A question of effective planning or democracy. Can we have both?

Governing metropolitan regions can be a challenge, and increasing densities and population growth within municipal agglomerations such as the Metro Vancouver region makes some degree of regional coordination and strategic planning a necessity. Unfortunately, as far as layers of government are concerned, the regional level is a “grey” area, with about as many variations of structure as there are hairs on a camel!

In Metro Vancouver, this structure takes the form of the Metro Vancouver regional organization.  While this organization may seem like a meaningful mechanism to tackle regional challenges, it is not without difficulties, as a recent feud between the Metro Vancouver board and a member municipality demonstrates. Metro Vancouver is currently suing the Township of Langley over the city’s development plans for a University District near Trinity Western University. This case is raising the challenge of regional governance to the forefront in Metro Vancouver, and in BC.

The fundamental question revolves around authority, and in this case, which level of government has ultimate authority over land-use. The Township of Langley argues that they do, and that they do not need to go to Metro Vancouver with this District plan. Derek Corrigan, chairman of the metro regional planning and agriculture committee, is concerned that this move could set a precedent in the region. Metro Vancouver argues that the Township’s development plan is not in alignment with the new Regional Growth Strategy.

The Regional Growth Strategy was adopted in 2011 by the member municipalities of Metro Vancouver, albeit with some amendments and special considerations for a few municipalities. The Regional Growth Strategy, set to replace the former Livable Region Strategy (adopted in 1996), is intended to “…look out to 2040 and provide a framework…” on how to accommodate 1 million people and 600,000 additional anticipated jobs in the Metro Vancouver region. The Strategy outlines 5 focus areas to ensure the region remains livable and sustainable, such as concentrating population growth in urban centres.

In a metropolitan agglomeration such as Metro Vancouver, decisions of one municipality affect the growth, development, sustainability and livability of all municipalities within the region. This is the reason for a regional land-use plan. However, democratic decision making for land-use is vested with local city councils. Citizens and businesses only have recourse or influence over their local council. If land-use decision-making is relegated to the Metropolitan level, where does accountability for these decisions lie? Should authority over land-use remain exclusively at the local level? If it does, what about citizens in neighbouring municipalities, and their right to influence how the region grows and develops?

Member municipalities have until the end of this month (July 2013) to amend/update their Regional Context Statements in such a way that reflects the goals and containment boundaries of the new Regional Growth Strategy. I would like to think this case will be the only conflict that arises pertaining to the strategy, but this is unlikely to be the case. The question is, can we have effective regional planning, and maintain the democratic integrity of local municipal institutions?

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3 responses to “A question of effective planning or democracy. Can we have both?

  1. Well written Mark. There does not seem to be a perfect solution to this problem. Although, perhaps if Metro Vancouver had more legislative power, then they could enforce their development quotas on the municipalities. This may work, as long as Metro Vancouver represents itself as the group of cities (I.e. the surround municipalities), and not a “big government” bully.

    • I think also Jordan, that Metro Vancouver would have to look at incorporating some kind of direct accountability to metro vancouver citizens (elections), to justify increased authority as you suggest, or move towards a service delivery vehicle to enforce whatever the member municipalities approve. ie, stay away from becoming the ‘big government’ bully you’ve mentioned. I personally feel like they’re trying to play the two roles at once (independent body to coordinate and govern the region on one hand, and a service delivery vehicle for the municipalities on the other)

  2. Interesting post. Is conflict necessarily a problem? Would it work better if there was a stronger distinction between strategic planning at the regional level and land-use at the municipal level? Maybe the regional strategy is trying to do to much or people expect too much from it…. just a few thoughts – I don’t know the vancouver context

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