Don Mills' recent column “Economic hubs could help rural N.L. thrive” in the June 1 edition of The Telegram reinforces the need, already well stated by others including Drs. Alvin Simms and Rob Greenwood of Memorial University, Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador, and even the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, for a new approach to rural sustainability and governance. There can be no mistaking that community survival in rural Newfoundland and Labrador is increasingly linked to the overall sustainability of the region within which that community is located.
The challenge, though, is that the current approach to local governance and development planning is an impediment to leadership on regional sustainability, including economic hubs, as Mills proposes.
Both the governments of Newfoundland and Labrador and Canada have already dabbled in the economic hub space — the creation of 20 regional economic development boards (REDBs) beginning in 1995 initiated a process not unlike what Mills proposes — strategic economic plans that emphasized regional strengths, that engaged key partners, and that built on regional assets and critical mass. The REDB experiment was abandoned in 2012, first by the Government of Canada who pulled funding for the process, followed quickly by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. To be fair, the REDBs had mixed success that was quite often very difficult to measure.
In the end though the challenge REDBs had in meaningfully engaging local government, particularly larger urban municipalities, meant that when the end came, very few were prepared to stand up for them.
Municipal leadership in economic development is a relatively new concept — local governments were only given the authority to support economic development in legislation in 1991. Very limited capacity exists at the local level to support the type of planning and dedicated resources necessary for successful economic development.
According the government’s own regional government consultation document, a significant minority of municipalities have not undertaken the development of the primary tools required to guide their own development.
Just 58 per cent of municipalities have a municipal plan and development regulations and of these, 28 per cent of the plans predate the current planning legislation. Only 30 per cent of towns identified expenditures for planning and zoning. A little over seven per cent of municipalities maintain dedicated staff resources for economic development, while 36 per cent report expenditures for tourism and marketing and just 10 per cent for regional development. This limited capacity would suggest an opportunity for greater regional collaboration with larger municipalities leading the way.
So how do we get urban municipalities, and their neighbouring communities, to come together on the notion of economic hubs? Or put another way, how can urban and rural municipalities develop a collaborative approach to regional sustainability? In a recent paper prepared for the Harris Centre’s Population Project on Demographic Change and Regionalization of Public Services, (see https://www.mun.ca/harriscentre/PopulationProject/Regionalization_Report_2018-07-29.pdf) I proposed that one possible way may be the development of regional sustainability plans by extending the current requirement for municipalities to have an Integrated Community Sustainability Plan (ICSP) to a regional level.
Meeting the initial requirement for these ICSPs back in 2010 enabled municipalities to leverage considerable resources under GTF. The next generation of these plans should be regional in scope and consider the multiple pillars of sustainability, including as Mills proposes, a population growth strategy.
There is nothing within current legislation that limits two or more local governments from collaborating on regional planning — in fact, there is ample latitude within the Municipalities Act to enable a collaborative approach among municipalities. No doubt every rural municipality is aware of what is happening in their community and no doubt they are talking to other municipalities on these shared challenges.
Major urban centres are equally sensitive, or should be, to the continued decline in adjacent rural areas — communities that help support their urban economies.
What appears lacking is a formal process, something that enables municipalities to collectively have a meaningful discussion on what regional sustainability really means.
A requirement for regional sustainability plans will address the need for leadership on economic hubs as proposed by Mills.