What happens when you plan for population growth, but your numbers are wrong?

Planning is always necessary, even though our plans are rarely perfectly correct. There’s a reason why military morons so often repeat the adage “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy”: it’s good to be humble about our ability to plan, and it’s extremely important to have a plan that can survive the failure of some of its elements. . And if the enemy does not show up where and when we expect it? What if there were more of them than us? What if our forces were slower than expected?

Or, to return sharply to the very subject of this column, what will happen if more people move to Ontario than our housing policy calls for?

This, in short, is the subject of a new report from the Smart Prosperity Institute (commissioned by the association of developers BILD GTA); it documents the repeated failure of Ontario’s planning policies to adapt to rapid changes in the number of people arriving in the Greater Golden Horseshoe – the huge strip of central Ontario centered on Toronto. This accusation, which others have made before, centers on the veracity of projections for population and employment growth in the region. These projections are incorporated into provincial planning policies by the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing (currently Steve Clark), and then passed on to municipalities, who incorporate them into their official plans in terms of planning new housing and sufficient offices and industries. lands. It is therefore important that the numbers the province starts with are accurate.

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Right now they are wrong, and wrong. The 2012 population forecast for the region predicted that between 2016 and 2021 it would see 480,000 newcomers from outside Canada, both permanent and non-permanent residents (which is a bit of a misnomer, since many residents “non-permanent” are students who will later become permanent residents). This number was already obsolete in 2015, according to the Smart Prosperity report, when Stephen Harper’s government made two key policy changes: allowing international students to work off-campus on their student visa and introducing “Express Entry”, which streamlines the immigration process for certain categories of immigrants. In 2020, the new official forecast for immigrants in the GGH was north of 600,000.

In addition to underestimating population growth, the forecasts also overestimated housing production in areas around Toronto (although the provincial capital itself, thanks to its meteoric condo boom, actually exceeded forecasts) . Add those two factors — underestimating the number of newcomers to Ontario and overestimating the number of new homes being built — and you have a housing shortage.

“You have more people than expected and fewer homes built than expected,” says Mike Moffatt, one of the report’s authors and senior director of policy and innovation at Smart Prosperity. “Families are taken off the price of these houses and they ‘drive until they qualify’ in Woodstock, Tillsonburg or London.” In short, failure to properly plan for growth in Toronto and surrounding areas is becoming a province-wide problem – and, in the absence of changes to the province’s planning process, there is reason to believe that similar failures will be possible or even probable in the future.

Not surprisingly, Moffatt argues that Ontario needs to develop a better process for forecasting growth, for example by aligning the numbers in the Growth Plan with those currently used by the Ministry of Finance for its own fiscal and economic projections. The report also argues that the plan needs strong emergency reserves to accommodate unforeseen changes in growth, in the same way that the provincial budget relies on emergency funds to offset changes in income. or expenses.

This might be easier said than done: municipalities have enough trouble adhering to Growth Plan processes as it stands: province releases growth estimates, cities incorporate them into their official plans , and plans are implemented (and often challenged) on a five-year cycle before it all begins again.

But even if it were possible, the Smart Prosperity report argues that some tasks are just plain hard to schedule. Moffatt concedes that, given what the province knew in 2012, growth estimates for the following decade were hardly ridiculous. He simply could not have foreseen dramatic changes in federal politics.

This is why recommendations such as those of the government’s Housing Affordability Task Force are so important: broad, rules-based extensions of planning permissions, particularly for housing types that allow for increased density at scale – the so-called missing middle – can foster substantial growth without being strictly tied to the numbers in the province’s planning process. There’s also a strong argument that these kinds of expansive “zoning” will produce less disruption and displacement than the current preferred policies, which funnel the province’s housing demand into the tiny plots of the map where we’ve built subways or build light rail lines. . But, to be clear, these are complementary goals: we can ask the province to do better forecasting while increasing the space available for growth in a way that doesn’t depend on far-sighted statisticians.

In principle. This should be a strong argument for conservatives, who would be skeptical of the government’s ability to plan economic outcomes and promote the liberalization of regulations and the power of free people to buy and sell in a free market to obtain the best results. Whether the existing Conservative government in Ontario can pull it off — and in an election year — is another matter altogether.