Toronto, not Ontario premier Doug Ford, should decide for itself whether it wants a casino

The Toronto Waterfront. Image: Getty.

After the Ontario Court of Appeal recently ruled that Toronto’s recent municipal election would go ahead with 25 wards instead of 47, the province turned its attention to the city’s waterfront.

There’s speculation that Ontario premier Doug Ford has a personal interest in reviving the idea of a casino on the city’s waterfront. In 2013, when Ford was a councillor, Toronto city council rejected a downtown casino in a near-unanimous vote. Likewise, municipalities in the pre-amalgamated Toronto fiercely opposed the creation of a casino in 1997.

Renewed provincial interest in pushing the deeply unpopular idea forward may give us a hint into why the Ford government was so determined to shrink Toronto city council.

After the court’s decision was released, government House Leader Todd Smith told reporters that having a “streamlined council” would allow the government to “move forward with all of our election promises”.

This reaction should make us fear for the power of local governments not just in Ontario, but all of Canada.

Municipalities are democratic institutions

While they do not have constitutional status, Canadian municipalities are crucial democracies that are grounded in particular locales.

The Court of Appeal’s dismissal of the impact of the diminished number of wards in Toronto as merely “inconvenient” displays a lack of understanding of the way these local democracies work.

Unlike provincial and federal candidates, aspiring and elected municipal councillors must speak to voters about their streets, their community centres, development applications in their neighbourhoods. While there are many issues that matter across the city, local politics is just that: local. These local issues are often what voters want to talk about at the dinner table, at the door and on the street.

In the wake of Ontario’s Bill 5 to shrink the size of Toronto city council, Todd Smith’s comments along with casino speculation confuse the role of municipal governments. Are city councillors elected to facilitate the agenda of the province? Or are they elected to deliver on the agenda city councillors put forward to voters at the local level?


Now what?

In the City of Toronto, the answer is clear: Like all municipalities, city council is a level of government deserving of recognition and autonomy.

Many residents were disappointed the local election went forward on 22 October with 25 wards. Even so, it’s important to forge ahead and seize this moment to affirm and expand the meaning and practice of local democracy.

The complex work of municipalities is everywhere in our day-to-day lives. City governance can look chaotic and messy from the outside. But we should not mistake messiness for ineffectiveness. Indeed, much of the appearance of messiness pertains to the transparency required of municipal councils compared to provincial or federal governments.

While city councils must deliberate most issues in the open — in council chambers, or at planning meetings and community consultations — provincial cabinets meet behind closed doors, spending unknown hours or days deliberating out of public view. Even the “open” nature of debates in the Ontario legislature has been limited recently, with galleries cleared during debates over the Toronto legislation.

More mess, not less

The City of Toronto and its residents should use the new 25-ward model to push for other forms of local democratic decision-making.

Toronto city council is far from perfect. Indeed, regardless of the chaos caused by Bill 5, local governance can be galvanised through the empowerment of community councils and local planning bodies. Toronto already has four delegated community councils that make decisions and recommendations to council about a range of issues.

We can learn a lot from how the 2013 casino debate unfolded, when the Toronto-East York community council played a crucial role by examining in detail the effects on local communities regarding traffic, addiction and businesses.

There are many important issues best dealt with at the local level; hence the growing importance of local governments across Canada. On crucial issues like climate change, cities have emerged as some of the most effective actors globally.

Local governments have also been at the forefront pushing for more affordable housing and better transit.

Some argue that we should rethink Canada’s Constitution in the wake of Ford’s successful move to shrink Toronto city council. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities stated recently: “Local governments are building a more liveable, competitive Canada. We are ready to have an important conversation about greater municipal autonomy, and the tools needed to support it.”

Changes should start at home, by building strong and vibrant democratic structures in our neighbourhoods and communities.

Torontonians — not the province — should decide whether to have a casino on the city’s waterfront.

City councillors and the public were best able to speak to the consequences of a downtown casino in 2013. They still are. The key to improving city governance is to add more democracy, more openness and more messiness — not less.

The Conversation

Estair Van Wagner, Assistant Professor, York University, Canada and Alexandra Flynn, Assistant Professor of Human Geography & City Studies, University of Toronto.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

So why is Peterborough growing so quickly?

Peterborough Cathedral. Image: Jules & Jenny/Flickr/creative commons.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.  

The 2001 census put the population of Peterborough at 156,000. Some time before next spring, it’s projected to pass 200,000. That, for those keeping score, is an increase of about 28 per cent. Whether this makes it the fastest growing city in Britain or merely the second or the fourth – the vagueness of Britain’s boundaries means that different reports reach different conclusions – doesn’t really matter. This is a staggering rate of growth.

Oh, and since austerity kicked in, the city council has had its grant from central government cut by 80 percent.

Expansion on this scale and at this rate is the sort of thing that’d have a lot of councils in our NIMBY-ish political culture breaking out in hives; that seems to go double for Tory-run ones in Leave-voting areas. This lot, though, seem to be thriving on it. “I think the opportunity in Peterborough is fantastic,” says Dave Anderson, the city’s interim planning director. “We’re looking at growing to 235,000 by the mid-2030s.”

More striking still is that the Conservative council leader John Holdich agrees. “I’m a believer in ‘WIMBY’: what in my back yard?” he says. He’s responsible, he says, not just to his electorate, but “to our future kids, and grandkids” too – plus, at that rate of growth, a lot of incomers, too.

All this raises two questions. Why is Peterborough growing so quickly? And what can it do to prepare itself?

