of basic data-gathering by the province. Neptis manages to do it, but unlike the province, they don’t have the legal authority to compel any municipality to cooperate.
“In this day and age, it’s really not that hard to collect the datasets you need,” says Burchfield. “And I’m saying that as the person who’s been doing it for years now.”