What should Ontario’s Growth Plan look like in a pandemic — and after?

The Greenbelt Council, which advises the government on growth planning, is urging the province to take a closer look at the numbers it’s using to justify planning decisions
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Aug 14, 2020
Ontario’s Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe structures how and where municipalities can direct growth. (iStock/D-Ozen)

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What will the Greater Golden Horseshoe look like in 2051? The economic and demographic core of the province, which radiates out from Toronto and encompasses everything from Peterborough to Waterloo, Niagara to Orillia, is governed by numerous planning rules, and those rules both shape and are shaped by plans made at Queen’s Park. The Tory government has launched numerous changes to Ontario’s planning laws in order to fulfill its vision of getting more homes built faster, and the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe — a key policy document that structures how and where municipalities can direct growth, and whose most recent edition is titled “A Place to Grow” — is no exception.

But, in order to plan, the government needs to take a stab at predicting where growth is going to occur. And the Greenbelt Council, an independent government panel chaired by former Toronto mayor David Crombie, is warning the Tories that they risk baking fundamentally flawed conclusions into planning rules with a decades-long timeline — and making wasteful infrastructure investments in regions where projected growth will never materialize.

“The major concern is that we’re entering a real period of uncertainty,” Crombie says. “We need to pay attention to the fact that there’s going to be changes to employment patterns, travel and transport patterns, locational choices by businesses and residents, immigration and migration — these are major changes that are going to come in ways that aren’t just gradual and small. This is going to be significant in the next number of years.”

The problem might have been magnified by uncertainty related to COVID-19, but it didn’t begin with the pandemic. The province has, for nearly a decade, tried to project where people and jobs will grow in number across the GGH. As part of their updates to the Growth Plan, the Tories have commissioned updated population and employment numbers for the region. But Crombie and the other members of the council are raising questions about the accuracy of projections from 2012 and whether they’ve reflected real-world growth.

The council laid out its concerns in its latest report to Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark. “The forecasts underestimated population growth in the Toronto and Peel, and overestimated growth elsewhere,” the report reads. “By 2019, Toronto and Peel together were estimated to have attracted over 60,000 more new residents than anticipated by the 2012 Growth Plan forecasts. Meanwhile, in the regions of York, Durham and Halton, over 150,000 new residents expected by 2019 did not materialize. For employment, the forecasts were even further off. Job growth in Toronto exceeded forecasts by some 129,000 jobs.”

“We need to understand the growth between 2012 and 2019, and I don’t think that’s evident,” Crombie says.

Hemson Consulting Ltd, the private consulting firm that conducted the forecasts — for both the current government and the prior Liberal one — says in its report to the government that it got the top-level population and jobs projections right; Crombie says the council isn’t criticizing those projections, but rather asking the government to take a second look at the conclusions it’s drawing from them.

It's not just population and employment flows, either: Hemson’s projections also look at the share of new homes being built as “ground-related” (e.g., single-family homes or townhouses) and apartments. Those numbers project an increase in low-rise homebuilding as millennials start having children; the Greenbelt Council says that projection assumes a break with a long period of condo-led growth in Toronto. That condo growth, in turn, is at least partly attributable to all the unanticipated jobs that flowed into Toronto’s core. These are distinct issues, but they also can’t be neatly compartmentalized.

“All of those factors are going to affect the allocation of land and growth,” says Crombie, adding that it’s critical to have as accurate an analysis as possible.

In its report to Clark, the council calls on the Tories to create a new monitoring and research office within the government’s planning bureaucracy to get a better handle on demographic and economic flows, since so many crucial government planning assumptions rely on clearly understanding these factors.

Crombie also agrees that it may be worthwhile for the government simply to pause its planning exercises for some period — a year or two, perhaps — until there’s more clarity about what a post-COVID world will look like.

“I guess, in some way, that’s what were saying. We’re saying ‘hold it here’ — there are some major changes afoot,” says Crombie. “Our concern is that all the other factors involved … if those aren’t in sync, then you’ve used up farmland unnecessarily.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing told TVO.org via email that the government was grateful for the council’s input and emphasized that no final decisions have been made regarding the population and employment projections in the Growth Plan.

The council, however, is also calling on Clark to more strictly limit his use of minister’s zoning orders. The tool, which the Tories have used much more frequently than their predecessors did, allows government to bypass the usual lengthy planning process for projects it has identified as priorities. The report calls on the government to use this legal power “sparingly and only in exceptional cases” and to make the process more transparent.

“The Ministerial Zoning Orders (MZOs) issued by the Minister have all been supported by their local municipalities. Our government’s commitment to the Greenbelt has not changed,” the ministry spokesperson writes. “And the Minister is not prepared to consider any requests for an MZO for development in the Greenbelt.”

Crombie says that, even when the government uses MZOs, it should clearly communicate its aims to the public.

“It’s intended as a mechanism to be used sparingly; it’s an exemption from the normal planning process, the more democratic planning process. I’m not against it in principle,” Crombie says. “But there still needs to be an understanding by the public about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. It can’t just be the Holy Writ from the Vatican.”

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