Process Over Product – The Failures of Sustainable Land-use Planning in Ontario

For the past 150 years, the province of Ontario has been the primary driver of Canada’s collective wealth. However, since the early 1990’s, with the passing of five Acts in quick succession,1 an unacknowledged shift began. Through these and subsequent Acts, Ontario’s resource and land-use ministries have placed increasing importance on “sustainability,” an ill-defined term with, as this paper will show, few metrics. As the policies introduced by the Acts took hold, accompanying legislation, meant to further improve environmental conditions (Appendix VII), was passed. Once the attendant regulations and rule-making were in place, the province began to experience a steady economic decline, first in its rural regions, and now, it can be argued, in its cities. The public treasury has made up for the lack of substantive growth through public spending, and as a result, Ontario’s public accounts are disturbing — begging comparison with Detroit, California and Greece. Structural municipal deficits — the repair of bridges, roads, schools, hospitals, social housing, welfare and critical infrastructure, core services, in other words — in the amount of $60-billion (over 10 years) remain undone.

As described in the Frontier Centre for Public Policy paper “Surviving Sustainability,” the three elements of the Iron Triangle of bureaucrat, legislator and environmental NGO operate in tandem to create legislation, regulation and rules that satisfy the apparent requirements of all three members of the environmental Iron Triangle. The regulated, on the other hand, pay for this activity either directly through their taxes, through tax money diverted to environmental non-governmental organizations and land trusts and indirectly by diminishing economic opportunity and reduced land values because of increased regulation and land-use restriction. As pointed out in Paper 1 of this series, the Environmental Iron Triangle has had some serious scholarly investigation and is reliably described by the 2012 Oxford University Press’s Oxford Handbook of U.S. Environmental Policy.

Ontario’s bureaucracy, empowered by these bills and subsequent legislation, spends large sums of taxpayer money performing comprehensive watershed planning, devising complex regional plans and supporting additional legislation that has the effect of stalling and hindering once-profitable private enterprise. Business owners are severely restricted in making any decisions to alter their land by strict species-at-risk regulation and complex land-use planning regulation that is tightly supervised by Ontario’s 36 Conservation Authorities (CA’s), provincial ministries, municipal landuse planners and Delegated Administrative Authorities. CA’s, discontented with the control they already have, released a Whitepaper in late 2012 stating their case for increased planning, regulation and enforcement tools. During the most recent election, Bill 6, the Great Lakes Protection Act, was considered so Draconian by voters in the North that the government of the day promised to throw it out. However, since that government won re-election, the elements of Bill 6 are sure to be reconfigured, and it will enter the legislative process once more, and therefore deserves analysis. The Bill, as written, would have had the effect of shifting control of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin from residents, townships and municipalities to a Great Lakes Guardians’ Council consisting largely of appointed members of environmental NGOs and Aboriginal band members. It is unclear what their plans are for stopping the waterways from becoming shallower, the declining fish stock and the retreating of aquifers around the Great Lakes because years of comprehensive planning for the thousands of hectares included in the plan will need to occur before any actions are taken. This is called process focused legislation. It assumes that, provided the regulations and plans are followed, environmental objectives, such as the ill-defined and ill-understood sustainability, will be achieved.

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