Municipalities are first responders to ‘Victoria knows best’ policies

Written By Todd Corrigall

In Canadian governance, municipalities and taxpayers are usually the biggest losers. 

Senior levels of government often chart their pathway to a public policy victory through downloading their responsibilities to lower levels that can’t say “no.”

What’s that saying about something always rolling down a hill?

In November 2012, then-premier Christy Clark introduced the Auditor General for Local Government to help municipalities find opportunities to mitigate tax increases on local small businesses and assist under-resourced governments move at the rate of business, instead of bureaucracy.

What many municipalities heard, and expected, was the government of British Columbia stepping on their toes. But what actually happened was a successful process that provided valuable advice and feedback to smaller municipalities lacking the resources of their larger counterparts. 

Despite several successful reports, and an independent review that concluded positive outcomes and support for the Auditor General for Local Government, the program was shuttered in 2021.

Municipalities lose capacity-building fund

During the 2015 Union of BC Municipalities annual conference, the provincial government announced the Rural Dividend. This $75 million fund was intended to assist rural communities create wealth and build capacity across several specific categories. 

Then, in 2019, the Rural Dividend was axed, with the funds reallocated to help forestry workers transition to new careers.  

There’s no question assisting forestry workers transition is good policy, but it doesn’t support growth in our economy, and it replaced a program that did.

Helping forestry workers certainly doesn’t move the needle for municipalities, which rely on residential property taxes to provide services and infrastructure maintenance. In fact, it causes workers to leave rural areas in search of employment, reducing the amount of local taxes collected, driving up rates for residents who remain, and putting more pressure on municipal budgets.

Victoria-knows-best policy a bad fit for municipalities

Municipalities have long held control over local development through official community plans, municipal development plans, and the ability to create strategies that have been vetted locally through a variety of engagements with their constituents. 

All of that seems to be going by the wayside, with the Province’s “Naughty List” replacing it, and policymakers in Victoria saying they know best.

But one size does not fit all.

The city of Burnaby told the Union of BC Municipalities president Trish Mandewo it will cost $1 million every 100 metres to upgrade infrastructure in existing residential neighborhoods to meet new provincial housing density standards. 

Burnaby is not alone. 

Nearly every city and town in B.C. is already struggling to keep up with regular maintenance of existing infrastructure like roads, water and sewer, let alone increase services and community capacity to support additional development.

Bring back the auditor general

The B.C. government downloads responsibility for addressing encampments, public drug use, health services, homelessness, and a myriad of public safety concerns fueled by provincial policies, yet fails to provide adequate, if any, funding.

Instead, it dictates how municipalities must manage these issues and demands enhanced housing density on top of it all. 

None of this will fix our housing challenge, which is ultimately a supply issue. 

What will help on the housing front is streamlining the process, reducing red tape, and making development easier and less cost prohibitive. 

Another thing that would help generate solutions to these many problems, is bringing back the Auditor General for Local Government.