Even the most devoted Doug Ford fan, in their quiet moments, has to be uncomfortable with some of Bill 23 and his strong mayor policy. At the centre of Bill 23 is the presumption that the municipalities in Ontario have been the main culprits in the housing crisis. There is no question that municipal red tape has played a role. Development approvals were too slow, in part because of an acute shortage of planners in Ontario. We have seen councils deliberately veto projects, knowing they will be overturned by the Ontario Land Tribunal. We have also seen staff planning and zoning recommendations rejected, forcing municipal staff to be in the absurd position of hiring experts to prove that they were wrong in making their recommendations. So, some change was needed.
But what Bill 23 does, is to virtually remove planning control from the level of government closest to the issue. The first victim is “neighbourhood character,” a concept that was probably overused to keep out what some would call the riff-raff from certain neighbourhoods, by discouraging multi-unit housing, and the duplexing of existing single-family homes–but If the Ontario government plans to remove planning from the municipal level, it will have to assume the responsibility for unintended consequences. No longer will councillors, working with and between opposing groups in their wards, broker the many compromises that often shape local planning decisions—the responsibility and the blame will now fall on the shoulders of MPPs, who are really not equipped for the role. Its hard to deal with neighbourhood issues from the chamber at Queen’s Park.
It is going to take time for all of these changes to actually be seen in municipalities in the form of the housing that results. We’ve already seen a modest “tiny homes” proposal sent back to the drawing board in Hamilton due to neighbourhood pushback—there will probably be more false starts, and rather than “more homes built faster” we may get chaos.
Then there is the “strong Mayor” policy, which no matter how you slice it, is an attack on democracy. The concept of majority rule is about the only political concept that is more or less universally accepted. Even the US election deniers, didn’t deny the concept of majority rule—they argued that they had the majority but it was taken away from them by trickery. For the next couple of years, weighty decisions such as major spending, US Supreme Court nominations and those of other key officials will be decided on the basis of the fact that the Democrats have just two more seats in the senate than the Republicans. Shame on John Tory for asking to be able to override two-thirds of council, without presenting a shred of evidence that it was necessary. Lets hope all Ontario mayors will reject the concept if and when it is offered as Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe has.