Philip Mcleod

The McLeod Report - London, Ontario

A regular commentary on civic affairs in London, Canada by journalist Philip McLeod.

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Being mayor is in the details

TODAY’S REPORT #1,043: The London Plan has been vilified, distorted and misunderstood by mayoral candidates in this election. Contrary to claims, however, it will not cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars more than the present plan. 

Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2014 – London Ontario

 

From Paul Cheng describing it as fantasy to Roger Caranci claiming it would drive property taxes wild to Arnon Kaplansky hinting it would bankrup the city, probably nothing has been more vilified, distorted and misunderstood in this election than the London Plan.

 

In an interview last week, Mr. Cheng, regarded by most pollsters as a close second in the mayoral race, said this about the London Plan:

 

“There’s not one dollar number in there. Where are the numbers, why isn’t it more detailed?”

 

He agreed, though, council will have to pass it because it’s required by the provincial legislation. Then added:

“What are we going to do with it? It’s nothing by a copy and paste of the plan from two or three years ago.”

 

It’s hard to argue against ignorance at that level, but here goes a try.

 

The London Plan will become, when it is passed by city council sometime in 2015, the city’s new official plan. It will replace an official plan that has been in use since 1989, although it has been updated at five-year intervals over the past 25 years.

 

An official plan, such as this one, is not a financial document. It is essentially a land use document, setting out a blueprint for the way in which the city should grow over the next 20 years.

 

There are huge costs, hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars, involved in nurturing growth. Most of those costs will be there whether this plan is implemented, or some other plan is.

 

Well, that’s not quite true. If this plan is implemented the cost of providing the hard and soft services for the ever-expanding city will be $2.7 billion LESS over the next 50 years than they would be if we following the current official plan.

 

In case you missed that, Mr. Cheng or Mr. Caranci and Mr. Kaplansky, that’s 2,700,000,000 dollars less if we implement the plan mayoral candidate Matt Brown has promised to pass as is.

 

Oh wait, there’s more. By the 50th year, “the operating costs for this growth in a compact form could be $70 million less per year than the operating costs for the same growth build in a spread pattern.” That’s from page 4, section 7 of the London Plan, a copy of which you can download here.

 

The savings are based on the premise London should in the future build up more than out – that is in a compact rather than spread way. Doing so is not a radical notion; cities around the world are doing so today to conserve valuable arable land along their borders. Understandably this will take courage on the part of city councils to come, starring down both developers who want their greenfields serviced and nimby neighbourhoods anxious about intensification.

 

Obviously, this won’t be easy. Undoubtedly there will be compromises in the future. Official plans, though, are not written in stone; the current one has been amended more than 5,000 times.

 

So what about these hundreds of millions of extra costs some candidates for mayor blame on the London Plan.

 

There is a large wagon-load of studies, reports, diagrams and doodles which provide the financial analysis on which the London Plan’s arguments are based. One of these documents is the master transportation study, given approval in principle by city council last year. This is the source of the cost for a rapid transit system of around $380 million over the next 20 years.

 

However, despite what some have claimed, this sum will not come from existing property taxpayers alone. It is estimated two-thirds of the cost will be borne by the federal and provincial governments’ urban development plans.

 

Our share? Well there’s a study about that, too. It’s one that has looked at development charges – a sort of initiation fee charged on new residential and commercial construction – for the next 20 years. Because the need for a rapid transit system is largely caused by growth, buyers of new homes and renters of office space will end paying most of these bills.

 

The London Plan doesn’t say we have to build a rapid transit system. Nor does the transportation master plan. Both documents simply point out that if we don’t the cost of building the necessary extra roads or additional lanes on existing roads will be much higher. Let’s be smart about our growth, the plan says.

 

Now all of this information is available to any candidate for mayor, or any citizen of the city. Mr. Cheng admits he’s never read any of the studies, claims in fact he can’t because they are not on the city’s website. Apparently he didn’t try very hard. You’ll find the transportation master plan here. You’ll find the transportation development charges study here.