Lessons Canada can learn from greenbelt development in Britain

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Protecting greenbelts is essential for current and future generations. But what do we do if such restrictions choke economic growth?

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Both Britain and Canada have established greenbelts around towns to restrict further sprawl on undeveloped land, but the greenbelt around Toronto has become sacrosanct, while that is not true across the pond.

A recent article in the Economist questioned the utility of greenbelts, claiming that they are choking the economy. “Britons love to block building,” the article said. Canada, it’s fair to say, has its share of the same.

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Greenbelts may not necessarily have originated in Britain, but they were formalized there first as a planning tool in 1955 to check the unrestricted sprawl of built-up areas. Since then, Canada and many other countries have adopted similar instruments to limit growth on undeveloped land.

More than a dozen greenbelts, 1.6 million hectares in all, account for 12 per cent of England. But that’s not all. Another 37 per cent is designated mostly as national parks where development cannot occur.

The Economist tells the story of the greenbelt separating Oxford and Kidlington. The latter is a “village” of 13,000 people whose residents and representatives have joined hands to block the construction of 4,400 new homes needed to accommodate the growth in Oxford, which is home to one of the world’s finest universities.

Some in Kidlington don’t want any new development on their undeveloped land, while the university is running out of space and options to accommodate its growth. This did not persuade a Kidlington councillor, who believed “locals should not pay for the university’s success.”

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Meanwhile, in Ontario, voices against building on the greenbelt have gained strength, thanks to former housing minister Steve Clark and his chief of staff, Ryan Amato. Both men resigned after reports by the province’s auditor general and integrity commissioner concluded that the removal of 2,995 hectares from the greenbelt to build homes was done without due process and favoured a handful of developers.

The Ontario Conservatives have unnecessarily muddied the waters on land development. A consensus on housing supply shortages was emerging in the province and elsewhere. Public opinion was swaying toward building more housing, which would have led to meaningful and informed conversations about where new development might be situated to provide housing most people want and could ultimately afford.

If Doug Ford‘s government is to be believed, the entire due diligence on the greenbelt was in the hands of just one person, the housing minister’s chief of staff. But the damage done to the movement to build more homes cannot be repaired by sacrificing the former housing minister or his chief of staff.

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Development skeptics always suspected a connection between a select few developers and the government, which they believe bends over backwards to facilitate billions of dollars in developer profits. The reports by the auditor general and integrity commissioner all but confirm the fears of those skeptics, providing them and others the ammunition to block further land development that will ultimately be required to build 3.5 million more homes than those built under business-as-usual scenarios in the next decade.

The trade-off between development and protecting open and green spaces is fundamental and has long-term consequences. Once the land is paved over, it is almost irreversible. Hence, any conversion of green space to developed land should be done with sound planning and adhere to existing laws on protecting the environment.

Development pressures felt in hamlets and villages around Oxford University may result in thousands more dwellings needed to sustain the school’s physical and intellectual growth. The development is likely to proceed despite local opposition. The trade-off is between the growth of an intellectual powerhouse and the status quo favouring nearby villagers.

Ontarians and Canadians will have similar trade-offs to make. Protecting greenbelts is essential for current and future generations. But what do we do if such restrictions choke economic growth?

Murtaza Haider is a professor of real estate management and director of the Urban Analytics Institute at Toronto Metropolitan University. Stephen Moranis is a real estate industry veteran. They can be reached at the Haider-Moranis Bulletin website, www.hmbulletin.com.

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