PCs continue destructive sprawl agenda with ‘Get it Done’ Act

Premier Doug Ford and his PC government have a long, documented history of trying to mislead the Ontario public.

Ford repeatedly told Ontarians he would not touch the Greenbelt—after getting caught promising the opposite to a room full of developers. Then Ford’s PCs moved to carve out large chunks of the protected greenspace at the behest of prominent developers.

Once the scandal was revealed, Ford and his ministers claimed they had no knowledge of the 14 parcels of land being removed from the Greenbelt that would net these developers billions in potential profits. Emails and documents have since come to light showing Ford and his ministers knew about the entire plan much sooner than they claimed to the investigators. Ford only reversed course on the policy after weeks of scandal and headlines led to an erosion of support from his conservative base. The PC government is now under criminal investigation by the RCMP for this scandal which continues to dog the provincial government.

The misleading claims extend beyond the Greenbelt.

The PCs have claimed they are working to protect species at risk, despite a damning audit that proves they are actively doing the opposite. When this came to light they doubled down and continued to mislead concerned members of the public.

In everything from education, to hunting regulations, to intergovernmental affairs, to municipal boundary expansions, the PC government has routinely carried out its business without offering straight answers, or reasoning to the Ontario public. The most recent example, on February 22, in a press conference announcing housing funding for the City of Toronto, Premier Doug Ford repeated a false claim that Mississauga has some of the lowest housing starts in the province. The data show this is simply not true.

They are continuing this trend with the new “Get it Done” omnibus bill.

The Act is marketed as a relief package for Ontarians that will save them from license plate renewals, driver’s license fees, new tolls on highways that have never had tolls (but not the 407) and new carbon taxes. In reality, these surface measures, some of which are meaningless and could be easily repealed by a new government, disguise the true intent of the bill, which is to weaken Ontario’s existing environmental protection regime and ram through mega infrastructure projects much quicker and without proper study.

Ford and his cabinet wrap these changes to Ontario’s environmental assessment process in words like “streamlining and simplifying” and push the urgency of these measures as critical to the creation of necessary infrastructure and housing to support the province’s growth.

The preamble to the Bill states the government is “helping to get shovels in the ground sooner on new roads, highways and public transit in order to reduce gridlock, help ensure we have housing for a growing population and move the province’s economy forward.”

It’s unclear how the changes in this Act will make it easier to build the types of housing Ontario needs—dense, affordable, missing middle homes. It makes no mention of assisting with the infrastructure funding municipalities have called for to support their mandated housing targets under Bill 23, which will cost Ontario cities billions of dollars.

There is no denying that Ontario is in a housing crisis. Ontario’s population is expected to increase over 40 percent, or by approximately six million people over the next two decades in a high growth scenario. The province is also seeing an unprecedented number of immigrants and asylum claimants fighting for limited shelter spaces while young adults opt for living in their parents’ basements rather than drop an atrocious amount on a downpayment for a house.

The average cost of a home in Ontario rose five percent between 2022 and 2023, reaching over $800,000. A single family home in the GTA is averaged to run for about $1.3 million. Rent is also reaching jaw-dropping levels. Over the past year, rent across the province increased an average of 4.9 percent, with the average unit costing almost $2,500 per month.

Ford’s solution to this crisis is Bill 23, the More Homes Built Faster Act, which plans to get 1.5 million new homes built across the province by 2031. The legislation set housing targets for each of the major municipalities with a particular focus around southern Ontario. But as is evident through the Greenbelt land grab, forced boundary expansions and Minister’s Zoning Orders, there is no guarantee that the housing Ford is trying to build is what the province needs.

Ford’s policy decisions, including the newest Act, make it easier to do one thing, open up land for sprawling subdivisions. Key projects referenced in the literature released around the Get it Done Act are Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass, both of which would unlock large swaths of sensitive land for sprawl development.

Phil Pothen, program manager of land use at Environmental Defence said that these projects are gifts to sprawl developers who have bought up large plots of farmland in rural areas that, under other circumstances, would not be developed.

“The purpose of the Highway 413 scheme in particular, is to run a highway into an area where there's currently no desire to live and to use the highway as a public subsidy to make it attractive to build sprawl,” he said. He emphasized the government’s disguise for the project is claiming a need for more trucking capacity, but has failed to look at other options like subsidizing or removing tolls for trucks on the 407.

The PC push for sprawl development is also exemplified through the flip flop on the flip flop of urban boundary expansions.

