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Blame Ralph Klein for Redford government's regional planning crisis

Doug Griffiths

The foundations of the regional planning crisis that prompted a frustrated Alberta Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths to threaten Edmonton-area municipalities with forced amalgamation were laid by the destructive policies announced by premier Ralph Klein's sidekick Steve West back in 1993.

On Oct. 7 of that year, West, the Vermilion veterinarian and MLA who acted in a variety of portfolios as Klein's minister of dismantling public services, marched to the front of a meeting of the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association and proclaimed that the government would be pulling the plug on the province's internationally respected system of regional planning.

The great minds of the Klein government didn't like it because they'd decided it was an extra layer of bureaucracy, and there's nothing neoconservatives like more than smashing public services -- especially, in Alberta, regulatory services that get in the way of the wishes of big businesses and small rural municipalities.

It is fair to say that if Klein and West had kept their neoconservative paws off Alberta's 1977 Planning Act -- which was a model for the world of how to reduce and solve conflicts like those that now bedevil the Capital Region -- the government of Premier Alison Redford wouldn't have to resort to potentially politically radioactive threats to get the Edmonton region's municipal officials to behave themselves.

It is mildly ironic that the Progressive Conservative Party cluelessly trying to unravel the mess is the same one that created it 20 years ago. Then again, the Redford Government is also in full crisis mode dealing with such other direct impacts of Alberta's "Kleintastrophe" as the ongoing mess in health care, so perhaps there's a pattern here.

The Planning Act, which was still in force when West gave the shocked mayors and councillors their marching orders in 1993, required regional planning commissions around the province’s larger centres to draft binding regional plans.

The process -- which was hated by rural municipalities that wanted a free hand to do what they felt like to attract business and despised by neoconservative ideologues like West who put the rights of business above all else -- forced municipalities in a region to give up some power so they could work in concert, if not in harmony.

The result of this planning system in Alberta was high-quality regional planning from which, in many ways, we continue to benefit today.

By 1995, the Planning Act was history, replaced by West's Municipal Government Act, from which all mention of legislatively mandated regional planning had been purged.

One result of this act of vandalism by the Klein Government is the chaotic and acrimonious situation we now face in the Edmonton region -- in other words, what happens when the there's no supervision fording the children to play nice in the sandbox.

Former premier Ed Stelmach made some tentative changes to try to encourage co-operation, but without a mandatory process for planning they were doomed to failure.

According to the Edmonton Journal, Griffiths gave Edmonton area municipalities six months to stop scrapping or face forced amalgamations and redrawn boundaries. "Infighting like this, I don't know. It's quite absurd, really," Griffiths told a local newspaper.

That's the thing, though. It's not absurd. It's the logical outcome of not having a mandatory planning process and fair regional distribution of tax revenues.

"Come September, if we haven't turned the tide on this and it's just getting worse, it can't be allowed to continue," Griffiths said, imagining that he was putting his foot down.

Alas for him, the kind of arbitrary redrawing of boundaries he seems to imagine would solve the region's problems would likely drive voters in several well-off Edmonton suburbs and rural fringe areas with independent municipal governments into the arms of the Wildrose Party. This is especially true in low-tax Sherwood Park, which as part of Strathcona County is the Capital Region's second-largest city and also legally the world's largest hamlet.

A gentler solution to the regional planning disaster that might actually make sense would be to reintroduce the mandatory regional planning process contained in the 1977 act.

But that would require admitting that the now sainted Klein got it wrong, and moreover that the market fundamentalist verities of his and this era are not the economic gospel.

One thing that is increasingly clear about the Redford Government is that it has a knack for making enemies. So don't expect whatever solution Griffiths comes up with to make it any friends!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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