The Province’s Intrusion Into Municipal Planning Is Risky

Nova Scotia’s population continues to grow by 10,000 people and more per year. Both Halifax Regional Municipality and the provincial government proclaim themselves to be enthusiastic supporters but they risk getting in each other’s way.

HRM’s most recent planning strategy was released in 2014. It details where and how new housing development might occur. The population level today is greater than the strategy’s forecast for 2031.

Unsurprisingly, the amount of development has not kept pace. This is not to fault the plan itself but rather the slow response to the change in circumstances. Some of the land earmarked for growth in 2014 is still not approved for development.

A lot must happen to speed up the completion of new housing. The number of tradespeople must grow. Supply chains need to be broadened. More land needs to be approved for development and connected to services. New access roads need to be built; existing ones widened.

All of these have proceeded more slowly than required. Housing prices have gone up all over North America. Halifax has been among the leaders for both buyers and renters. Vacancy rates in rental units are very low.

In the twelve months ending in October, there were 2,874 new units completed, enough for fewer than 7,000 new Haligonians. For the same twelve months, there were 3,635 starts, which at best would support 8,500 people. We are falling further behind.

HRM was asked about its plan to accelerate the availability of serviced land for new construction, particularly for ground-based units. The response does not convey a sense of urgency: “In the moderate term… 1) by concentrated infill in the Regional Centre; and 2) by targeting expansion areas located close to existing services.”

The province and HRM both have roles. The municipality lays out the development plan and creates the necessary infrastructure for new land to be developed or existing sites made capable of greater density. Provincial departments involved include Transportation, Infrastructure and Housing, Environment and Climate Change, Immigration and Population Growth, and Labour and Advanced Education.

Sometimes these seem more like islands in a stream than a coordinated team. Approval agencies need to see themselves as facilitators as well as filters. Provincial departments need to tailor their plans to support the expected level of growth.

Into this context, the Houston government tabled bill 63, which creates a direct role for the province in municipal development. A five-member panel is to be created with two members appointed by HRM and three by the Minister of Housing and Infrastructure, including the chair.

The Minister can make choices recommended by the panel to change bylaws and municipal planning strategies and to approve development agreements. More simply put, he can overrule HRM’s planning decisions.

In an interview, Minister John Lohr started by saying that HRM’s Mayor and Council have done many good things in support of the growing population. He insisted that he would not require a repeat of the staff work leading up to a decision but was not clear what he would do if the staff work was incomplete.

Neither the province nor HRM are blameless for the delays in getting projects going. Given that the available construction tradespeople are running flat out, it is not clear whether many more units would have been completed if the regulatory process had been smoother.

The growth in new housing starts needs to continue. Making more land available for single-family housing is especially urgent. Progress will require both city and province to become more effective in their own space and to work well together. What could make things worse is a hostile relationship between them, either at the political or the bureaucratic level.

A potential source of friction is the Regional Plan. The 2014 version is conspicuously out of date but the process to create a new one is proceeding at a leisurely pace that will not see it done before 2023.

Fortunately, there is agreement on the goal of supporting population growth but finding a way to work effectively will be a challenge. Minister Lohr and HRM Mayor Mike Savage have struck a diplomatic tone so far.

In all this, there is a curious resemblance to Houston’s approach to health care reform. He replaced the CEO and board with Karen Oldfield as CEO and former interim CEO Janet Davidson as administrator.

The hope is that this will enable nimble implementation of healthcare changes. That work will keep them in place for the next 12 to 18 months, according to a statement from the government.

In both intrusions, the government’s first move has been to seize control of the levers of power. How well this works for the NSHA will depend heavily on the effectiveness of Oldfield and Davidson in identifying and implementing needed changes.

Minister Lohr says that he expects the panel members to be appointed before Christmas. The province has the needed sense of urgency and HRM has the needed capabilities. How well the province’s intrusion into municipal planning works will depend on the diplomatic skills and relevant expertise of the appointees, and sturdy commitments by the province and municipality to make it work.

Disclosure: Your columnist is on the board of the Shaw group which is a major player in land development and an emerging player in residential construction. The board is mostly advisory to the owner-managers and does not participate in profit sharing.