October 20, 2019

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Opinion

Province's slipshod report on municipal planning lacks balance, hard data

Premier Brian Pallister talks to media about the Planning, Zoning and Permitting in Manitoba report which was release today at the legislature in Winnipeg Monday.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Premier Brian Pallister talks to media about the Planning, Zoning and Permitting in Manitoba report which was release today at the legislature in Winnipeg Monday.

It's a germ of a good idea that may be ultimately crushed by a harried process and dragged down by amateurish analysis.

How else to describe the much-anticipated report from the province's Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) into Manitoba's planning, zoning and permitting regime? Premier Brian Pallister announced in April, without warning any of the local governments affected, that he was undertaking a detailed examination of processes that determine who can build what, how they can build it, and where.

Just six weeks after that declaration, the TBS released a preliminary report on Tuesday. It should be noted that when government commits to a "detailed" examination of any important issue, the gestation period is typically measured in months, not weeks. This report was clearly expedited in dramatic fashion.

What did we get for all that hustle? The report contained no recommendations; those are still to come following a period of casual consultation, during which input will be solicited via email.

It's a germ of a good idea that may be ultimately crushed by a harried process and dragged down by amateurish analysis.

How else to describe the much-anticipated report from the province's Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) into Manitoba's planning, zoning and permitting regime? Premier Brian Pallister announced in April, without warning any of the local governments affected, that he was undertaking a detailed examination of processes that determine who can build what, how they can build it, and where.

Just six weeks after that declaration, the TBS released a preliminary report on Tuesday. It should be noted that when government commits to a "detailed" examination of any important issue, the gestation period is typically measured in months, not weeks. This report was clearly expedited in dramatic fashion.

What did we get for all that hustle? The report contained no recommendations; those are still to come following a period of casual consultation, during which input will be solicited via email.

The 200-page report is a triumph of unsubstantiated allegations and conclusions, an accomplishment aided in no small part by the fact it is completely liberated from the yoke of hard data or proven fact. Its assumptions are tenuous, at best. Its conclusions are based on little more than the allegations it received from the building and development community, which was thoroughly canvassed.

The report concludes that current practices around plan approval, zoning and permit approvals are dysfunctional, overly complex and too lengthy to serve the interests of builders, developers or citizens of the province, the City of Winnipeg in particular. It also suggests that Manitoba is desperately out of step with best practices being utilized by other provinces.

Is it more time consuming, expensive and complicated to get approval to build something in Winnipeg than it is in other comparable cities? Hard to say because this report did not attempt to quantify the average length of time to obtain permits in Winnipeg, or anywhere else in the country. As a result, it will be extremely difficult to prove whether any new regime brought in by the Pallister government will have a positive impact.

The real sexy content, however, is found in sections that deal mostly with how developers and builders claim they have been treated by the city's planning department. This is the same department that was exposed to profound criticism following a Free Press story that included video shot by a private investigator, which showed city inspectors shirking their responsibilities.

Following those sensational concerns, the TBS report is rife with anonymous claims that city inspectors are incompetent, vindictive, unqualified and susceptible to imposing their own whimsical demands on builders and developers. The report also accused the city's antiquated planning and permitting functions of killing multimillion-dollar private developments, and forcing the cancellation of planned public school expansions, including the addition of day care centres to existing schools.

When pressed for details, however, the TBS refused to divulge additional information. It did confirm, however, that it did not investigate any claim of a delayed or cancelled project to see if delays in permitting were to blame, or whether the project was actually delayed or cancelled, or whether other factors were at issue.

However, beyond those hyperbolic allegations, and there are some real whoppers in this report, there isn't a single note of explanation or response from any of the municipalities or other permitting bodies (such as Manitoba Hydro and the Office of the Fire Commissioner) who are disparaged in this report.

When asked about why no one was asked to respond to any single allegation, a TBS official said they did not think it was essential to their analysis. "It's not whether they (the complainants in the report) are right or wrong," he said. "It's really only important how they feel they were treated."

With the premier threatening to impose province-wide conditions on municipal land use and permitting, that's an alarming statement to make.

What will Pallister do with this report? You can bet there will be legislation introduced in the future to standardize land use and permitting rules and procedures. How far he will go in imposing those new rules and procedures on municipalities remains unclear.

The low-hanging fruit for the Pallister government — and the one measure that would likely create the least amount of concern among municipalities — would be the creation of a provincial appeal body to hear complaints from anyone with concerns about land use and permitting.

Right now in Winnipeg, appeals on land use and zoning are heard by city councillors sitting on a community committee. That is a horrible system that puts councillors in the unenviable situation of having to approve projects that meet planning guidelines but which are objectionable to the local community. An arm's-length body would represent a net positive change to the current situation.

The province might also introduce new, specific requirements for inspectors in terms of training or certification. Currently, there is no common standard in place.

No one can deny the need to improve the system as it stands now. The language in the report about creating common standards from municipality to municipality makes good sense. Better-trained inspectors and an independent appeal body would be welcomed by all sides in this issue.

However, any changes must ensure there is still balance between the interests of the building and development industries — key drivers of the economy — and the general public. As it stands now, the Pallister government would be building an entirely new system of overseeing land use and permits based on the unsubstantiated concerns of one side of the debate.

For the time being, it appears the premier isn't worried about whether he would be making the right or wrong changes, or whether he would be doing it for the right or wrong reasons.

The only thing that matters is that he feels strongly that it's the right thing to do.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

Read full biography

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