If you’re a little uncertain exactly where Peterborough is, don’t worry, you’re in good company. Until 1889, the “Soke of Peterborough” was an unlikely east-ward extrusion from Northamptonshire, far to its south west. Then it was a county in its own right; then part of the now-defunct Huntingdonshire. Today it’s in Cambridgeshire, with which it shares a metro mayor, the Conservative James Palmer. When I ask Holdich, who’s giving me a whistlestop tour of the city’s cathedral quarter, to explain all this, he just shrugs. “They keep moving us about.”

Sitting on the edge of the Fens, Peterborough is, officially, a part of the East of England region; but it’s just up the road from East Midlands cities including Leicester and Nottingham. I’d mentally pigeonholed it as a London-commuter town, albeit a far flung one; but when I actually looked it up, I was surprised to discover it was closer to Birmingham (70 miles) than London (75), and halfway up to Hull (81).


The more flattering interpretation of all this is that it’s on a bit of a crossroads: between capital and north, East Anglia and the Midlands. On the road network, that’s literally true – it’s where the A1 meets the A47, the main east-west road at this latitude – and railway lines extend in all directions, too.

All of which makes Peterborough a pretty nifty place to be if you’re, say, a large logistics firm.

This has clearly contributed to the city’s growth. “It has access to lots of land and cheaper labour than anywhere else in the Greater South East,” says Paul Swinney, director of policy at the Centre for Cities. “Those attributes appeal to land hungry, low-skilled business as opposed to higher-skilled more knowledge-based ones.”

That alone would point to a similar economy to a lot of northern cities – but there’s another thing driving Peterborough’s development. Despite being 70 miles from the capital, the East Coast Main Line means it’s well under an hour away by train.

In 1967, what’s more, the ancient cathedral city was designated a new town, to house London’s overspill population. The development corporation which owned the land and built the new town upon it, evolved into a development agency; today the same role is played by bodies like Opportunity Peterborough and the Peterborough Investment Partnership.

The city also offers relatively cheap housing: you can get a four-bed family home for not much over £200,000. That’s fuelled growth further as London-based workers scratch around for the increasingly tiny pool of places that are both commutable and affordable.

The housing affordability ratio shows average house prices as a multiple of average incomes. Peterborough is notably more affordable than Cambridge, London and the national average. Image: Centre for Cities data tool.

It’s made it attractive to service businesses, too. “London has probably played quite a big role in the city’s development,” says Swinney. “If you don’t want to move too far out, it’s probably one of the cheapest places to move to.”

The result of all this is that it has an unusually mixed economy. There’s light industry and logistics, in the office and warehouse parks that line the dual-carriageways (“parkways”) of the city. But there are also financial services and digital media companies moving in, bringing better paying jobs. In a country where most city economies are built on either high value services or land-hungry warehousing businesses, Peterborough has somehow managed to create a mixed economy.

Peterborough’s industrial profile: more services and less manufacturing, and more private and fewer public sector jobs, than the national average. Image: Centre for Cities.

At the moment, if people think of Peterborough at all, they’re likely to imagine a large town, rather than the fair-size regional city it’s on course to become. Its glorious 12th century cathedral – the hallmark of an ancient city, and at 44m still by far the highest spot on the horizon for miles around – is stunning. But it’s barely known to outsiders, and at least twice on my tour, the council’s communications officer proudly announces that the Telegraph named her patch as one of the best towns to live in within an hour of London, before adding, “even though we’re a city”. 

So part of the council’s current mission is to ensure that Peterborough has all the amenities people would expect from a settlement on this scale. “What the city needs to do is to adopt the mind-set of a slightly larger city,” says Anderson. Slightly smaller Swansea is developing a new music arena, of the sort Peterborough doesn’t have and needs. He frets, too, about retail spend “leaking” to Cambridge or Leicester. “Retail is now seen as a leisure activity: in the core of the city it’s important that offer is there.”

To that end, the early 1980s Queensgate shopping centre is being redeveloped, with John Lewis giving up a chunk of space to provide a new city centre cinema. (At present, the area only has road-side suburban multiplexes.) There’s major office, retail and housing development underway at North Westgate, as well as work to improve the walking route between the station and the commercial centre, in a similar manner to Coventry.

Fletton Quays. Image: Peterborough Investment Partnership.

Then there’s the city’s underused riverside. The council recently moved to new digs, in Fletton Quays, on the far bank of the River Nene from the centre. Across the river from the Embankment, the city centre’s largest green space, it’s a pretty lovely spot, of the sort where one might expect riverside pubs or restaurants with outdoor seating – but at the moment the space is largely empty. The Fletton Quays development will change all that, bringing more retail space and yes, new homes, too.

Jobs in Peterborough are unusually distributed around town: in many cities, most jobs are in the central business district. Image: Centre for Cities.

The big thing everyone agrees is missing, though, is a university. It already has the University Centre Peterborough, where degrees are provided by Anglia Ruskin University. The plan is for the site – a joint venture between ARU and Peterborough Regional College – to go its own way as an independent institution, the University of Peterborough, in autumn 2022. That should help provide the skills that the city needs to grow. A growing student population should also bring life and cash to the city centre. 

How big could Peterborough get? Could its enviable combination of good location and cheap housing and grand ambitions combine to make it the modern equivalent of Manchester or Liverpool – one of the great cities of the 21st century?

Well, probably not: “I think the optimum size for a city is probably about 250,000,” says Holdich. But that’s still a whole quarter bigger than now, and the council leader even discusses the possibility of refitting his dual-carriageway-based-city with some kind of light rail network to service that growing population. Peterborough’s not done growing yet.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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