Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s extraordinary reversal on his decision to open the Greater Toronto Area’s Greenbelt for housing development flows from two colossal political miscalculations.
The first was failing to recognize the Greenbelt, established by the previous Liberal government in 2005, had acquired an iconic status in the minds of residents of the region.
The Greenbelt was based on earlier Niagara Escarpment and Oak Ridges Moraine conservation plans, both adopted by Progressive Conservative governments. It was deeply embedded in municipal plans throughout the region.
Over time, the Greenbelt became a symbol in Ontario of efforts to protect prime farmland and key natural heritage sites from the region’s sprawling urban growth.
The government, however, refused to let go of the idea of opening the Greenbelt to development despite a complete lack of evidence that the land was required to meet the region’s housing needs.
According to the province’s integrity commissioner, it then allowed a “madcap process” to unfold around the actual removal of lands, which turned out to offer the potential for billions in profits to well-connected developers.
Ford’s future now in doubt?
The second blunder was to try to double down on the Greenbelt removal decision in the aftermath of harshly critical reports from both the province’s auditor general and integrity commissioner.
Even after the resignations of the housing minister and his chief of staff at the height of the scandal, Ford wouldn’t back down.
It took more than a month of a series of damning and embarrassing news reports — leading to the resignation of yet another cabinet minister, Public and Business Service Delivery Minister Kaleed Rasheed — for Ford to relent.
But the political damage suffered by the government through this period is starting to seem profound and the fallout is certain to continue:
- The RCMP is considering an investigation into the Greenbelt deal-making;
- Rasheed has admitted to misleading the integrity commissioner under oath during inquiries into the Greenbelt decision;
- The auditor general is planning a follow-up audit on the whole episode;
- Freedom-of-information requests from the media, and leaks from other sources, are likely to lead to further revelations in the weeks and months to come.
Although the next provincial election is nearly three years away, the Greenbelt scandal has raised serious questions about the viability of Ford’s own future as premier.
Doug Ford’s Greenbelt scandal: The beginning of the end of his years in power?
Greenbelt is out of the woods
Ironically, one almost certain outcome of the entire episode is that it’s probably ended any possibility of Ford’s intention to dismantle the Greenbelt.
The political fallout so far almost ensures no politician in Ontario will make similar moves against the Greenbelt for a generation or more.
The Greenbelt scandal has also vividly illustrated how badly the province has mishandled housing and development issues.
The province’s land-use planning system — including the Greenbelt and growth plans for the Greater Toronto Area — was once the subject of international acclaim for how it managed intense growth pressures while protecting farmland, housing affordability and natural heritage areas.
The Greenbelt debacle has demonstrated how that system had degenerated into an instrument wielded by the province to serve the wishes of well-connected developers.
Doug Ford at 5 years: Selling out Ontario’s future to please the well-connected
Undoing the damage
A complete overhaul of the land-use planning system is now needed to undo the damage done by the Ford government, restore the system’s credibility and address the province’s housing needs effectively. Evidence backed by expert research, reason and basic democratic principles of transparency and accountability all need to be returned to the system.
Although the Greenbelt appears to be safe for the time being, attention now needs to turn to the government’s handling of the redevelopment of existing urban areas, a theme Ford highlighted in his speech reversing the Greenbelt removals.
So far the government’s approach to “transit-oriented communities” — ideally communities developed within a short distance of transit lines — has been to declare these areas free-for-all zones where the development industry can do as it wishes.
Predictably, the results of that approach in midtown and downtown Toronto, Richmond Hill, Markham and Mississauga have been an overwhelming focus on high-rise condominium developments, a lack of infrastructure and services of all forms, no mixing of uses (for example, significant new employment locations) or housing types, no attention paid to affordability and significant losses of existing affordable rental housing to “redevelopment.”
This is the polar opposite of the “complete communities” and urban development centres envisioned in the 2006 growth plan to guide urban redevelopment that accompanied the announcement of the Greenbelt.
The province has trampled on efforts by municipalities and communities to support more development along transit lines. The Ford government has apparently been intent on dismantling the growth plan as well as the Greenbelt.
The challenges facing the Greater Toronto Area are multi-dimensional and complex, including:
— Housing needs, particularly at the lower end of the income scale;
— Structural economic transitions and increasingly polarized labour markets;
— The impacts of a changing climate;
— A fiscal crisis, particularly for the city of Toronto, driven in large part by provincial downloading.
The Greenbelt fiasco has been an enormous distraction from these challenges — and it remains doubtful that the Ford government can significantly change its approach to governance to address them effectively.