With all eyes on the provincial election in June, the Ontario municipal elections can easily be overlooked, although they are only 189 days away (as of April 18, 2022). The two election cycles are deeply intertwined and provincial campaign promises, issues picked-up in the press, and particularly the final election results on June 2, 2022, will all impact Ontario’s municipalities and influence voters this fall. Three issues in particular are likely to have some prominence in the provincial campaign and, in turn, greatly impact the priorities and policy direction of many municipalities. Organizations that are prepared for these dynamics can make the most of the opportunities that emerge.
Housing Affordability is an issue is of growing importance across the board and could become the defining issue of both elections. An April 1, 2022, Leger poll ranked this as the most important issue for Ontarians after inflation and cost of living (and housing likely plays a part in both of those issues as well). Whereas “affordable housing” advocacy used to be the domain of tenant advocates and social justice organizers, most working Ontarians cannot afford a home today on their income alone and this is pressuring all political parties to think outside the box. Substantial or radical change could redefine the role of municipalities in approving various kinds of housing and impact the development and building sectors.
Throughout their mandate, the Ontario PC government has introduced housing-friendly policies. Yet even with stronger recommendations from the Housing Affordability Task Force Report, the government stepped back from a fight with municipalities in introducing Bill 109, the More Homes for Everyone Act, 2022 on March 30, 2022 (and will be passed by the time of the provincial election). Offering some valuable tools for developers and builders, the Bill promises to speed up application reviews, allow for Ministerial referral of Official Plan Amendments to the Ontario Lands Tribunal, and to refund charges on delayed approvals. The legislation, however, does not include a promise to build 1.5 million homes in the next ten years. The Ontario government hinted at bolder actions post-election, but what these actions will be is not yet clear.
It is possible bolder action may be demanded, however. Ontario Liberal Party leader Steven Del Duca has promised to “address the housing crisis once and for all” and to act on zoning reform, but the Liberal Party housing platform has not been released yet. The NDP issued a housing platform in 2020 which is yet to be updated for the 2022 election, but there are louder rumblings of tackling housing issues systemically.
Should either party push for zoning reform or seize the narrative on housing affordability, there may be renewed pressure on the Ontario PCs to be bolder in their support of housing at scale. Changes like that could shift development patterns towards densifying neighbourhoods and smaller-scale projects, while limiting municipalities’ ability to refuse projects or restrict certain kinds of zoning. Disruption like this could have a myriad of impacts on industry, with changes in who has a say in approvals, powers being divested, or restricted and development patterns being adjusted to the benefit of some and the detriment of others in terms of time, cost and opportunity.
Public Transit and Transportation Infrastructure is another key issue that will be top of mind for both provincial and municipal voters this year. These types of major infrastructure projects require collaboration and funding from all levels of government, and many have been advanced or terminated based on the outcomes of a single election.
In 2020, the PC government introduced and passed the unprecedented Building Transit Faster Act, which removed unnecessary red tape and provided additional tools to the Province, specifically Metrolinx and Infrastructure Ontario (IO), to streamline four priority transit projects: the Ontario Line Subway, Scarborough Subway Extension, Yonge North Subway Extension and Eglinton Crosstown West Extension. As early work on construction gets underway, municipalities are under pressure to organize and adapt to new processes to adhere to project timelines. Delays may have unintended consequences, such as deferring the construction of planned transit-oriented communities that are being developed along transit nodes.
While the PC government has committed to advancing the GTA West Transportation Corridor (also known as Highway 413) and Bradford Bypass to accommodate growth and improve connectivity, opposition parties opposed these projects, citing environmental impacts, contribution to urban sprawl, and a lack of demand. Municipalities have also demonstrated mixed support. While some municipal governments, like the Town of Caledon, have continued to advocate for the accelerated construction of the GTA West Transportation Corridor, other municipalities have put forward motions that requested a federal government review and are awaiting a decision from the federal government later this year.
