Bill 197, the COVID-19 Economic Recovery Act, which was introduced in the legislature on Wednesday, is a hefty 92 pages divided up into 20 separate sections that amend dozens of pieces of legislation. It touches on everything from environmental assessments to marriage licences and Ontario’s courts. But numerous sections — those dealing with landfills, planning law, and housing, for example — fall on the desk of one minister: Steve Clark, the minister of municipal affairs and housing.
TVO.org spoke with Clark about some of the changes Bill 197 makes, what motivated the government to change course on one of its signature policy proposals of the last year — and why he’s making more expansive use of the provincial government’s planning powers than his predecessors did.
TVO.org: Minister, Bill 197 does a lot of things, but one of the big changes involves how the government looks at so-called community-benefits charges. You had proposed a policy that would replace what are currently two different parts of Ontario’s planning law; now, instead of combining Section 37 money and parkland dedication into a single charge, parkland money would stay separate. Why the change?
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Steve Clark: I think this has been a really good example, as you’ve noted, of the way government should work. You consult, modify, consult, modify, until you’re ready to implement. I didn’t think it was going to take over 300 days! But I think those were well-spent days.
The parkland piece is a very important piece. We also had to look at the final consultation with a COVID-19 lens to it. The outbreak has shown us the importance of having large public spaces, like parks, and many were concerned that the new CBC regime would mean less parkland. We’re proposing to keep the way municipalities get parkland, even if they don’t choose to use the new community-benefits charge.
TVO.org: The premier has definitely emphasized the economic-recovery side of Bill 197 — getting companies building again — but you’re saying that you’re also aware of the planning issues that the pandemic has illuminated.
Clark: Exactly. Look at the development-charge piece. Through development charges, municipalities are going to be able to recover 100 per cent of long-term care, child care, public-health facilities, playgrounds, libraries, affordable housing, shelters — and I’ll argue those are all very important to municipalities in a post-COVID-19 environment. And I think using development charges is critical.
TVO.org: It was surprising to see the expansion of that list of services that cities will be able to use development charges for. Your party, in opposition and in government, had talked a lot about taking costs off new housing. Was this a change in heart?
Clark: I don’t think it was a change of heart. We said from day one that people needed to know the rules of the game from the start of the process, that we needed to take the politics out of the process, that there needed to be certainty, and I think we’ve been able to strike that balance with our municipal partners. I’m very pleased with how it landed.
TVO.org: Another part of Bill 197 is extending and elaborating the minister’s powers to issue ministerial zoning orders. What’s the plan there?
Clark: We’ve worked very collaboratively with municipalities with every MZO I’ve done. I’d put the emphasis not on me, the minister, but on councils. Aside from one in Toronto for Sunnybrook hospital, which started with Councillor Jaye Robinson and came from a mayor’s letter from John Tory, all the other projects were discussed in an open meeting in a council and presented as a resolution to the ministry. We’ve been clear we want to put affordable homeownership and rentals in reach of Ontario families. The MZO is another important tool to work with municipal partners to get important projects done.
TVO.org: This government has obviously made transit a priority, in terms of the Ontario Line and more. So far, you’ve had municipal support for your zoning orders, but it’s certainly possible that the government’s plans for the Ontario Line could conflict with the wishes of Toronto city council. Are you willing to commit to not using an MZO without a clear statement of council support?
Clark: First of all, the MZO is essential to be able to deliver on our government’s transit-expansion commitments and to finally build transit along those four major priority transit lines, including the Ontario Line. MZOs always work better in partnership with our municipalities. It’s certainly our plan to work collaboratively with the council and those neighbourhood communities as we move forward on it. We’d look to the municipality to be a lead on things like site planning. The MZO always works best when anyone agrees — but I’m not going to pre-suppose what’s going to happen next. I’ll just say that, to date, I’ve never done one of these without council support. That’s where I’m at today, and that’s where I hope I am through the whole process.
TVO.org: To pull back for a second: this has actually been a substantial change for the provincial government. I believe the previous government used a zoning order only once in five years.
Clark: I think it was more than once. [The minister is correct: it was used three times between 2014 and ’18.]
TVO.org: I think you have been — however you want to put it — more activist, more energetic with zoning orders than your predecessors were; Queen’s Park has usually held these local planning matters at a bit of a distance. Why the change from this government?
Clark: We need to deliver critical projects for each of those communities. I look at the long-term-care facilities, the innovation park up in Simcoe county that’s going to provide hundreds of jobs, a purpose-built seniors’ community in Markham-Stouffville — these are all community priorities that could take years to be developed. And, having a ministerial zoning order, I think we can all agree, will speed up the planning process. In the case of Bill 197, they can be ready once the emergency declaration ends; we want to be able to move forward on these projects. I said yesterday in the press conference with the premier that municipalities will be the recovery in our province, and this is one of the tools we’re going to use to help those municipalities build Ontario together.
TVO.org: When the government introduced Bill 108, you said it wanted to end “let’s make a deal” planning. But Bill 197, and previous bills from this government, give you a lot of power to engage in the same kind of deal-making in terms of planning approvals. How do you assure the public this isn’t going to be payola?
Clark: No, no. That’s not our vision. Our vision is for municipalities to look at priority projects they need in their communities. I’ll use the Innisfil and Clarington examples, those long-term-care centres. These were dreams of those two councils — that they wanted to provide those facilities for their seniors and to be able to say to the proponent that those projects could be built two to three years faster. It’s a big deal. I don’t in any way think that this is not part of putting politics in planning.
This is following the lead of municipal partners. We’re being adamant with them that it doesn’t touch the Greenbelt in any way, shape, or form. The two questions I ask are: Is it in the Greenbelt? The answer is no. Does the council support it? If they don’t, the answer is no. It’s been a very successful endeavour for our government to use the zoning order as an opportunity to create opportunities.
TVO.org: The virtue of the MZO, from the perspective of the province, municipalities, and developers, is that it offers speed and certainty with a decision. Is the fact that you’re being asked to step in this often a sign that the planning process isn’t working very well?
Clark: You talk to some of the councils I’ve done an MZO for — they know the process takes too long. We went through a process to try to speed up planning approvals, and we continue to work with my cabinet brothers and sisters to look at permitting or any of the other parts of the development process, but we believe the enhanced authority will assist in overcoming those barriers, those delays. For now, we’re quite happy with the dozen or so I’ve done, that have been driven by a local council decision in a public council meeting before it comes to my desk. That makes sure the public is aware there is a request, it communicates there is a priority of a council, and then it’s up to us to decide whether we want to move forward.
TVO.org: One of the complaints I used to hear about the previous government from developers was that they had big ideas about the Greenbelt, about the Growth Plan, but they weren’t willing to take the political heat for actually defending growth in cities, where it can be a really divisive issue. With the powers in Bill 197, and in previous bills, your office takes on a much larger role in directing growth, especially to the areas around transit stations. Is this a sign that this government is willing to take that political heat for the intensification fights that could be coming?
Clark: Let’s face it: we’ve heard overwhelmingly from the public that they want the government to put a plan in place to intensify around major transit-station areas. We’ve talked about transit-oriented communities. That’s going to require intensification around major transit stations. People want to live near transit, and they want to be connected. The challenge has always been building the last mile. This enhanced MZO power is going to provide for intensification, and I think we all acknowledge that’s a very positive policy direction. Time will tell in terms of what the public will accept, but when we have had our previous consultations, this has been something everyone has said we need to do. So if it requires the province to take leadership, so be it.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.