Plans to potentially rip up regional governments across the Greater Toronto Area are being reviewed in an effort to ensure municipalities can focus on building much-needed new housing, Ontario’s new Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing says.
Paul Calandra announced on social media on Monday that he was reviewing the government’s plan to appoint special “facilitators” to assess the regional governments in Durham, Halton, Niagara, Simcoe County, Waterloo and York “to ensure the province’s approach supports our goal of getting more homes built in these fast-growing regions.”
It’s the latest in a series of announcements from Mr. Calandra – who took over as Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister last week after his predecessor, Steve Clark, resigned – as the government reels from the controversy over its move to allow housing on some of the protected Greenbelt lands that surround the GTA. The Auditor-General condemned the process for favouring certain developers and granting them an $8.3-billion land-uplift windfall.
Mr. Calandra said on social media that his ministry will report back on the regional reviews by the end of the month. His office did not respond to a request for an interview or for more information.
The Official Opposition NDP’s municipal affairs critic, Jeff Burch, criticized Mr. Calandra for making policy “on the fly,” dismissing the minister’s announcement as an attempt to distract from the Greenbelt issue.
“This is just fumbling and bumbling from a government that is desperate to change the channel from their housing failures and ongoing corruption crisis,” Mr. Burch said in a statement.
The pause does not include Peel Region, west of Toronto. Premier Doug Ford and Mr. Clark decided outright to dissolve Peel in legislation introduced in May, in order to give Mississauga its long-held objective of becoming a standalone “single-tier” city. That process remains under way, although many questions remain about how the divorce will be settled.
Last November, the government had also committed to appointing facilitators to review the scope of the other regional governments in the name of trying to get more housing built. They were supposed to be named as of Monday. Mr. Clark also hand-picked the chairs of Niagara, Peel and York, in order, he said, to ensure stability during the coming transition period.
Some critics had warned that redesigning or scrapping decades-old regional governments would only create complex political and financial headaches, and actually slow down efforts to get more housing approved.
“Creating chaos in the middle of a crisis is probably the worst thing you could do,” said Kevin Eby, the former director of community planning for the Region of Waterloo, in an interview Monday.
Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti had called for the consolidation of his York Region’s nine municipalities into one supercity north of Toronto, an idea immediately shot down by the Premier in June. Mr. Scarpitti said Monday that if the government is backing off reforms for the regions entirely, it’s a mistake.
“The fact is, the status quo is not an option. If in fact they want to see, and they do, more housing built in the next decade, reform is needed,” Mr. Scarpitti said in an interview.
The province, among a blizzard of legislative changes made in the name of speeding up housing – including granting certain mayors controversial “strong-mayor powers” – has also separately moved to strip the regions of their role in land-use planning, even though they operate key shared infrastructure such as water and sewer systems.
Tom Mrakas, Mayor of Aurora in York Region, said he supports any move to make regional government more efficient. But he praised the province for pausing the process.
“Our focus, all of our focus, now should be on housing,” Mr. Mrakas said in an interview.
David Wilkes, president and chief executive office of the Toronto-area’s Building Industry and Land Development Association, said he doesn’t believe Mr. Calandra was signalling an end to the regional reform process, which the industry supports as an effort to reduce duplication and red tape.
“I did not interpret it as a change in course,” said Mr. Wilkes, who was also speaking on behalf of the Ontario Home Builders’ Association industry group. “I just interpret it as what I would argue is an appropriate thing, that the minister takes some time to understand that file.”
Erasing regional government would also potentially complicate Ontario’s recent efforts to jumpstart development on the lands it pulled out of the Greenbelt.
The single largest plot of land being removed from the protected area is in Durham Region, east of Toronto. Both the region and local officials in lower-tier Pickering have been in closed-door talks for months with the province’s office of the land and development facilitator and the developers in this area, the former Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve, on how to fund and accelerate the construction of the required infrastructure. Similar talks are under way on other former Greenbelt sites.