The Role of Public Consultation in Halifax’s Planning Processes

This research and the subsequent recommendations were prepared by the Willow Tree Group at the request of Lindell Smith, Councillor for District 8.


A. Relevant Policies/Legislation

  1. An Act Respecting the Halifax Regional Municipality

In 2008 the Province enacted An Act Respecting the Halifax Regional Municipality, also referred to as the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) Charter.[1] This gave HRM its own legislation, including powers with regard to planning, separate from other municipalities. Initially the Charter was almost identical to the 1988 Municipal Government Act (MGA), but subsequent and likely future amendments mean that HRM has different and unique planning tools.

  1. Municipal Government Act

The Municipal Government Act authorizes a municipality to develop and adopt a municipal planning strategy (MPS) and land use by-law (LUB).[2] These are legal documents that outline the municipality’s vision for the future and its strategy for managing challenges such as social and economic issues. Once approved, the MPS and LUB have the status of law in a municipality. As part of the adoption process, a municipality must engage the public in some form of public participation process. The details are left up to the individual municipality.[3]

  1. Municipal Government Act Information Bulletins

The Government of Nova Scotia has made a number of Information Bulletins available. For example, Bulletin #28 deals with Citizen Participation.[4] Section 7 of the Government Act Resource Binder provides documents relevant to the topics of public participation and consultation, including:

  • Chart 2: Land Use Bylaw / Development Agreement Approval Process
  • Chart 4: Variance Process
  • Chart 7: Variances

These and other documents may be downloaded.[5]

  1. Halifax Regional Municipality Charter

In the Halifax Regional Municipality Charter (2008), Articles 217 and 218 set out the policies for the establishment and operations of a planning advisory committee, including matters of scheduling, notices of meeting, voting, access by the public, and limits on access.[6] Article 218, section 4, is of note regarding public discussion: “A planning advisory committee, joint planning advisory committee or area planning advisory committee may hold meetings for public discussion when, and in the manner, it or the Council decides.”

Article 219 requires Council to adopt, by policy, a public participation programme concerning the preparation of planning documents, but leaving the nature and content of its public participation programme to the discretion of the Council. Requirements for the adoption of planning documents, for public hearings, and for joint public hearings are set out in Articles 220, 221, and 222.

  1. Halifax Municipal Planning Strategy

The Halifax Municipal Planning Strategy includes a section on Citizen Participation under the following statement of objective: “Citizen participation [is] a necessary part of all planning processes within the City, in forms to be developed in consultation with the community.”[7] Clauses 12.1 and 12.1.1 deal with the establishment and mandate of the Planning Advisory Committee (PAC) and other advisory sub-committees that would report to and through the PAC.

Clauses covering citizen participation are quoted below. It is noteworthy that the City deems citizen participation worthy of its proactive encouragement, support, coordination, and resourcing. We thought Clauses 12.2 to 12.6 (highlighted below) might be of interest to yourself and your colleagues. They were certainly of interest to us. 


B. Best Practices

  1. British Columbia: Principles and Best Practices for Public Participation

We found useful reference sources online, including codes of conduct, lists of do’s and don’ts, methods for processing suggestions, and techniques for initiating and sustaining successful consultative processes. They displayed remarkable consistency on their major points. Most representative was a 2008-09 study prepared by the Office of the Auditor General of British Columbia, entitled Public Participation: Principles and Best Practices for British Columbia.[8] Exhibit 1 (below) is typical of their approach, offering a succinct outline of five levels of public participation, their respective purposes, objectives, and commitments. The other illustrations below show similar approaches by three other bodies.

  1. European Commission: Code of Good Practice for Consultation of Stakeholders

For its part, the European Commission’s Health and Consumers Directorate-General has published its own Code of Good Practice for Consultation of Stakeholders.[9] The principles are:

  • Effective – early in the decision-making process, make clear the purpose and any limitations faced by the Commission, target relevant stakeholders, ensure the methods of consultation are appropriate and the staff have the necessary competences
  • Transparent – in their scope, re what has transpired prior, how the consultation will be run and what is expected following the close, ‘interest’ representation must be handled ethically and transparently and that contacts between the Commission and ‘interest groups’ meet public expectations of integrity
  • Proportional – consultation proportionate to the scale and impact of the respective legislative initiative, time/resources spent on the consultation in line with the scale and impact of the policy initiative
  • Inclusive – involve representative cross-section of stake-holders, representative of the full scope of needs and views
  • Accountable – constructive, timely feedback improves transparency and accountability and reinforces connections between stakeholders’ inputs and the final result
  • Coherent – the Commission’s commitment to uphold the principles of the Code, and ensure that the consultation is clear, cost-effective, and not repetitious

Set out against these six principles are ten “benchmark” standards by which the quality and effectiveness of their consultations may be measured:

