Ontario wants greater grip on regional governance, says it needs to cut red tape to battle housing crisis

Steve Clark, minister of municipal affairs and housing, addresses members of the media at Queen's Park in Toronto on Oct. 25, 2022. Clark has said he wants to work with municipalities to reach their housing targets. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)
Steve Clark, minister of municipal affairs and housing, addresses members of the media at Queen's Park in Toronto on Oct. 25, 2022. Clark has said he wants to work with municipalities to reach their housing targets. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)

The Ford government is proposing new legislation that would give it a tighter grip on regional governance, and allow the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa to pass bylaws on its priorities with the support of just one-third of council — a move the Opposition slammed as "an affront to democracy."

Ontario's Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark introduced the legislation, dubbed the Better Municipal Governance Act, at Queen's Park on Wednesday afternoon. The province says the move is part of an effort to cut red tape on "shared provincial-municipal priorities."

The construction of 1.5 million new homes over the next 10 years is one such priority. But pressed by reporters, Clark confirmed the one-third vote share to pass strong mayors' motions is not limited to issues around housing only.

"These bold actions are necessary if our government is to keep its commitment to Ontarians and remove the obstacles standing in the way of much-needed housing," Clark said in a news release.

The legislation would allow the housing minister to appoint regional heads of council in Niagara, Peel and York Regions for the 2022-2026 council term. You can read the full bill for yourself at the bottom of this story.

Minister mum on getting rid of regional governments

It would also further the "strong mayor" powers given to the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa ahead of the recent municipal elections, before which a mayor's vote was worth no more than a city councillor's.

Currently Toronto Mayor John Tory or newly-elected Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe need to win the support of more than half of their city council to pass motions.

If the bill is passed, Tory and Sutcliffe will only need one in three councillors to vote with them.

Provincially-appointed facilitators would also assess regional governments in Durham, Halton, Niagara, Peel, Waterloo and York to ensure they're ready to "deliver on the government's commitment to tackle the housing supply crisis."

Asked if the province ultimately plans to do away with regional levels of government in those six areas, Clark responded: "I'm not going to presuppose the discussions that take place by the facilitator," adding his goal now is to put forward legislation that expands strong mayor powers.

Premier Doug Ford has said Ontario will expand strong mayor powers to other large municipalities in about a year's time.

Critics of the strong mayor powers say the move will undermine local democracy and the role of city councils.

Toronto mayor requested change, his office says

In Toronto, Coun. Josh Matlow issued a statement calling the province's justification for the proposed legislation, Bill 39, "absurd," saying the mayor should be "the leader of our city, not a servant of Queen's Park."

Matlow says city council already approved moving ahead on increased densities around major transit station areas aligning with the province's direction earlier this year and that the the province has "complete authority" to change zoning in Toronto through the Planning Act.

"If Doug Ford wants to build housing, he can do so without Bill 39."

Toronto Mayor John Tory has said he supports the new powers, his office suggesting in a statement that he requested the changes.

"We raised this change with the province to make sure we can get more housing built as quickly as possible, to avoid NIMBYism, and to help make sure this new system works as efficiently as possible," the statement said.

Ottawa's new mayor, Mark Sutcliffe, has said he is not in favour of the strong mayor powers, but Clark said  Ford is hoping to meet with Sutcliffe soon.

An 'affront to democracy,' Opposition says

Jessica Bell, the NDP's housing critic, said the move is about "bulldozing local decision making," calling it an "affront to democracy" coming only a few months after voters elected their local representatives.

Bell said the Opposition is also concerned that the proposed legislation repeals the Dufferin-Peel Agricultural Preserve Act, and that key owners of Greenbelt land who donate to the Ford's Progressive Conservatives stand to benefit from the act's repeal.

If the government was truly committed to helping Ontarians find homes, she added, it would focus on ensuring housing is affordable, bringing in stronger rent control protection and clamping down on speculation.

Submitted by the Greenbelt Foundation
Submitted by the Greenbelt Foundation

Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser also commented, saying the Ford government is "consolidating power" and that it seems preoccupied with municipal affairs.

"He's the premier of Ontario, not the mayor of Ontario," said Fraser, adding the government would do better to focus on health care right now given the crisis facing pediatric hospitals in particular.

Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said the move is "strong mayors on steroids," saying it brings in "minority rule" when it comes to local decision making.

"The premier and the minister are basically bringing a sledge-hammer to environmental protections and responsible planning in this province," he said.

Mayors of Mississauga, Brampton support move

In a news release from the province just before Clark's announcement, two GTA mayors voiced their support for the changes to regional governance.

Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie called the move "a positive step towards reforming local government," saying in the news release it will contribute to the province's goal of building 120,000 new homes in Mississauga over the next decade.

Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown also applauded the move, saying it will help remove "duplication" and address the challenges of growth in Brampton.

"Redundancy is the enemy of productivity," Brown said in the release.

Earlier this month, the Ontario government announced a 30-day consultation on removing approximately 2,995 hectares across 10 municipalities from the Greenbelt, which was created in 2005 to permanently protect agricultural and environmentally sensitive lands in the Greater Golden Horseshoe area from development.

Put together, the newly approved urban land would be larger in size than Vancouver or Etobicoke.

Peel Region, York, and Halton all recently had their urban boundaries expanded as part of the municipalities official plan updates, which required provincial approval. The province also recently ordered an expansion in Hamilton.

The government has said the move will facilitate the building of at least 50,000 homes, and that the plan is to add more land elsewhere to the Greenbelt than is being taken out.

The lands considered for removal were chosen because they have the potential for homes to be built in the near future and because they are adjacent to existing urban areas, the government of Premier Doug Ford has said.

Clark already has another housing bill before the legislature, which would in part freeze, reduce and exempt fees developers pay in order to spur building, but municipalities have expressed concerns that would leave them without enough funding to construct supporting infrastructure.

Here's the full Bill 39 as it was presented on Wednesday: