Former Alberta premier Ralph Klein

“Limits to growth on horizon,” proclaimed the main headline on yesterday’s print edition of the Edmonton Journal. “Greater role for regional government seen as city runs out of room to develop in 35 years,” added a deck head.

But the real story starts down in Paragraph 3 of the article: “An industry group warns that a strong regional government needs to be considered to balance interests when Edmonton runs out of land.”

You see, the story explained, the Edmonton area needs some form of effective regional government that can “make decisions and co-ordinate growth among the municipalities.” Otherwise, it’s going to be nothing but high-cost, inefficient, dispute-generating leapfrog development like we have now, only worse. It’s safe to say the other metropolitan regions throughout Alberta need the same thing.

Well, duh! How long did it take to figure this out?

About 18 years, as a matter of fact That how long it’s been since Alberta destroyed a regional planning system that was effective at resolving the kinds of problems Edmonton now faces, inexpensive to operate and the envy of the world.

Yes, we once had what we need, and we don’t have it any more, and we’re likely to be paying the price for this dumb decision for a long time yet. Because, for all the obvious truth in the statement quoted by the Journal, it will be no easy task to put back together what we smashed to smithereens.

What happened? The destruction of Alberta’s regional planning system was another act of wanton vandalism by the government of Ralph Klein, which perpetrated many such disasters in health care, government services, education, environmental protection, electricity “deregulation” and a broad range of other policy areas.

But then, Klein’s calamitous rule was all about tearing down and had very little to do with building up anything worthwhile. If the Klein Era seems to be suffused with a warm and fuzzy glow nowadays, that is evidence of a collective failure of memory and critical thought on the part of every one of us who lived through it.

Steve West, at the time Klein’s thuggish minister of municipal affairs, pulled the plug on regional planning in Calgary on Oct. 7, 1993, at the annual meeting of the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association.

West, a veterinarian from Vermilion who according to the Calgary Herald had admitted to vigilante activities and having spent nights in jail before being elected as an MLA, and who told the legislature that alcohol had been a factor in many of his issues, was Klein’s point man on privatization. Wherever West went, the destruction of a valued government service was certain to follow.

“His ultra-right philosophy is simple,” wrote Don Martin, then a Herald columnist, back in 1994. “Round-table meetings are for wimps. If it costs money, cut the budget. If staffed by non-essential employees, lay ’em off. When in doubt about the value of a public service, privatize.”

In fact, this assessment gives West, and by extension Klein, more credit than they deserve. Even if it was pretty obvious the public service in question was needed, and better delivered by public employees, they could be counted on to privatize anyway.

At the time, West claimed the reason for the Klein government’s trail of devastation was that the province was “broke.” This was preposterous, of course, but it served their purposes.

They went after public services because of their market fundamentalist ideology that holds everything private is always better than anything public. And no doubt they also did it because regional planning annoyed their friends and contributors in rural businesses by getting in the way of money-making ideas because mere citizens or affected municipalities objected.

As if that weren’t bad enough, regional planning made the governments of the municipal districts that surround Alberta’s cities furious by standing in the way of their schemes to raise tax revenues at the expense of rational development throughout the area. And as anyone who knows Alberta understands, what rural Conservative politicians want, rural politicians get.

So who cared what problems were created? Certainly not Klein and his sidekick West. The municipal districts saw themselves as relegated to the role of land banks for the big cities and they didn’t like it. So West and Klein solved the political problem with their rural supporters and scratched their ideological itch in a single swoop of a pen.

Which brings us to where we are today. Growing Alberta cities still need land, but we’re faced with expansive, environmentally destructive and chaotic regional development. Taxpayers have to foot the bill for fights between municipalities.

Moreover, urban residential taxpayers in supposedly low-tax Alberta are being hit with soaring municipal taxes because the industrial base is located in the counties and municipal districts that surround their cities. That puts the money safely in the hands of the next generation of rural Conservative politicians.

So, to quote that story in yesterday’s edition of the Journal: “Most of the industry in the capital region is located in the counties, while most of the residents live in the cities.” The reporter went on to quote the mayor of Fort Saskatchewan: “The county has all the money, the city has all the debt.” And it’s urban taxpayers who get screwed, she could have added.

Well, don’t expect any Conservative government to resolve this problem. Or likely any other political party, sad to say, at least until urban taxpayers start to see themselves as city dwellers with city issues and demand that whomever they elect starts to look out for their interests.

Regional planning — which used to work very well indeed, thank you very much — will be extremely difficult to put back together without rural Tories throwing a temper tantrum. And, as we all know, that will likely be the end of any solutions for another generation of messier development, rising costs and a heavier burden on the cities.

It’s ironic that the only other story visible above the fold on yesterday’s Journal was a sad report of Klein’s illness. This is a tragedy for the former premier and his family, and it would be callous of us not to empathize with his personal circumstances.

But it is important that we not allow this to cloud our judgment of his policies any further. We need to remember, as Alberta struggles to find new policies that work for its citizens, that “the Klein Revolution” of the 1990s was in many ways a catastrophe.

Moreover, in many fields, and regional planning is one of them, the legacy of those years is that the Klein-tastrophe continues.

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

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...