Cities could pay for federal cuts: Layton

Jack Layton warned the Federation of Canadian Municipalities in Halifax on Saturday that infrastructure spending and other urban priorities may fade in a new era of fiscal restraint.

NDP Leader warns municipalities that lack of throne speech emphasis could signal 'real pull back' of funding

Federal NDP Leader Jack Layton addressed the Federation of Canadian Municipalities annual meeting in Halifax on June 4. (Andrew Vaughan/CP)

NDP Leader Jack Layton says he's worried Canadian cities could see funding shrink and infrastructure suffer as the majority federal government looks for ways to cut costs.

The leader of the official Opposition said Saturday he's already getting the sense the Conservative government is not making community concerns a priority.

Layton, speaking at the annual gathering of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, said Friday's throne speech contained few references to the importance of cities and the need to keep fostering a partnership between the two levels of government.

Layton said the apparent absence could be a sign the Tories' newfound dominance in Parliament might diminish municipalities' leverage with the government.

"I worry there could be a real difference between the last five years and the next four years," he said.

"Why? Because we've been in a minority Parliament where there's been strong pressure on the government to the point where the government almost lost its government status because it wasn't going to invest in our communities at a time when we needed stimulus."

Layton says municipalities have secured important core funding from the federal government in recent years, partly because the opposition pressed for it under a Tory minority.

Now with a Conservative majority, Layton said he's concerned that partnership will be eroded and cities will lose some of their ability to negotiate with Ottawa.

The NDP leader said many of the federal investments in municipal spending are coming to an end and it's unclear whether they will be renewed as the Conservatives set out to identify areas to cut as it tries to eliminate the deficit.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised to pull Canada out of deficit by the 2014-2015 budget year by slashing $4 billion in spending a year, but the Tories have provided few hints on where the cuts will come.

"So, we worry that there could be a real pull back over the next short while in this four-year time frame from that engagement that had begun to develop," he said.

Layton said he was dismayed not to hear any mention of a long-term national infrastructure plan in the Conservative policy agenda, but will be watching the budget Monday to see if it contains a commitment to the program.

Federation president Hans Cunningham said he was pleased to see Layton, a former head of the group, support the mayors' calls for help.

"We strongly agree with Mr. Layton's position that the upcoming federal budget must protect our communities from funding cuts and downloading, and lead to action on a new long-term infrastructure plan," he said in a statement.

Layton also said a reference to new cabinet committee that will look at spending reductions in the throne speech didn't mention infrastructure funding as one of the essential services that won't be touched.

Several municipal leaders have said they need a renewal of core funding for policing, public housing, roads and transportation.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson has said the priority for the mayors is getting Ottawa to renew the $1.9 billion for the Building Canada Fund, police officers' recruitment fund and housing programs.

He said they're hoping to meet with the Tories to develop a far-reaching infrastructure plan, which they expect to be formalized in Monday's federal budget.

Others said municipal leaders also want assurances that existing funding for front-line policing will be renewed, if not boosted, and that no more federal duties will be downloaded onto the cities.