The Greenbelt and Doug Ford: What's next?
Opposition leaders call for resignation of housing minister, for decision to be reversed
Ontario Premier Doug Ford's government faced a scathing report by the province's auditor general Wednesday that found its controversial decision to open parts of the protected Greenbelt to housing development was influenced by a small group of well-connected developers.
You can read a full breakdown of the auditor's 95-page report and the reaction to it here.
One of the main takeaways: 92 per cent of the land that was ultimately removed from the Greenbelt in 2022 was identified by developers who stand to make billions of dollars from the changes, according to the report. That information was passed to Housing Minister Steve Clark's chief of staff, who was heading up the Greenbelt project for the government, the auditor general found.
The big question now is what happens next, both politically and environmentally.
What Ford is saying
For Ford, it's full steam ahead.
Ford told reporters Ontario is facing a housing crisis and that what transpired was a result of the government making mistakes while trying to more quickly bolster the supply of new housing. The entire process of selecting sites to be removed from the Greenbelt took only three weeks, and both Ford and Clark said they were unaware of how and why specific land was chosen.
"The process should have been better and I'm admitting the process should have been better," Ford said. "But when you're in a housing crisis, when you have an inferno happening, firefighters run to the fire, they don't run away from it. And in my position, I have to deal with a crisis."
Ford said his government would accept and implement 14 of the 15 total recommendations that Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk made in her report.
What it won't commit to: Lysyk's recommendation to revisit the land swaps and possibly reverse the decisions, despite both Ford and Clark conceding the government failed to do due diligence in selecting the sites.
Ford said that reversing the decisions would only delay the chances for thousands of Ontario families to own a home.
"Our government is choosing to build."
Ford did say significant progress on planning has to be shown by 2023 and construction must be underway by 2025 or the space will be returned to the Greenbelt.
Will the auditor's report change things?
Lysyk said if the decision to open the lands isn't revisited, the public should assume that the government is OK with what happened even though the process involved little input from subject matter experts.
"At the end of the day, if the minister and the premier say they didn't know what the process was, then the next step is to revisit the decision," Lysyk said.
"I don't know if it's too late to make a different decision," she told reporters, before adding: "There have been other decisions that have been reversed."
The government's next actions, she later suggested, will speak louder than their words.
Is any of this criminal in nature?
The auditor said this is outside of her purview. "Whatever happens in the future will be up to the OPP to decide."
Similarly, Lysyk said it's not up to her whether or not there should be a full public inquiry.
WATCH | How Ford's political opponents responded to the report:
What Ford's opponents are saying
All three political parties vowed following the report's release to keep up the pressure on the government, even though the next election isn't expected until 2026.
Here's what each said they want to see happen:
NDP: Ontario NDP leader Marit Stiles is calling for three immediate actions: For the premier to recall the legislature, to reverse course and return the lands to the Greenbelt.
Secondly, she's calling for Housing Minister Steve Clark to resign or be removed from cabinet.
Stiles said she's also asking that the Conservative government not stand in the way of any further investigation, "including any criminal investigations arising, because we know this is just the beginning and the public deserves to know everything," she said.
Liberals: John Fraser, the interim leader of the Ontario Liberals, said the premier should ask Clark to step aside.
"Next, the development in the Greenbelt and those lands in question should be frozen right now," he said.
Fraser is also calling on the premier to be transparent about what his intentions really are around protecting the Greenbelt.
Greens: Party leader Mike Schreiner is also calling for Clark to "do the right thing" and resign.
"The government has more to be accountable for," Schreiner said.
"I'm calling on the premier to back down now. The public opposition to these Greenbelt land schemes is only going to grow," he said.
Schreiner added that he's concerned there will be additional land swaps in the future.
What some experts and advocates have to say
Shoshanna Saxe, associate professor in the University of Toronto's Department of Civil and Mineral Engineering and Canada Research Chair for Sustainable Infrastructure, says the report is "a lot more damning than I expected."
"I knew the policy was bad but I am surprised how bad the process was," she said. Saxe adds that it would be very challenging to initiate construction on the Greenbelt lands that are slated for housing.
"These sites were never supposed to be developed, which means they're not serviced, they don't have connections to water or sewers, they don't have connections to roads, it will take years for that to be ready and it was never supposed to happen."
Tim Gray, executive director of the advocacy group Environmental Defence, is calling for the land to be returned to the Greenbelt and for legislation to be introduced to protect it from "future attacks."
"The Ontario government is on the wrong side of the views of almost all Ontarians, except for its developer friends. It needs to stop pushing forward senseless environmental destruction and focus on getting homes built where they are needed, and at prices people can afford," the statement said.
Gray is calling for a full investigation of the relationship between the provincial government and development industry by the OPP, and for "the Ontario government's pro-sprawl agenda" to be reversed.
"Homes should be built in existing towns and cities, not on farmland, forests and the Greenbelt," Gray said.
The group's calls to action also include expanding the Greenbelt to protect more of Southern Ontario's farmland.