Last week I discussed some of the great things that a council can do to make a town a better place to live. However, there also needs to be a sense of realism about what a council cannot do. Sometimes on the campaign trail, candidates can get a little too excited and promise more than they can actually deliver.
For example, inflation and the presumed looming recession seem top of mind for most people. Inflation is a serious problem, but local governments have a very small, if any, role in creating inflation. Property taxes have inched up over the last few years, but they are not a major cause of inflation. In fact, local governments will be on the receiving end of inflation. Just like most average residents, local governments will pay more for gas, equipment, and supplies.
Some provincial governments have reduced gas taxes to offset the price increases imposed by the large oil companies. This is foolish. The gas taxes are not the cause of the price increase. Provincial governments are reducing their own revenue so that large oil companies can increase their prices.
Local governments should not be drawn into something comparable. Of course, it would be nice for families to benefit from lower property taxes. However, local governments need to consider what this would do to service levels in the community, particularly at a time when local governments are facing the same price inflation as consumers.
Local governments are not a significant part of the cause of inflation; we should not fight inflation on the backs of local governments.
Local governments are creatures of provincial governments, meaning that local governments do not have complete autonomy. They must follow rules that reflect the priorities of the provincial government. Currently, the Ontario government is focussed on increasing the supply of housing in order to make houses available at reasonable prices to all those in the market. There is also pressure that this be done without the usual suburban sprawl that impinges on valuable green space.
This has resulted in a provincial requirement for greater densification, which is a made-up word meaning that there needs to be more housing built, but using up less land. Therefore, communities will be seeing more traditional single-family homes on smaller lots, more medium-rise and high-rise development, and more mixed-use development that combines residential and retail. This is good because it will accommodate more people within a smaller footprint, contribute to the fight against climate change, produce more tax revenue for the municipality, and increase the efficiency of delivery of municipal services like public transit, water and sewer. However, it will also mean that the streetscape of some neighbourhoods will change.
This has resulted in a provincial requirement for greater densification, which is a made-up word meaning that there needs to be more housing built
The local council should do as much as it can to ensure that the new densified development fits into the local community, but there are limits to what the municipality can do. It needs to negotiate with the developer to ensure that new developments are attractive and cause minimal disruption to established communities. However, the municipality can only go so far.
A developer has a right to appeal to the Ontario Land Tribunal if the developer is dissatisfied with council’s decision. This creates a situation where the municipality feels obligated to negotiate with the developer in hopes of getting half of what it wants rather than holding firm and risk getting nothing from the Tribunal.
Municipalities are also constrained in how they can regulate legal businesses. Not everyone regards a cannabis production facility or short-term rentals as positive amenities in the community. However, these are both legal businesses. Municipalities have leverage under the Planning Act or other provincial legislation to exercise some control over how these businesses operate, but the municipality cannot prevent them from operating and it can only regulate them in ways allowed by provincial legislation. This can be frustrating for both the council and local residents, but there are limits to how far local governments can go.
Of course, local government does not have to accept the status quo quietly. Pelham can work with other municipalities through organizations like the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, to change the existing legislation. However, the short-term situation is that local governments must learn to live within the constraints imposed by existing provincial legislation.
In the short-term, it is more productive to look for creative ways to provide densification and live with legal businesses than to fight losing battles.
As I have argued in these two articles, the beginning of term is a great time for a council. Much needs to be done and local governments have the power to accomplish some important goals, but there are also limitations. However, good local governments can find creative ways to accomplish a great deal even while living within those limitations.
David Siegel is Brock University emeritus professor of Political Science.