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In a video clip unearthed by the Ontario Liberals, Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford says he would allow developers to build single-family homes on a “big chunk” of the province’s protected Greenbelt in order to bring Toronto-area house prices down.

Mr. Ford says in the video that he adopted the policy after talking with “some of the biggest developers in this country,” adding that it was their idea.

The Liberal campaign released the video Monday, saying it was a “secret promise” Mr. Ford had made to developers and adding that the move would be a windfall for speculators sitting on land in the Greenbelt.

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Many environmentalists and urban planning experts - as well as the Liberal government - argue that paving over the farmland and forests of the Greenbelt would not only be bad for the environment, it would actually have little effect on the cost of housing in the Greater Toronto Area.

They point to figures from the government and the Neptis Foundation, an urban planning think tank, that show there is more than enough land available – tens of thousands of hectares – to handle decades of growth in the GTA without touching the Greenbelt.

Even the main development industry associations appear to have accepted the Greenbelt and are now focusing their lobbying efforts on red tape and other barriers to building more housing on lands where development is already allowed.

Asked about the comments at a news conference Monday, Mr. Ford qualified his Greenbelt remarks, which appear to have been made at a leadership campaign event in February, before he won the PC leadership.

“I support the Greenbelt, in a big way,” Mr. Ford said while reiterating his stand that housing needs to be built to bring prices down. “I give you my commitment that anything that we look at on the Greenbelt will be replaced, so there will still be an equal amount of Greenbelt.”

He also erroneously asserted that “there’s no more property available to build housing in Toronto or the GTA.”

The province’s Minister of the Environment and Climate, Chris Ballard, whose Newmarket-Aurora riding is at the edge of the Toronto area’s urban sprawl, called Mr. Ford’s comments on the issue reckless.

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“So he has the power to create new Greenbelt lands with his hands or something? It demonstrates to me that he really doesn’t understand the Greenbelt,” Mr. Ballard said in an interview. “It’s an integrated natural ecosystem, all connected together. You just can’t pave part of it and pull some land out of, I don’t know, Muskoka, the Kawarthas, and say, this is going to replace it.”

Frank Clayton, an economist and senior research fellow with Ryerson University’s developer-funded Centre for Urban Research and Land Development - who has been critical of the Liberal government’s housing policies - says there is plenty of land for development, including in what some planners call the “white belt,” the unprotected farmland between areas designated for growth and the Greenbelt.

“There’s lots of land for the next 20 or 30 years within the white belt. So you don’t have to touch the Greenbelt for residential land to keep the prices from going up,” Dr. Clayton said, arguing that policies restricting the amount of “ground-related” housing such as detached homes, semis and townhouses are the problem.

Joe Vaccaro, chief executive officer of the Ontario Home Builders’ Association, said his organization supports the Greenbelt and that he has not met with Mr. Ford.

“We’re not engaging with that debate at all. All I can say about that is that people are out on the [Ford] campaign, they are hearing from people with different ideas about how to get housing supply up and running,” Mr. Vaccaro said.

Tim Gray, the executive director of Environmental Defence, said swapping land in and out of the Greenbelt would cause a new speculative rush on farmland and result only in the construction of “monster homes” far from transit links, not affordable housing.

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“Opening up the Greenbelt to land swaps is essentially just saying that there is no Greenbelt.”

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