2005 Provincial Policy Statement

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The Provincial Policy Statement (PPS) is a key component of Ontario’s land use planning system. It provides direction on matters of provincial interest related to land use planning and development, and guides the provincial “policy-led” planning system. The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing has the authority to issue such policy statements under the Planning Act.

The stated intent of the PPS is to provide for appropriate development while protecting resources of provincial interest, public health and safety, and the quality of the natural environment. The PPS applies to any land use planning undertaken by a council of a municipality, a local board, a planning board, a minister of the Crown and a ministry, and a commission or agency of the Ontario government.

The new PPS (“2005 PPS”) was released in February 2005 as part of the ministry’s Planning Reform initiative, and came into effect on March 1, 2005. The review of the PPS, which began at approximately the same time as MAH’s “Smart Growth” initiative, took almost four years to complete. The planning reforms were initiated in part because of concerns that the existing planning system was not effectively addressing issues such as urban sprawl, growing congestion on roads and highways, inefficient infrastructure investments, loss of green space and resources, and environmental degradation.

According to MAH, there are several important improvements to the PPS as a result of the revisions. For example, brownfields – former industrial or commercial properties that may be underutilized due to real or perceived contamination – are now explicitly recognized and their redevelopment is encouraged. And the 2005 PPS includes a new emphasis on intensification and minimum densities. MAH expects this new emphasis will encourage denser development patterns in areas well-served by transit. The 2005 PPS also will lead to an increased mix of housing and employment, which can reduce the need for travel and create less traffic congestion. MAH says that these planning components are linked with the PPS’s new provisions that support energy efficiency and air quality initiatives by municipalities. The PPS also now recognizes the role of alternative and renewable energy, which shall be permitted in settlement areas, rural areas and prime agricultural areas.

The PPS represents “minimum standards” for planning authorities. It does not prevent decision-makers from exceeding specific parts of the PPS, unless it would result in a conflict with other components of the PPS. However, “provincial plans” – such as the Niagara Escarpment Plan, the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan, the Greenbelt Plan, and Growth Plans – take precedence over the PPS in case of any conflict.

Interpretation of language

Despite the new “consistent with” standard of the Planning Act, the PPS itself uses stronger or weaker language depending on the degree to which planning authorities are required to implement its sections. The ministry states that some parts of the PPS are expressed as positive or required directions by means of “shall.” Other parts use enabling or supportive language, which could be interpreted as being completely discretionary, including “should,” “promote,” “may permit,” “consider,” and “encourage.”

For example, with regard to municipal official plans, which are the primary means of implementing many of these planning reforms, the PPS states that municipalities “shall” identify provincial interests in establishing land use designation and municipal policies. On the other hand, municipalities “should” coordinate cross-boundary issues that involve other planning authorities. And although the PPS states that municipalities “shall” keep their official plans up to date, they are only “encouraged” to develop indicators to monitor its implementation.

What is “development”?

The PPS defines many of the terms that it uses, and these definitions are of crucial importance in determining the application of the various policies. Some definitions contain wording and terminology that diverge from their common meanings. Most important, how “development” is defined has implications for almost every section of the PPS. The 2005 PPS, in part, defines development as “the creation of a new lot, a change in land use, or the construction of buildings and structures, requiring approval under the Planning Act.”

Under the 2005 PPS, development is restricted in a number of situations; it is not permitted in significant coastal wetlands, for instance, and it shall be restricted near sensitive surface or groundwater features. However, project approvals that involve infrastructure, such as sewage systems or transportation corridors, are typically approved under other legislation and not bound by the PPS. The term “development” specifically excludes activities that create or maintain infrastructure authorized under an environmental assessment process; works subject to the Drainage Act; or the mining of minerals or advanced exploration on mining lands in some areas. “Infrastructure” also includes water systems, sewage treatment systems, waste management systems, electric power generation and transmission, communications and telecommunications, transit and transportation corridors and facilities, oil and gas pipelines and associated facilities.

Similarly, mineral aggregate operations are not considered to be a form of development or site alteration in the PPS. As such, none of the restrictions protecting natural heritage features, such as significant wetlands or significant woodlands, apply. Clearly, a broad array of activities that would normally be understood as constituting development in a common sense or lay definition of the term are, in fact, not considered to be development for the purposes of the PPS.

