No Greenbelt Mention in 2016 Ontario Budget
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No Greenbelt Mention in 2016 Ontario Budget

Despite being a cornerstone of provincial policy for a decade, the greenbelt can't be found in the latest budget.

Ontario’s Greenbelt, a cornerstone of the province’s municipal development and environmental policy for the past decade, was shut out of the fiscal plan unveiled by the Liberal government last month.

The budget proposal launched on February 25 by Finance Minister Charles Sousa contained not a single reference to the Greenbelt, Niagara Escarpment or Oak Ridges Moraine Acts, nor the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe. And for a government that has prided itself on the principle of sustainable development embodied in the award-winning Growth Plan—not to mention the hallmark creation of one of the world’s largest Greenbelts—this silence speaks volumes.

Photo of Finance Minister Charles Sousa by David Hains

In December, a panel led by former Toronto mayor David Crombie released their final report on the province’s iconic Greenbelt, a ribbon of land encompassing 7,200 square kilometres from Niagara and Northumberland regions north to the Bruce peninsula. Alongside experts from farm organizations and municipal governments, Crombie’s crew completed a mandated 10-year review of the Greenbelt Act, in addition to taking a look at how well the Niagara Escarpment, Oak Ridges Moraine, and Growth Plan have been working.

Their task was to suggest ways of improving how the legislations function individually and in tandem while recommending steps for reducing overlap. Ten months of meetings, almost 20 town halls that attracted 3,000-plus participants, and 19,000 submissions from municipalities, industry, nonprofits and others went into the final report Crombie et al tabled in December.

“I’m confident that most of what’s in the report will be implemented,” said Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Ted McMeekin at the time. “This report will guide us strongly as we move forward aggressively.”

The ministry is slated to review the recommendations and consult with the public before submitting final policy proposals to Premier Kathleen Wynne.

It may be early for Greenbelt funding to be included in the budget—given that the three-month turnaround and the Liberal’s desire to consult further with the public on the recommendations the public was already consulted on.

Yet the Spring budget is the place where a government signals both concrete funding objectives and more aspirational, long-term goals. No vote is more important at Queen’s Park than the no-confidence vote taken on the fiscal plan laid out by the governing party: its very contents signal not only the priorities of the government but the strategic direction of their governance.

In other words, if it’s in the budget, it matters: if it ain’t, it don’t.

For an example of a kind of aspirational funding goal, take the Liberal’s pledge to allocate $1 billion towards developing the Ring of Fire. This mineral-rich mining project some 540 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay in Northern Ontario was starved for funds by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper until Premier Wynne first announced a large influx of cash in the 2014 budget. The government announced it again in the 2015 with nothing new to report. And then announced it again in the 2016 fiscal blueprint with no new message, other than the project—and its anticipated $60 billion value—remains a priority. Keep on keepin’ on, as it were.

The Greater Golden Horseshoe is a priority area for the government. Two-thirds of Ontario’s 13 million people reside in the region that generates 70 percent of the province’s gross domestic product. More than 1.8 million jobs are expected to be created here over the next 25 years.

The Crombie report contains 87 recommendations: 56 are directly related to the legislations under review and 31 are “complementary” recommendations intended to support the legislative changes Crombie suggests.

The 87 recommendations are wrapped about eight basic themes:

  • Growing the Greenbelt;
  • Building complete communities and curtailing urban sprawl;
  • Supporting agriculture;
  • Creating a framework for economic growth;
  • Protecting natural heritage and water;
  • Mainstreaming different responses to climate change;
  • Linking infrastructure investment and land use planning; and
  • Ensuring the recommendations are responsive and transparent.

“On all 87 recommendations we reached consensus,” Crombie told reporters after the report’s release. “It really does take an extraordinary effort to reach a consensus on such a wide array of issues.”

To be clear, some of Crombie’s recommendations—surrounding transit investment, for example—have been addressed by the government and earmarked in the budget in an indirect way, relative to the Greenbelt. But other suggestions, including working with municipalities and property owners to acquire land to grow the Greenbelt, lack dedicated funding plans.

Until the public weighs in yet again on how (or if) they want the Greenbelt grown, the Liberals are staying mum on how any of Crombie’s recommendations will be met—or at least paid for.