No one knows whether Ontario’s Growth Plan works — including the government

OPINION: The idea is to make cities plan denser, more transit-friendly development. Is that happening? Ontario doesn’t seem to want to find out
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Dec 06, 2021
The Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe is the key piece of provincial planning policy for the massive region centred on Toronto. (hstiver/iStock)

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Everyone except the government, it seems, has found a reason to hate ministerial zoning orders. In her annual report, Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk devotes an extensive chapter to the province’s land-use-planning regime and to the Doug Ford government’s use of MZOs — and it’s no mystery why. The Ford government and Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark have made substantially greater use of the MZO power than the Liberals did, issuing twice as many in two years (March 2019 to March 2021) as had been issued in the previous 18 overall.

Lysyk notes that, while the province has given itself the power to make zoning decisions directly from cabinet since at least 1979, other provinces have either substantially more constrained cabinet powers or, in at least one case, no ministerial zoning power at all. Her report alleges that this government’s use of MZOs has disrupted municipalities’ official planning procedures and that the process overall lacks transparency.

It‘s hard not to imagine apparatchiks in the bowels of the government reading Lysyk’s report and asking, “So what?” Indeed, when asked about the government’s exuberant use of MZOs, Clark himself said that, if previous governments had been similarly enthusiastic, Ontario might not have such a severe housing shortage. Fair to say that “insufficient consultation with municipal councils and greater transparency with anti-development activists” is not high on the list of housing-policy problems this government is looking to solve.

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The other parties have been unanimous in their opposition to the government’s use of MZOs: the New Democrats have consistently railed against it, and the Green Party has promised to use MZOs only “in exceptional circumstances.” Last week, Steven Del Duca and the Liberals joined them, with Del Duca promising to massively curtail their use if his party forms government in next June’s election.

But it’s worth backing up here a moment, because the government’s MZO use is only one part of Lysyk’s analysis of land-use planning in Ontario. 

Perhaps the most damning statement in the report isn’t about MZOs at all but about the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe — the key piece of provincial planning policy for the massive region centred on Toronto. First promulgated in 2006 and updated repeatedly since (including once by the Tories), the Growth Plan was intended to make municipalities plan for denser, more economical, more transit-friendly development to conserve both green space and taxpayer dollars. Sprawl is, after all,  wasteful, and waste is expensive.

Did the Growth Plan work? Who knows? No, seriously, do you know? Because the province doesn’t.

Lysyk finds that only once in the ensuing 15 years has Ontario undertaken any analysis of whether its policies were achieving their stated aims.

“Without up-to-date information on the outcomes and results, neither the Ministry nor the public can determine whether the Growth Plan policies have been effective in achieving its vision to create  communities that allow people to comfortably live, work and play while protecting the region’s natural  heritage,” she writes — that sounds a lot like auditor-speak for “why do I have to spell this out for you people.”

It’s one thing to set a planning policy; it’s quite another to monitor its implementation and follow through to ensure that real change is happening on the ground. Again, the lack of such monitoring long predates the Tory government: in 2017, the Neptis Foundation found that a stray sentence in the Growth Plan had been used to permit unintended sprawl across the region. That sentence had been there since 2008, and nobody in government had caught what was happening.

Queen’s Park is very good about making rules that it expects municipalities to follow. It’s not so great at monitoring municipalities for follow-through. Some of this is a cultural divide — some parts of the government have a hard time understanding just how much energy local municipal councils put into thwarting provincial policy. But it’s also the case that, even if Ontario wanted to aggressively monitor municipal compliance with provincial policy, it literally couldn’t right now: the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing doesn’t collect the data that would be needed to oversee decisions.

But in the space where Lysyk’s evisceration of Ontario’s planning policies overlaps with opposition criticisms of MZOs, there might be room for a real debate about a wholesale reform of the province’s planning. The Green Party’s recent housing policy was a nod in this direction — it proposes a more rule-based, predictable planning system that relies neither on ministerial fiat nor on the caprice of local municipal potentates. That Del Duca recently singled out the Green housing strategy as something Liberals should pay attention to is notable.

None of this means that Ontarians need to sacrifice the goals enshrined in the Growth Plan and the Greenbelt Act: conserving farmland and other green spaces while achieving more compact, transit-amenable, and walkable communities. It may mean, though, that legislators need to give themselves a new toolkit to get there. 

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