Tuesday, June 28, 2005

London — a New Urban Dictatorship in the making

In theory, local governments ought to be more responsive to and intrude less on their citizens. But in practice, local governments serve as initiation grounds for social activists and have become incubators for interventionist regulation and socialist redistribution initiatives for the more conservative provincial and federal levels. When local governments conspire with other governments to transfer tax money between jurisdictions and blur the distinctions of jurisdictional responsibilities, the opportunities for statism at all levels are enhanced by diluting and diminishing the accountability that would ordinarily accrue to governments that must adhere to the checks of well-defined divisions of power and taxation. Upset with social housing? Who're you going to vote against? Terence Corcoran has an interesting article in today's National Post, The New Urban Dictatorships:

Across the land, a New Deal for Cities is taking shape. Modern pressure to give cities more power and money has been building for several years. Now, encouraged by a weak and unprincipled Liberal regime in Ottawa, vast new law-making authority and massive volumes of federal cash are about to be transferred to local politicians.

The rhetoric behind the power shift has already slipped into the realm of cliche: Cities need a seat at the table; Canada has a $60-billion infrastructure deficit; cities suffer from fiscal imbalances; cities are engines of growth trapped in 140-year-old funding models; cities need new tools to survive in the new global economy.

Around these and other pap phrases, each more meaningless than the last, the New Deal for Cities movement is giving rise to a new phenomenon: the New Urban Dictatorships. The expanse of new powers to be assigned to city potentates -- powers to zone, control, direct, enforce, impose, regulate, tax and generally lord it over every person, business and property owner under their jurisdiction -- is unlike anything we've ever seen in Canada. And we've already seen a lot.

[…] But cash transfers are only the most obvious part of the growing problem with the new urban policy agenda. [… The] new urban power movement seeks to give cities broad planning authority and fiscal tools that can have only one outcome: Get ready for big-state local governments with unlimited power.

Some of the same people who fought hard and loud against urban amalgamation in places like Toronto are now proponents of turning the amalgamated giants they opposed into major powerhouses of arbitrary authority.

There's no space here for a full cross-Canada search of the emerging urban power grab, but the push in Toronto — backed by the province — is so vast as to be in itself a breach of constitutional proprieties. A recent provincial-municipal task force report listed the "enabling powers" that a new City of Toronto Act might confer on the city. These would include authority to "regulate; prohibit; provide for a system of licences, permits, approvals or registrations and impose conditions with respect to city purposes; provide for compliance; require people to do things; create offences and enforce bylaws; raise revenue."

On top of these enabling powers would come "enhancements" to existing powers, plus new planning and zoning powers that would give the city "the option" to impose affordable housing on new developments, set densities, control housing types and adopt urban planning fads as they come along. Still other blanket clauses would allow the city to provide "services and other things that the city considers are necessary or desirable for the city."

[…] At least somebody recognizes that we are in the midst of a dangerous power grab that needs to be checked. Recent court decisions in the United States (see Richard Salsman below on the U.S. Supreme Court Kelo decision) and Canada show that citizens can no longer depend on constitutional protections against arbitrary power. Citizens are pitted against citizens, developers against citizens, corporations against corporations in a power free-for-all. Whoever sways the local power authority wins the game.

These new urban deals are not about government in a democracy. They're a new form of tyranny, and we should at least make an effort to stop them before they really get out of control.
If Toronto gets theirs, other municipalities' aspirations won't be left long ungranted, especially with the amazing confusions of civic judgment these schemes make available. Anne Marie DeCicco never met an opportunity for aggrandization with minimal accountability that she didn't like.

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