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GUEST COLUMN: Red tape — city halls need a good decluttering

Differing rules and regulations between provinces cost time and money, Vaughn Hammond writes. —
Time for more municipalities to cut some of their red tape, the CFIB says. 123RF Stock Photo

Nobody at City Hall sets out to make ridiculous rules or unmanageable processes — but that’s the result when there are no checks in place to control the clutter. Rules pile up over time like too many sweaters, DVDs, and old magazines spilling out of an overstuffed closet that never gets cleaned out. It’s hard to find what you need and seemingly simple tasks take on ominous complexity.

We regularly hear about red tape clutter from small businesses dealing with their local City Hall.

There’s the business in Smithers, B.C., forced by the municipality to pay for building a sidewalk, connecting nothing to nowhere, in order to get a permit to renovate and the book store cafe in Winnipeg forced to shut down because serving a bit of mayo on sandwiches required an industrial-strength grease trap.

Some municipal governments seem so used to the piles of red tape that they don’t recognize they have a problem. Citizens are being hurt in myriad ways; from the stress red tape creates for small business to the extra costs it lards onto housing. It’s time to follow the lead of many senior governments in Canada, acknowledge there is a problem and do something about it.

The most important remedy is a simple one. Those who keep their closets clutter-free know how it works: a one-in-one-out policy. For every new municipal rule that comes into force, one needs to be eliminated so when a new government rule is needed, it doesn’t just get added to the pile. One, or sometimes more, out-dated or unnecessary rules are eliminated at the same time.

Various versions of this “one-in-one-out” policy are proving very successful. The longest running example in North America is British Columbia’s regulatory cleanup. Back in 2001 its provincial government set out on a major decluttering exercise, putting in place a one-in-two-out rule to achieve a one-third reduction in regulatory clutter over three years.

Once the reduction target was met, one-in-one-out became the new standard. Garbage bags of dumb rules, such as the one dictating the size of televisions allowed in restaurants, were sent to the curb and the province’s citizens are better for it. The BC one-in-one out policy was so successful at eliminating red tape while maintaining high levels of health, safety and environmental outcomes, it’s now an international model for reform.

Federally, Canada has become the first country in the world to legislate one-in-one-out for its regulations. It, too, has proved successful at reducing compliance costs although it does not apply as broadly as B.C.’s, so some old CDs, magazines and other junk still gets a pass.

With the successes we’ve seen at the federal and provincial levels, we’re now challenging our cities to clean up their regulatory excesses by committing to their own one-in-one-out policy. Who will take up the challenge?

Halifax has recently partnered with the province of Nova Scotia and put in place a Red Tape Reduction Charter. While the charter does not (yet) include one-in-one-out, it does contain some other promising checks on regulatory clutter including measuring the cost of regulations, using plain language and eliminating duplication.

Early results are encouraging: irritating sidewalk café licencing problems have been fixed, the application for business signage has been streamlined and is faster, and business inspectors are getting customer service training to help small businesses be in compliance rather than just enforcing rules. Not only are citizens and small businesses benefitting, it is making the job of administering government more efficient.

So, how about it City Hall, are you ready to clean up your red tape?

First comes a commitment to do it, next comes putting the old Christmas sweaters and DVDs to the curb, and finally a one-in-one out policy to keep the closet clean. Like the old Christmas sweaters, no one will miss your red tape.

Jordi Morgan is VP, Atlantic for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. He writes from Halifax

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