The Tories didn’t invent MZOs. Whoever comes next is going to face the same problems

OPINION: Many don’t like MZOs, and fair enough. But the orders reflect issues with the province’s land-use planning that predated the Tories — and will certainly outlast them
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Mar 12, 2021
Premier Doug Ford speaks to reporters with MPP Steve Clark, minister of municipal affairs and housing, in Toronto on September 10, 2018. (Christopher Katsarov/CP)



Nobody ever accused Doug Ford of trying to lower the rhetorical temperature when he’s criticized in the legislature, and I’m not about to try.

The premier of Ontario, challenged by NDP MPP Catherine Fife on his government’s use of ministerial zoning orders, said Tuesday that Ontario will be welcoming 40,000 new people in the near future and that, if it were up to the official Opposition, “they’d be living in mud huts right now.” On Wednesday, in response to a question from the NDP’s Taras Natyshak, he asserted simply, “Socialism doesn’t work.”

These are not, to put it mildly, substantive defences of the Tories’ policy choices.

Steve Clark, Ford’s minister of municipal affairs and housing, is better at stating the government’s actual case for MZOs, and he’s done so before here at Which doesn’t mean anyone is required to accept those arguments or obligated to vote Tory in the next election. But since MZOs are likely to be one of the lightning-rod issues in that election (I personally expect at least two of the opposition parties to promise to legislate MZOs out of existence or massively curtail them), it’s worth stating that there is an actual problem here that predates the Tories.

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Provincial governments have always been willing to carve out exceptions from general municipal planning powers when it suited them. For example. Ontario’s electrical utilities — Ontario Power Generation and Hydro One — are exempt from the Planning Act when it comes to their infrastructure projects. (They still need to apply for environmental assessments, but those are handled by Queen’s Park and not local government.) When the Liberal government under Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne wanted to grow the renewable-energy sector here in Ontario, they expanded that exemption to include renewable-energy projects — most notoriously, wind turbines.

But that’s just the clearest case. There are others. One of the recurring issues that cropped up during the Liberal years was that the government didn’t even pretend to follow its own hallowed planning rules when it came to new hospitals. Like the province’s power system, health care is a core provincial priority that can make or break governments. So, in one sense, it’s not surprising that, regardless of party, the government chooses not to let the niceties of planning theory get in the way of bestowing billion-dollar investments on communities.

The Liberals also came to see the flaws in Ontario’s planning process in a more substantial way. And, yes, there are flaws to it, as there would be in any system of regulations and laws that has evolved haphazardly over most of a century with only periodic attempts to rationalize it. The Liberal attempt to provide a more rational planning approach that balanced community input with the rights of other stakeholders resulted in the community-planning-permit system (previously known as the development-permit system). Under a CPPS, the rules for land-use planning are rearranged so that much of the political risk is dealt with at the beginning; once in place, a CPPS can’t be challenged at the LPAT (or at its predecessor, the Ontario Municipal Board). Importantly, the province was at least as enthusiastic about the CPPS for use in commercial and industrial development — to give business investment more certainty — as it was in housing.

The problem with the CPPS is that nobody actually liked it, or almost nobody. A handful of cities have put it to use, and the City of Toronto took some steps toward adopting it under then-chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat. But, for many municipalities, it was a low-reward proposition: it was still arduous and labour-intensive to put in place and, at least in Toronto, it still attracted all the opposition and venom of a normal planning proposal. The last time the idea of a CPPS rose to even my (abnormal) level of attention to these matters was when the Liberals briefly tried to tie their inclusionary zoning policies to the use of CPPS plans. It was their final attempt to try to cajole municipalities into using them. Municipal leaders cried foul, the Liberals backed off, and such plans never again had any prominence at Queen’s Park.

Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark’s exuberant use of MZOs is not exactly analogous to these prior cases, but there is a theme here: while the province forces municipalities to comply with every clause and sub-clause of the Planning Act, provincial priorities somehow see the obstacles of the law dissolve before them. (The ministerial zoning power itself has been embedded in the Planning Act for decades, and that’s not an accident.) The Liberals were keenly aware that Ontario’s planning process could be an obstacle to actually achieving desirable planning outcomes and tried to use the CPPS as a means, in part, of creating a more amenable environment for business in much the same way that Clark is using the MZO.

Which doesn’t make Clark right and his critics wrong. Rather, what it means is that, under three premiers from two parties over 15 years or so, the province has struggled to find an answer to the problems posed by the conventional way we do land-use planning in Ontario. It’s clunky, slow, and satisfies neither the province nor municipalities. If none of that were true, Clark’s invitation to municipal councils to submit MZOs for his approval wouldn’t have found as many enthusiastic takers as it has.

So as much as whoever succeeds the Tories may lament the use and abuse of MZOs by the current government, there’s actually a major public-policy question worth grappling with here — and simply promising to abolish or greatly reduce the personal powers of a minister won’t answer it.

For more on this issue, read Marsha McLeod's story "‘Poster child for destruction’: The fight to save the Duffins Creek wetland from developers."

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