Class Environmental Assessments and the PPS

Project approvals that involve infrastructure, such as sewage systems or transportation corridors, may require approval under other legislation. For example, the Ministry of Transportation’s Class Environmental Assessment for Provincial Transportation Facilities is the key approval process for planning, designing and building new highways, as well as expansions or alterations of existing provincial roadways.

The 2005 PPS essentially defers to such class environmental assessments, as none of its prohibitions or constraints that apply to protecting natural heritage, as well as sensitive surface and groundwater features, include activities involving infrastructure. However, the ECO has raised concerns on numerous occasions, in both Who Enforces the Class EA? The ORC Case and this year’s annual report, that significant problems exist with respect to the application of such class environmental assessments and the resultant effects on the environment.

Lack of comprehensive planning targets

Planning authorities are not specifically required to establish planning targets, with the exception of new targets for residential growth, serviceable land, and affordable housing. However, the PPS does encourage municipalities “to establish performance indicators to monitor the implementation of the policies in their official plans.” The incorporation of quantifiable targets into official plans is recognized by experts as a progressive approach to planning, facilitating both policy and program evaluation by planning authorities. For example, official plans that contain measurable goals for the protection of natural heritage features provide for increased accountability, as well as greater probability of achieving desired outcomes.

The 2005 PPS states that MAH will identify performance indicators for measuring the effectiveness of some or all of the policies. However, as one member of the public noted, the 1997 PPS had a similar stipulation, and “even now, some eight years later, no draft performance indicators have been released for public review.” The ECO believes that MAH should begin consultation on these performance indicators in a timely manner, well in advance of the next scheduled revision of the PPS in five years’ time.

Proactive versus reactive planning in the PPS

The PPS obligates planning authorities to plan proactively for components such as residential growth, serviceable land, redevelopment, and intensification. Planning authorities also “shall promote economic development and competitiveness” by ensuring a range of employment, providing opportunities for a diversified economic base, protecting employment areas for current and future uses, and ensuring the necessary infrastructure for current and projected needs. The PPS also directs municipalities that “as much of the mineral aggregate resources as is realistically possible shall be made available as close to markets as possible,” without requiring the demonstration of need.

However, the PPS takes a selective approach in its requirements for identification and planning. Not only does the PPS not require a municipality to identify natural heritage features, unless they are necessary for the hydrological integrity of the watershed, it also does not obligate a municipality to plan for the creation of a natural heritage system. Further, with the exception of specialty crop areas, municipalities are not required to identify prime agricultural lands. In both examples, the PPS does not specify or encourage municipalities to develop supporting policies that ensure that specified targets are met – even though that would constitute sound planning.

Source water protection

The 2005 PPS contains new provisions with regard to water quality, such as requiring planning authorities to identify “surface water features, groundwater features, hydrologic functions and natural heritage features and areas which are necessary for the ecological and hydrological integrity of the watershed.” Development and site alteration are now “restricted” to ensure that “these features and their related hydrologic functions will be protected, improved or restored.”

These new provisions appear to be a positive step toward source water protection, but the ECO believes that there will likely be challenges before the courts and the OMB as to how to interpret such language. Further, planning authorities also must only give “consideration” to these features for activities such as significant transportation corridors and infrastructure facilities. Additionally, the PPS does not state that aggregate operations are restricted by any of these source water features, only that extraction shall minimize its environmental impacts.

Problems with the inter-ministerial support of the PPS

One of the most troubling features of the 2005 PPS is that several ministries appear reluctant or opposed to taking a balanced and integrated role in Ontario’s planning system. Many activities, such as highway construction overseen by the Ministry of Transportation or aggregate extraction overseen by the Ministry of Natural Resources, have wide latitude or exemptions in following the rules of the PPS. The Ministry of Public Infrastructure Renewal’s Growth Plans also may override the PPS. Additionally, as of May 2005, the Ministry of the Environment has not introduced source water protection legislation that might address some of the weaknesses of the 2005 PPS.

The rights of Ontario residents under the EBR, such as the right to comment on environmentally significant proposals or the right to file an application for review, also do not extend to many of the ministries or statutes that directly affect how the PPS is implemented. The Ministry of Finance, including all of its legislation, is not prescribed under the EBR. Other environmentally significant pieces of planning-related legislation of prescribed ministries – such as the Greenbelt Act and the Farming and Food Production Protection Act – also are not prescribed under the EBR.

