If you were to examine the relationship between the Nova Scotia provincial government and the Halifax Regional Municipality over the past few years, you would be forgiven to think that the relationship only consists of a few necessary and mostly automatic funding agreements between the two bodies.
In reality, the relationship is much more critical than that. Not only is the province technically ‘responsible for’ HRM in all senses of the term that matter, but the province is also the granter of life of HRM, and all municipalities within its borders. If it wanted to, the provincial government could snuff out any notion of an “HRM”, legislatively disbanding the municipality we know and love (although I expect some of the 400,000 Nova Scotians that call themselves HRM residents might have something to say about that). HRM is subordinate to the province in exactly the same way that school boards are, and we’ve seen how the province can flex its muscle with the school boards. HRM is only HRM due to a piece of provincial legislation we know as the HRM Charter.
Despite this actual legislative relationship between the province and HRM, the provincial government has been pretty hands off when it comes to municipal goings on. There have been lots of reasons for the province to raise a red flag over the past little while (the cash for concerts scandal, the incessant in-camera meetings, lawsuits over HRM’s botched actions like this one and this one, the eyebrow-raising handling of the Occupy eviction … to name a few).
But for the most part? Nadda. The province has had ample reason to step in and say “hold on a minute here”, but has largely chosen not to.
HRM does this thing called density bonusing in the downtown, which as described in a nice explainer on the Plan HRM website, “is a planning tool that allows a municipality to grant extra density (i.e. extra units or height) to a building in return for public benefits such as affordable housing, streetscaping, and green space. It’s a tool that would allow HRM to create the vibrant, complete, mixed-use neighbourhoods desired by its citizens.” Density bonusing is a municipal planning tool that is granted by the HRM Charter, which if you’ll recall from above, is a piece of provincial legislation. Right now, the Charter only allows density bonusing in the downtown.
This density bonusing stuff sounds pretty good, eh? Sounds like something we should be able to do in the whole urban core, and not just the downtown, doesn’t it?
Not so fast.
According to an article in Metro News this morning, the provincial government has some hesitations about granting expanded density bonusing rights to HRM:
“While we support the aims of this planning tool, we believe that it must be coupled with the ability for residents to have meaningful input into development proposals,” wrote MacDonnell.
“There are also concerns about public engagement and transparency for those amendments dealing with architectural control, in camera meetings and community councils.”
Okay, what? Let me get this straight, Government of Nova Scotia — You’ve been more than an arm’s length away from HRM’s dealings, shoddy as they’ve been, over a whole host of issues, but when the municipality actually wants to do something in the direction of good progress, now you’re concerned? You’ve been all but silent on HRM’s governance and its relationship with its residents when there was real cause for concern, and you only want to play daddy to prevent a perfectly reasonable request from going forward?
Technically, it is within the provincial government’s right to be as active or as passive in the operations of its municipalities as it so chooses. Through its absence of action during some critical moments in HRM’s recent past, it would appear as though it made the choice to sit squarely on the passive side of this spectrum. But for some reason, the provincial government has chosen to swing toward the active side on this particular issue — a time when it scarcely makes any sense to do so.
Look, provincial government, if you want to play municipal politics, do it when it makes sense. Don’t set a precedent of “do your own thing”, and then get in the way when HRM tries to do something perfectly legitimate.
For better or for worse, the provincial government has done a pretty damn good job at staying out of HRM’s business. When it comes to this density bonusing issue, the province should continue this tradition by butting out when it is, indeed, for better.