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Government considered Greenbelt ‘medium’ risk before summer of scandal: Docs

Weeks before the Greenbelt scandal upended Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Party, the Ford government had considered the policy to be “medium” risk, according to internal documents obtained by Global News, suggesting the government may have been unprepared for the political storm.

The government’s decision to swap 7,400 acres of land out of the Greenbelt and allow developers to build homes there instead led to significant blowback, before the Premier was forced to apologize and reverse course.

Two separate government watchdogs found that the decision had benefitted certain homebuilders, with questions raised over how the process had played out. The scandal led to resignations and ultimately prompted an ongoing RCMP investigation.

Despite the eventual pain the Greenbelt decision caused the province, a document obtained through freedom of information laws tracking ongoing communications and legislative issues at the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing shows that just weeks before the scandal broke, the Greenbelt plan was formally being considered “medium” risk.

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Other policies listed as medium risk in the document include the introduction of strong mayor powers and a now-cancelled plan to dissolve the Region of Peel.

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The latest version of the document — dated Aug. 2 — provides key communications points on the plan, describing removing land from the Greenbelt as “bold action to address Ontario’s housing supply crisis,” saying the now-cancelled move would lead to 50,000 new homes.

The auditor general’s investigation into the Greenbelt land swap policy was released a week after the tracker was dated, with the watchdog suggesting certain developers benefitted from the policy to the tune of more than $8 billion.

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A government source told Global News the document was written by civil servants and not political staff and said it wasn’t reflective of the government’s view at the time. They said it was a standard process designed to keep the political side abreast of all the policies and issues bureaucrats were tracking.

Progressive Conservative insiders, however, said the suggestion the Greenbelt was a “medium” risk plan was reflective of how Ontario Premier Doug Ford felt about the policy.

One source said they did not think anyone inside the government anticipated the extent of the auditor general’s scathing investigation, with some thinking the story would last a few weeks before the public moved on.

The auditor general’s lengthy report found some developers in Ontario had direct influence over the province’s decision to extract lands from the Greenbelt and received “preferential treatment.”

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The report described how then-chief of staff to the housing minister, Ryan Amato, was tasked with working out how to remove land from the Greenbelt to meet a request laid out in Ford’s 2022 mandate letter.

“What followed cannot be described as a standard or defensible process,” the auditor general said.

Another source suggested the fact the document was written by civil servants shows that non-political staff are unaware of which issues are going to become politically explosive, and which are not.

The scandal that exploded in August led to the resignation of then-housing minister Steve Clark, his chief of staff Amato and minister of public and business service delivery of Ontario Kaleed Rasheed.

Many of the political staff who worked in the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing under Clark were shuffled out and a new housing minister, Paul Calandra, was appointed.

The new housing minister cancelled other policies introduced under his predecessor, including urban boundary expansions and splitting up Peel Region.

Calandra is in the final stages of preparing his first housing supply bill as housing minister, annual legislation under the Ford government designed to boost homebuilding in the province.

&© 2024 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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