In other instances, supporting policies for the PPS, such as those of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, never received public consultation on the Environmental Registry. While some of the policies that support the PPS were consulted on, such as those of the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines, it is unclear whether they are actually in effect. Most alarming is the fact that the projections for growth that drive the entire system are not considered as policies or worthy of public consultation by the Ministry of Finance. (See Limits to Growth in the 2005 Provincial Policy Statement.)

ECO Comment

The importance of the PPS cannot be overstated. It is the collection of quasi-rules that underpins Ontario’s approach to planning. They guide the practice of planning, literally shaping the landscape of the province. They also serve to reflect the priorities and values of the Ontario government.

According to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, the initiatives of the 2005 PPS “will provide an overall planning framework for Ontario that will help to create strong, sustainable communities, a strong economy, and will help to protect our environment and resources.” The policy changes are intended to achieve several government commitments, including refining the planning system, defining an urban and natural structure, aligning infrastructure, and providing a stronger “green” focus.

The ministry also clearly states that there is “no implied priority” in the order in which the topic areas appear within the PPS. However, it is evident that some land uses are given clear priority over others. The 2005 PPS and the various laws that shape how it is implemented unequivocally establish priorities.

Environmental planning and protection – natural areas, wild species and water quality – are not given the same importance as economic drivers. This fact is not new, but, rather, indicates that minimal progress has been made.

Municipalities must now actively plan for residential and commercial growth and set aside sufficient lands in order to meet rigid growth targets. The 2005 PPS weaves in and facilitates the supporting mechanisms for this burgeoning growth, by granting special exemptions for infrastructure such as roads and corridors for electrical powerlines.

The entire planning system presupposes this growth and has been explicitly designed for it. From a strictly traditional economic perspective, this approach might be sound. From an ecological or sustainability perspective, this planning approach will fail in the long term. Few of the critical elements of the natural environment – significant woodlands, wetlands, valleylands, species, sensitive water features – are adequately protected. In fact, virtually none of them are protected from über-development activities such as aggregate extraction or highway construction. Natural features are often treated simply as end-stage checks on development. Many natural features do not even have to be identified or comprehensively planned for by municipalities.

The approach taken by the PPS often forces the defence of environmental interests on a case-by-case, woodlot-by-woodlot, and wetland-by-wetland basis. The ECO has raised similar concerns in the past, recommending in our 2000/2001 annual report that “MAH and other ministries consider, as part of the five-year review of the Provincial Policy Statement, the need for clearer provincial requirements for municipalities regarding the protection of environmentally significant lands.

Supporters of natural heritage often bear the burden of proving the ecological significance of such areas, and they must often justify their protection on the grounds that they provide ”environmental services.” Rather, the onus – starting at the very onset of the planning process – should be placed on the development pressures themselves to justify need. Taking such an ecologically sensible approach might require that individual development activities demonstrate their own ”significance” and societal need to merit intrusion on a natural heritage system.

Many municipalities simply do not have the resources or capacity to cope with development pressures and, perhaps, direct growth toward a steady-state. Nor is it necessarily in their financial interests to curb growth, since residential and commercial growth contributes to an increasing taxation base. At times, in fact, a confrontational system can even be created when a local municipality advocates a particular development activity, but the local Conservation Authority – funded by that same municipality – is left to oppose it on environmental grounds.

This “development-first, environment-second” approach to planning has spawned a confusing mix of legislation and provincial plans. Rather than viewing an ecological feature, such as a provincially significant wetland, as being important enough to protect no matter where it is situated in the province, the PPS necessitates that separate rules be created depending on its location. The result is that the same type of natural area will receive different treatment depending on whether it lies on specific parts of the Niagara Escarpment, in the Greenbelt, on the Oak Ridges Moraine, in southern Ontario or in northern Ontario. A planning system that uses the PPS to be “complemented by provincial plans or locally-generated policies” ensures that inconsistent consideration, at best, will be given to the environment. The ECO believes that the natural environment must be treated as an integrated system and, at a minimum, given at least equal weight to other planning considerations.

This is an article from the 2004/05 Annual Report to the Legislature from the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario.

Citing This Article:
Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 2005. "2005 Provincial Policy Statement." Planning our Landscape, ECO Annual Report, 2004-05. Toronto, ON : Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 39-46.