British Columbia·Analysis

Why Metro Vancouver is unlikely to reduce its 21 municipalities anytime soon

If you've lived in B.C. your entire life, you take this for granted. But in the rest of the country, highly populated areas have always been comprised of one dominant city or have been merged into one at some point in the last century.

So long as smaller jurisdictions are treated equally in referendums, there's little incentive for change

A map of Metro Vancouver's political boundaries as they existed in 1892. The only municipalities at the time were North Vancouver, Vancouver, South Vancouver, Burnaby, New Westminster, Coquitlam, Richmond, Delta, Surrey, Langley and Maple Ridge. (Vancouver Archives)

There's the City of Langley and the Township of Langley. The District of North Vancouver and the City of North Vancouver. The "Tri-Cities" region, which actually includes five separate municipalities. City halls that oversee 600,000 people and city halls that oversee 600. 

If you've lived in Metro Vancouver for your entire life, you take its hodgepodge of local governments for granted. But in the rest of the country, highly populated areas have always been comprised of one dominant city or have been merged into one at some point in the last century. 

Metro Vancouver's unique arrangement means the idea of reducing the number of municipalities regularly comes up. But there are a number of reasons why it's unlikely to change.  

 

Let's start at the beginning

The mix of rivers, inlets, mountains and farmland in southwest B.C. meant that when people of European descent settled here in the second half of the 19th century, they did so at several strategic points — all at a fair distance from one another — rather than concentrate in one particular area. 

So when B.C. allowed areas to start "incorporating" (the fancy name for a place becoming its own municipality), it happened in a piecemeal fashion: New Westminster began as nothing more than a small collection of blocks along the Fraser in 1860 but was joined by Langley in 1873, Maple Ridge in 1874, Richmond in 1879, North Vancouver in 1891 and so on. 

But in the 20th century, new municipalities were created when small parts of a large municipality wanted to split away to ensure greater local control, including West Vancouver in 1912, Port Moody and Port Coquitlam in 1913, White Rock in 1957 and Langley City in 1955. 

By 1966, most of Metro Vancouver's municipal boundaries had been formed, save for Anmore, Belcarra, Lions Bay and Bowen Island. (Courtesy Metro Vancouver)

A mall divided against itself ...   

"We weren't getting urban services and we thought that our voice wasn't being heard," said Nathan Pachal, a Langley City councillor, who explained that the big issue prompting the city to separate was the rural voters in the township not wanting to pay for streetlights. 

Which was a perfectly logical reason for the City of Langley to be created in 1955. But now everyone has streetlights.

And the city is now surrounded by the Willoughby and Brookswood neighbourhoods to the north and south (both in the township), and Clayton and Cloverdale to the west (both in Surrey). 

In fact, there's even a building that goes through both Langleys: the Willowbrook Shopping Centre, where The Bay has to file paperwork with both the township and the city. 

Autonomy and finances

While people outside the Langleys may think it makes sense for them to merge, B.C. is hands off with its municipalities and requires any amalgamation to have the support of 50 per cent of voters in each of the affected districts. 

"We're debt free," said City of Langley Mayor Val van den Broek, when asked why none of her council were in support of unification​.

"The way I always say it to people is I've got a credit card, you've got a credit card. Why would I pay your credit card off, before I would pay my own credit card off?"

Finances and the fear of losing autonomy are generally cited by politicians in smaller municipalities in rejecting amalgmation overtures from their larger neighbour.  

Fewer mayors ≠ less spending 

But wouldn't reducing the number of city halls reduce overall costs? Not necessarily.

The Fraser Institute has done studies arguing merged municipalities have higher labour costs that cancel out savings made through eliminating redundancies, and a study done before an amalgmation referendum for North Cowichan and Duncan estimated there would be minimal financial change if those municipalities merged.

"You would never design it like this," said Jordan Bateman, VP for the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association and a Langley Township councillor the last time amalgamation was significantly considered.

"However, it does force a little bit of property tax competitiveness, because no one can go too far in increasing taxes without losing businesses to other places." 

In addition, a strong regional government system (in the form of Metro Vancouver for utilities, and the Mayors' Council for transportation) ensures that some of the broader issues that amalgamation proponents bring up in other cities are already dealt with even in the region's smallest municipalities. 

"We get that benefit of scale where it matters, and then we get the benefit of local autonomy," said Pachal. 

"So I think we have the best of both worlds." 

About the Author

Justin McElroy

@j_mcelroy

Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.

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