These projects and more recently announced ones could be modified, delayed, or cancelled, depending on the outcome of the provincial election and how municipalities work with whomever forms government in June. Municipalities will be looking to each party’s campaign promises to see how they can advance their interests and to identify opportunities to advance local transit infrastructure investments. Organizations with an interest in advancing certain infrastructure projects will need to be active in the post-provincial and post-municipal election periods. These will be critical times to build and reaffirm support amongst elected provincial and municipal officials, as well as to confirm funding commitments and to keep these projects as priorities for the new term of Council.
Climate Action will be an additional key issue to watch during both election cycles, as Ontario municipalities continue to make headway in the early stages of their respective greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction strategies. Climate initiatives tend to become highly politicized issues during elections due to their high up-front costs to taxpayers and (potentially) long-term returns on investment.
Low-carbon transportation is a central goal in municipal climate action plans. Ontario municipalities are coming into the 2022 election season with varying degrees of progress on this file. The City of Toronto, for example, is expecting the delivery of an additional three-hundred electric buses to its fleet by 2025. Mid-sized municipalities, like Guelph and Hamilton, have procured a handful of electric and natural-gas-fueled buses, and smaller municipalities, like Peterborough and the City of Niagara Falls, are in the process of finalizing their sustainable transportation master plans. In parallel, municipalities are taking steps to expand their private electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure to meet the increase in consumer demand.
Municipalities are also making efforts to reduce electricity and heating emissions through building and residential retrofits and are preparing for producer-led Blue Box programs that are set to commence in 2023 and 2024. These producer-led programs call for systemic change to municipal infrastructure and an overhaul of existing waste collection contracts.
The PC’s action on climate files has been slow. The government’s Made-in Ontario Environment Plan, issued in 2018, laid out a strategy to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in the province by 2050. A major contributor to this plan was to be its $400 million project, the Ontario Carbon Trust, which committed to using taxpayer dollars to foster private investments in clean technologies and effectively replaced the cap-and-trade system. However, 2021 data from Canada’s national greenhouse gas inventory showed Ontario had made little-to-no progress in emissions reductions, and the Carbon Trust has yet to take shape.
Details of the Liberal Party environment and climate plan have yet to be released, while the NDP has indicated that they will pursue bold policies, including net-zero emissions building standards by 2030, 100 per cent zero-emissions vehicle sales by 2035 and electrification of all municipal transit by 2040. Should the NDP form government, these goals would massively change the priorities and capital spending plans of municipalities and shift opportunities for businesses away from highway and car-oriented infrastructure towards transit, electrification and building technologies. Municipalities are keen to partner with different industry sectors to accelerate the climate action goals, given the often-high up-front costs of adopting new green technologies and the uncertainty around future provincial and federal support. For organizations interested in pursuing these municipal partnerships, it will be key to create and sustain good relationships with municipal governments post-election.
Finally, provincial elections are also an opportunity for municipal officials to pursue a new career at a different level of government. A few candidates have already decided to throw their hat in the ring to vie for a seat in the Ontario legislature:
It will be exciting to watch how these candidates and others fare in their ridings and whether they opt to run municipally should they be unsuccessful.
There have been several municipal retirements and resignations leading up to both election cycles, including:
We are likely to see more announcements in the final weeks and days leading up to the provincial and municipal election periods. These announcements are just one way the provincial election will have a significant impact on municipal governance and politics. Following the municipal election on October 24, 2022, we are likely to see several new Mayors and Councillors elected. Each of these changes will create opportunities for the new political officials to influence and help shape municipal governments and actions. In this fluid environment, it is critical that organizations looking to work with municipal governments actively monitor and engage during these upcoming election cycles.
Angela Drennan, Vice President and Municipal Practice Lead, firstname.lastname@example.org
Tristan Downe-Dewdney, Senior Associate, email@example.com
Lauren Goethel, Associate, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sophie Rusen, Junior Research Analyst, email@example.com