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The Political and Policy Fallout from Doug Ford’s Greenbelt Reversal

September 22, 2023

Published in The Conversation, September 25, 2023

Doug Ford's extraordinary reversal on his moves last fall to open the Greater Toronto Area Greenbelt for housing development flows from two colossal political miscalculations.

The first was to failure to recognize that 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 had been built on the 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 had become a symbol of efforts to protect prime farmland and key natural heritage features and systems from the region's sprawling urban growth.

The government had 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. It then allowed a "madcap" process to unfold around the actual removal of lands, which turned out to offer the potential for billions in windfall profits to well-connected developers.

The second blunder was to try to double down on the Greenbelt removal decision in the aftermath of the Auditor-General and Integrity Commissioner's reports. Normal political logic would have suggested that following the reports and the departures of the Minister of Municipal Affairs and his chief of staff, the government might have been expected to back down on the land removals, take further moves on the Greenbelt off the table and then move on from the entire episode. It took the Ford government more than a month, during which further details of the process were leaked, leading the to resignation of the Minister of Business and Consumer Services, to get to that point.

The political damage suffered by the government through this period is starting to look very deep and the fallout is certain to continue. The RCMP are considering an investigation; the now-former Minister of Consumer and Business Services has admitted to misleading the Integrity Commissioner under oath during inquiries into the Greenbelt decision; and the Auditor-General's office 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. Although the next provincial election is nearly three years away, the whole situation has raised serious questions about the viability of Ford's own future as premier.

Ironically, one almost certain outcome of the entire episode is that it has likely ended the possibility of what Doug Ford seems to have sought to do since his entry into provincial politics - a dismantling of the greenbelt. The political costs of the events of the past month will almost ensure that no politician in Ontario will move in that direction for a generation or more.

Beyond the Greenbelt itself, the whole episode illustrated the shambles into which the province's handling of housing and development issues had degenerated. 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 their management of intense growth pressures while farmland, housing affordability and natural heritage areas were protected. The Greenbelt debacle demonstrated how that system had been transformed into an instrument wielded by the province to serve the wishes of well-connected developers.

Little short of a complete overhaul of the system is needed to undo the damage done by the Ford government and its former Minister of Municipal Affairs and restore the credibility of the system and address the province's housing needs effectively.  Evidence, reason, transparency, local democracy and accountability need to be brought back into the system.

Although the Greenbelt now appears to be safe, attention now needs to be paid to the government's handling of the intensification of existing urban areas, a theme highlighted in the Premier's speech reversing the Greenbelt removals. So far the government's approach to "transit-oriented communities" and other intensification initiatives has been to declare these areas free-for-all zones where the development industry can do as it wishes.

The results - predictably - in midtown and downtown Toronto, Richmond Hill, Markham and Mississauga has been an overwhelming focus on high-rise condominium developments, lacking infrastructures and services of all forms, no mixing of uses or housing types appropriate for families, no attention to affordability, and significant losses of existing affordable rental housing to 'redevelopment.'

These results are very opposite of the 'complete communities' and urban development centres envisioned in the Growth Plan that accompanied the Greenbelt Plan to guide urban intensification, and the efforts of municipalities and communities themselves to support more compact development patterns. The Ford government, unsurprisingly, has been dismantling the Growth Plan as well as the Greenbelt.

The challenges facing the GTA are multidimensional and complex: 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; and 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. it is far from clear that the Ford government reform its approach to governance to address them effectively.