Recently passed Bill 63 Heavy Handed and Unnecessary

Halifax and the new Provincial government want the same thing – to rapidly increase housing supply to help address the current housing crisis.   

There have been a lot of positive moves in the last couple of weeks. HRM has been asking for new types of levers and powers for years and got nothing until now, and the Province’s recent rapid action will make a material difference.

HRM is eager to get to work to implement the Affordable Housing Commission Report, also endorsed by the Premier during the recent election campaign.

Unfortunately, recently passed legislation is set to override Halifax Regional Council’s authority to approve how the municipalities grow and where has left many folks scratching our heads, myself included. 

As it stands, Bill 63 does not materially change the powers of the Province to direct planning matters. Still, it has some major governance and public transparency issues embedded into it and would remove the public’s right to participate, and is the opposite of how planning law normally works.

Halifax Regional Municipality and all Nova Scotia’s municipalities are created by Provincial legislation.  Municipalities can only do what they are legally directed and empowered to do by the Province. 

The Halifax Charter, the provincial legislation that creates and defines HRM, requires “a consultative process to ensure the right of the public to have access to information and to participate in the formulation of planning strategies and by-laws, including the right to be notified and heard before decisions are made.”

I am proud of the public consultation HRM undertakes. Sometimes it is slow, messy, and a lot of work, pleasing everyone can’t always happen, but public dialog and discussion is a cornerstone of democratically building an inclusive community.

This provincially mandated, legally required public process is seen by some as an obstacle to swift development.

Bill 63, which creates the Executive Panel on Housing, strips away all of these commitments to democratic engagement, public consultation, and transparent decision-making. This Panel will advise the Minister who would then pass binding orders approving development without public having input or seeing why the decision was made.

Why is this change needed when the Charter already gives the Minister the powers to issue orders to HRM via “a statement of provincial interest” and to assign a timeline for the municipality to amend or replace our planning documents?  If HRM fails to do what is ordered, the Minister can create an interim planning area. 

The key difference is that current law maintains “the right of the public to have access to information and to participate” through HRM processes.

Bill 63 takes that right away and puts an unelected panel of five people meeting in secret in charge of deciding what gets built where.

The pace of approvals and construction is already increasing but how do we all make it faster?  This Panel is not the answer. The answer is in the Affordable Housing Commission Report. 

The Minister should bring together provincial staff, the Commission, and HRM to complete the Affordable Housing Commission report recommendation #8 and reduce regulatory and non-cost barriers of new development and recommendation #5 and empower municipalities to become key partners in affordable housing.

The Minister can ask the Commission to recommend what developments and processes should be expedited, and the Minister could order HRM to do that within a stated time all the while preserving our citizens’ rights.  

Both the Province and HRM want to speed up development timelines, but the democratic public process is not “a problem” to be “solved” through eliminating it.

The housing crisis is occurring across North America, accelerated by COVID and several macro-economic changes that have nothing to do with public input in HRM.

HRM is getting ahead of the game, by having 56,000 units approved (and yet unbuilt) today and another 47,000 within two to five years. CMHC reports 5704 units under construction in September 2021, compared to 4109 five years ago, or 2990 ten years ago. Construction starts were 3249 in 2020, up from an average of 2864 the last 5 years, and 2597 a decade a go.

The Minister should ask the Commission to review the Bill and ask for comment on whether this plan would have the intended effect before proclaiming it.

Acting on the powers in Bill 63 and removing the public’s right is the wrong move, sends the wrong message, and sets a dangerous precedent. It is not in line with the government’s commitment to transparency and accountability.

If the Province wants some approvals done faster they can tell HRM to go faster with the power they already have. Let’s work together, in full view of the public, and not set aside transparency and democratic processes.