  1. Plan – schedule consultations early in policy-development process
  2. Explain – why we are consulting and how stakeholder views will be taken into account
  3. Involve – widest possible spectrum of stakeholders, including hard-to-reach and under-represented groups
  4. Organize – make consultation times/locations convenient to stakeholders
  5. Analyse – input and distinguish evidence from opinions, assess breadth of representation achieved
  6. Give Feedback – to stakeholders clarifying how outcomes were reached
  7. Report – next steps even if provisional
  8. Communicate – results clearly, directly, focusing on relevance
  9. Act – on the findings to improve policies and programmes
  10. Evaluate – consultations and process to inform future consultations and upgrade good practice standards

C. Current Situation (how we’re doing now in relation to the best practices)

  1. Halifax Centre Plan Community Engagement Strategy – Progress Report, 2017-02-22

This is a short and highly focused document.[10] It is clear and accessible; as such, its strengths and weaknesses are also equally clear. There is energy and enthusiasm here, with pleasure taken in listing the various events, enumerating their participants, and judging the extent of their contributions.

That said, the range of activities is not only extensive, it’s bewildering. The cost/benefits of human energy against intended outcomes (for example, in terms of concepts weighed and discussed) seem not to have been considered – either before or after the event. Is it reasonable to suggest that too many things are going on, many of them at the same time, often overlapping? The lists suggest frantic, uneven activity: competing events and activities, some of which may have been foundational, others that were merely “pot boilers”: fun, but empty and therefore distracting.

When considered in light of the best practices from British Columbia and the European Commission, the attempts at community consultation in support of our Centre Plan activities fall short on many accounts: pre-planning, scheduling, level of consultation, targeting, pacing, criteria for assessment and monitoring, transparency, accountability, and so on.


D. Discussion and Recommendations

  1. Halifax Plan Amendments and Development Agreement Applications

Almost unanimously, the best practice documents cited above stress the fundamental importance of successful public consultations to contemporary public sector policy making; however, they also warned that it’s equally important to get it right. In getting it wrong, poorly conceived and executed efforts at public consultation are profoundly counterproductive. How so? Because they seriously erode hard-won public support and confidence in public policy making. In recent public meetings and events to review plan amendments and development agreements in HRM, we have experienced a lack of transparency, encountered hidden agendas, and confronted biased municipal staffers overtly advocating for a developer’s request for more of this or that.

What we have seen goes against the Municipal Planning Strategy’s intentions for meaningful citizen participation. Both staff persons and members of Council have displayed an aggressive lack of respect for community input. Hoo-hahs at the Atlantica Hotel, with their flea market displays and post-it notes, are infantile in conception and demeaning in execution. Best practices underscore the profound importance of transparency, respect, accountability, coherence, inclusivity, appropriateness, and so on. Community consultation is first and foremost a matter of establishing the basis for a measured conversation about matters of profound importance to all of us. To initiate such a process is a sacred trust, on a level with the expectations embedded in the City’s Charter, its Municipal Planning Strategy, and Land Use By-law.

Submitted with our respect and gratitude,
J. Grant Wanzel, on behalf of the Willow Tree Group
1 December 2017

Notes

[1] History of Nova Scotia Planning Legislation, last updated 10 Aug. 2015, https://novascotia.ca/dma/government/planning-legislation-history.asp.

[2] Municipal Government Act, Part VIII: 190, 10 Nov. 2016, http://nslegislature.ca/legc/statutes/municipal%20government.pdf.

[3] Ibid., Part VIII: 204.

[4] Municipal Government Act Information Bulletins, https://novascotia.ca/dma/pdf/mun-MGA-resource-binder-2-information-bulletins.pdf.

[5] Municipal Government Act Resource Binder, last updated 10 Aug. 2015, https://novascotia.ca/dma/publications/mga.asp.

[6] Halifax Regional Municipality Charter (2008), http://nslegislature.ca/legc/statutes/halifax%20regional%20municipality%20charter.pdf.

[7] Halifax Municipal Planning Strategy, Section II: 12, last updated 11 Nov. 2017, https://www.halifax.ca/sites/default/files/documents/about-the-city/regional-community-planning/Halifax_MPS_Effective_Nov_11-2017.pdf.

[8] Office of the Auditor General of British Columbia, Public Participation: Principles and Best Practices for British Columbia, 2008, http://www.bcauditor.com/sites/default/files/publications/2008/report11/report/public-participation-principles-and-best-practices-british-columbia.pdf.

[9] European Commission, Health and Consumers Directorate-General, Code of Good Practice for Consultation of Stakeholders, c. 2012, http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/health_food-safety/dgs_consultations/docs/code_good_practices_consultation_en.pdf.

[10] Centre Plan Community Engagement Strategy: Progress Report (Feb. 2017); formerly at https://www.shapeyourcityhalifax.ca/1041/documents/5906; no longer available on the HRM website.

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