Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Regional districts and municipalities: a healthy tension in our federated local government system

British Columbia has a unique form of two-tier local government. The concept of a municipality is well understood by most people, but the other tier that makes up local government in our province is not. Regional districts are that second tier, and outside of sparsely populated northwestern BC, everyone is in a regional district in our province.

Map of regional districts in BC. Select map to enlarge. Source: A Primer on Regional Districts in British Columbia

Every municipality is also in a regional district. Based on a formula, municipal councils have one or more members who sit on a regional district board. Outside of municipalities, people directly elect their regional district director. All regional district directors have weighted votes based on the number of people in their municipality, or the number of people they represent if outside of a municipality.

Regional districts have less authority than municipalities, but do provide services like municipalities. For people in Metro Vancouver, the major benefit of the regional district is that it creates a forum for municipalities to tackle challenges that we would not be able to complete as standalone municipalities. Some examples are providing clean drinking water, sewer services, solid waste management, and air quality control.

One of the other roles of regional districts is to provide regional land-use planning. This is where things get interesting. In Metro Vancouver, municipalities control our regional district. This means that anything Metro Vancouver approves is supported by directors who represent the majority of our population. This includes our regional growth strategy which is focused on preserving greenspace and industrial land.

Most people elected to council will say that preserving greenspace and industrial land is important, and the regional land-use plan helps keep them honest. This does create tension from time-to-time. Municipal land-use planning is about promoting the highest economic-value growth which sometimes conflicts with regional land-use objectives. This is a healthy tension, and most of the time it can be resolved in a way that meets both regional and local land-use objectives. Sometimes things can’t be worked out which is when things can get unclear.

Because regional districts were designed to be a federation of municipalities, their ability to impose upon a municipality is limited by the provincial government.

The Capital Regional District, of which Victoria and Saanich are a part of, is asking the provincial government to review the section of provincial law around regional growth strategy development, implementation, and enforcement.

Regional districts were designed to have “weak” power, and because of that original goal, regional growth strategies essentially require the universal support of all municipalities in a regional district to move forward. Provincial law provides a very limited toolkit for when a regional district and municipality can’t agree on land-use plans.

The process of adopting and enforcing regional land-use plans is complex, and a review of the process is warranted. One of the key considerations will be what level authority a regional district can have over a municipality. Our federation has worked relativity well in Metro Vancouver, and while there is room for improvement, it should remain a federation. While regional districts do need better tools around regional land-use, a hammer shouldn’t be the only tool available.

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