In November 2022, Ford forced urban boundary expansions on certain municipalities — like Hamilton — where councils had voted against expansions when mandated to update their Official Plans to 2051. After immense backlash from the public and municipalities, and a damning FOI request which uncovered high level political involvement in the scheme, the Ford government backtracked on its decision in October last year.

Through the implementation of Bill 150, which received Royal Assent in December, the provincial government asked for municipalities to provide comments on what changes they would like to keep or throw out, a task that proved daunting for many municipalities, causing disagreements between what councillors wanted and what they believed the province would approve.

“The boundary expansions, [the government has] pursued them at a time when they already knew there were more than 350 square kilometers of unbuilt greenfield land that had been sitting unused for a couple of decades,” Pothen said.

The Get it Done Act provides the final decision on the modifications for 11 municipalities — excluding Hamilton and Ottawa who both requested no changes be made. The Bill includes modifications to boundaries in Barrie; Belleville; Guelph; Niagara, Peel, York and Halton regions; and Wellington County.

Opposition parties claim Premier Ford has failed to learn from his legislative mistakes that have cost him five Cabinet Ministers, senior staffers and public support.

“Ontarians can expect Doug Ford to pull out all the stops to distract from his failures, reversals, scandals and insider deals. We’re not going to let Doug Ford distract us with these stunts,” Leader of the Ontario Liberals, Bonnie Crombie, wrote in a statement on Tuesday.

But Pothen said there is no lesson for the government to learn when it continues to hold hands with the province's most wealthy developers.

“It's not really about them having failed to learn a lesson. It's about their being so much at the behest of these particular influential landowners, that [the government] feels a political necessity to go ahead with these things, even when it's costing them so much with the general public,” he said.

“To question whether they've learned anything assumes that it was an honest misunderstanding,” Pothen said. “Frankly, the government knew from the start, when it decided to try and push the urban boundary expansions, tried to take land out of the Greenbelt when it decided to try and revive this Highway 413, that none of these things would help to increase housing supply.”

Reports show the PC government housing strategy is not working.

The latest policy report from the Ontario Real Estate Association showed that housing starts were down in 2023. But the PCs have yet to relent. Claiming it is not their policies, but the wealth of “red tape” that is supposedly hindering its ability to get anything done across the province. They are working to change this in the new Act with significant alterations to the environmental assessment process.

Last week, Transportation Minister Prabmeet Sakaria was joined by Andrea Khanjin, Minister of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, to announce changes to the environmental assessment regime that will make it easier to get complex infrastructure built.

Premier Ford has continually touted Ontario’s environmental assessment process as “robust” and “world leading” but has continually stripped away its key elements while removing power from organizations like conservation authorities which are in place to ensure projects have minimal impact on the environment and critical watersheds.

The new scheme, called a “project list approach” will allow massive infrastructure projects to be constructed without having to undergo a comprehensive environmental analysis. Instead, these projects, which include new highways, will undergo a streamlined assessment. According to the posting on the Environmental Registry Office “The projects that are subject to a comprehensive EA include significant waste projects, significant electricity generation facilities and large waterfront projects.”

The regulations of this new process have yet to be released and the wording of the Get it Done Act does not include an explanation of this new approach.

The changes also allow for the expropriation of property prior to a complete EA.

The PCs claim the changes will help get projects like highways, rail and electricity transmission lines built up to four years sooner.

It’s not clear what this means for Highway 413, which is currently designated by the federal government under the Impact Assessment Act. Pothen believes the PC government is setting itself up to move quickly, should the federal government not move forward with a full impact assessment, or should any of the new changes to the Act remove the 413 from being designated.

After the Supreme Court of Canada ruled part of the Impact Assessment Act as unconstitutional, the provincial government launched its own legal challenge of the Act’s precedence in the case of Highway 413.

“They want to remove their own internal processes, however weak they already are, so that they can rush a lot of the most destructive parts of the highway project through that temporary gap,” he said.

When asked about the new environmental assessment regime last week, Minister Khanjin could not provide a satisfactory response on how she would ensure environmental sustainability through the new process.

The provincial government is also beginning consultation with municipalities in an attempt to streamline the process for certain municipal water, shoreline and sewage system projects which could cut the timeline on the assessment process from over 18 months down to six. The Province claims there will be continued environmental oversight of projects including requirements for mandatory Indigenous and public consultation prior to implementation, but there was no explanation into what this consultation would look like.


Twitter: @rachelnadia_

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Rachel Morgan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer