Today’s report on the Greenbelt from Ontario’s Auditor General, Bonnie Lysyk, is damning. The summary is here and the full report is here

I read it from cover to cover and there's more to come out. For example, there’s nothing in the report about Southlake and Michael Rice’s offer of Greenbelt land for a new hospital.

As early as January 2022 Rice was talking to Southlake about accommodating a new hospital on his lands. 

I am left wondering why the police are not involved. We now have clear evidence of insider dealing where the well-connected will make millions, perhaps billions.

The response in the media to these revelations has been universally hostile.

But Ford vows to press ahead regardless. The lands taken out of the Greenbelt are not going back in.

$8.28 billion

The Auditor General tells us how a cosy little coterie of developers knew before the rest of us that certain lands were to be pulled from the Greenbelt and opened-up for development. 

Astonishingly, as a consequence, developers could see an $8.28 billion increase in the value of their land. And that estimate is based on 2016 figures.

We are expected to believe that Doug Ford and the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Steve Clark, knew nothing. The mastermind was Ryan Amato, Clark’s Chief of Staff. 

Knaves or Fools?

If they knew nothing, they are either knaves or fools. I’d say both.

We learn it was Amato who identified land for removal from the Greenbelt. He then passed the details on to a “Greenbelt Project Team”, sworn to secrecy, who made sure all the boxes were ticked. To be considered for removal the lands had to be adjacent (a) to an existing settlement area and (b) to the edge of the Greenbelt boundary.  And the lands were to be considered out of bounds if they were in a specialty crops area or contained Natural Heritage System lands. (NHS) The developers didn’t like that.

Bathurst contained 34.03% of lands within the NHS so that disqualifying criterion was promptly removed by the Government. Ford was bending over backwards to help his friends.

Priority sites

We learn that while attending the Building Industry and Land Development Association’s (BILD) Chair’s Dinner on September 14, 2022, Michael Rice approached Amato and gave him a package containing information about land he wished to see removed from the Greenbelt. The following day Rice bought the land at Bathurst for $80M.

On 16 September 2022 Amato told his colleagues in the Housing Ministry that the Government wished to initiate a site-specific review. There were three priority sites which included the Bathurst site in King, next door to us in Newmarket.

Bathurst belongs in the Greenbelt

There is no question the land at Bathurst should stay in the Greenbelt. 88% of its 655 acres are in active agricultural use. 83% of the land is classified as the highest quality soil (class 1) supporting cash crop production. There are three livestock operations. This quality land should not be paved over.

Ford promised that construction would start no later than 2025 and if developers dragged their feet the lands would be returned to the Greenbelt. But the Government hasn’t set targets to allow progress and results to be monitored, measured and publicly reported. 

No surprises there. 

For the People

Ford’s best hope is that we’ll all feel exasperated and indignant for a few days and then we’ll move on. And there will be no lasting consequences. 

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Update on 10 August 2023: Toronto Star editorial: Ford's favours for developers. Fire Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark, halt the development of Greenbelt lands and call in the cops. And from the Globe and Mail editorial: A damning report exposes Ford Government's favouritism

Update on 15 August 2023: From the Toronto Star: Doug Ford won't fire the man blamed in the Greenbelt scandal. But who is he really protecting?

Bonnie Lysyk introducing her report earlier today (9 August 2023)

Hello everyone. I'm Bonnie Lysyk, the Auditor General of Ontario, and I'm here to discuss our report on the changes to the Greenbelt. And thank you very much for your time today.

I'd like to also use this opportunity to publicly thank my team of excellent auditors and professionals who work diligently with me to complete this important report to be able to table it today for the legislative assembly. It is my final report as Auditor General of Ontario.

In January I received a joint letter from Ontario's three opposition party leaders requesting an audit and an assessment of the financial and environmental impacts of the government's decision to remove lands from the Greenbelt in 2022.

We initiated our work in January this year. In conducting our work and finalizing this report we received full cooperation from the secretary of cabinet and the senior director and general counsel of the Cabinet Office, the current chief of staff to the premier, the former deputy minister and staff at the ministry of municipal affairs and housing and the deputy minister and staff from the ministry of natural resources and forestry - as well as the many others we interviewed and obtained information from throughout the course of our work. 

However, we faced legal pushback from two prominent developers we asked to meet with us.

To maintain public trust and confidence the government and its ministries need to show that they are transparent in decision making and that they act fairly in the interests of all Ontarians. 

Our review of the procedures used to amend the Greenbelt boundary in 2022 raises serious concerns about the exercise used, the way in which standard information gathering and decision making protocols were sidelined or abandoned and how changes to the Greenbelt boundaries were unnecessarily rushed through.

In essence, rather than allow the housing ministries non-political public service staff to conduct a comprehensive process with expert review to identify and select lands for possible removal from the Greenbelt, the government assigned responsibility for this important assignment to political staff.

The housing minister's chief of staff who led and controlled a truncated, highly restricted, selection exercise for the removal of lands from the Greenbelt.

This selection exercise effectively excluded substantive input from many subject matter experts in the housing ministry and other ministries and municipalities, First Nation leaders and the public.

More troubling still, the process was biased in favor of certain developers and land owners who had timely access to the housing minister's chief of staff. Owners of the 15 land sites removed from the Greenbelt could ultimately see more than a collective $8.3 billion increase to the value of their properties.

In June 2022 following the general election the housing minister received direction from the premier's office to complete work to codify processes for swaps, expansions, contractions and policy updates for the Greenbelt, specifying that the work should be done in fall 2022.

A few weeks later the premier's office assigned a political staff member to be the housing minister's chief of staff. This political staff member would become the key person to lead this initiative.

Emphasizing the need for expediency and confidentiality the chief of staff directed the housing ministries deputy minister in the first week of October 2022 to set up a team of non-political civil servants initially of six staff who in our report referred to as a Greenbelt project team to assess which sites might be removed from or added to the Greenbelt.

Team members signed confidentiality agreements. The chief of staff also gave the team the criteria they should use to make their assessment and requested that this work be done within a three-week period. 

What followed cannot be described as a standard or defensible process. Even though hundreds of site removal requests have been submitted to the ministry in the 17 years since the establishment of the Greenbelt in 2005, the team only assessed 22 sites as options for removal from the Greenbelt which 21 were provided to them by the housing minister's chief of staff. 

Further, two prominent developers provided packages containing information about two of the Greenbelt land sites to the housing minister's chief of staff at a dinner function held by the building industry and land development association in September 2022.

After the event the chief of staff indicated that one of those developers provided him with information and request to remove an additional 3 land sites from the Greenbelt which included one site related to a third developer.

Of the 15 sites ultimately selected these five land sites represent about 92% of the approximately 7400 acres removed from the Greenbelt in December last year. 

As the Greenbelt selection project proceeded last October, assessment criteria were dropped or site boundaries were altered to facilitate a selection of most of the sites for removal from the Greenbelt.

For instance, when the ministry identified that 19 of the 22 proposed sites did not meet the one environmental criterion that criterion was dropped. In another example when the confidentiality restrictions imposed on the Greenbelt project team made it impossible for the team to assess how quickly infrastructure could be built on the proposed lands those criteria were discarded too.

Internal government decision making material prepared for cabinet by the housing ministry did not clearly describe the exercise used to identify, assess and select the Greenbelt land sites. As a result, key decision makers told us they were not aware of key limitations in the exercise to amend the Greenbelt boundary when they were asked to approve the Greenbelt amendment proposal.

We also noted that fair, transparent and respectful consultation did not take place. We found that the housing ministries public consultation - which is required by the environmental bill of rights - was undermined by incomplete and inaccurate notices on the environmental registry of Ontario - limiting the public's ability to fully understand and comment on the proposed changes and their potential impacts. Nor did the housing ministry carry out a comprehensive analysis of the 35,000 comments posted on the registry which were overwhelmingly negative and ultimately no revisions were made to any of the proposed land removals.

We also noted that the Greenbelt plan - which derives its authority from the Greenbelt Act of 2005 - specifies that the Ontario government shall consult with First Nations on decisions that may affect aboriginal and treaty rights within the Greenbelt. But according to First Nation leaders we spoke to, consultation was insufficient to meet the province's duty to consult.

We also found that the exercise used was dismissive of land use planning.

Land use planning is an important process that guides decisions about how and where development can occur while safeguarding valuable and sensitive resources such as agricultural lands, wetlands and forests. About 83% of the land area removed is of the highest quality in capability for agriculture. Further, 11 of the 15 areas removed from the Greenbelt contained lands within the natural heritage system which captures areas with the most sensitive or significant natural features and functions in Ontario.

About 14% of the Greenbelt removals accounted for almost 1000 acres (of) our wetlands and woodlands.

The Greenbelt exercise calls into question who if anyone was supervising the non-elected chief of staff as he personally directed the Greenbelt project team through most of October 2022. The housing minister informed us that he was not aware of the specifics of what his chief of staff was working on in terms of the Greenbelt site selection exercise. And the chief of staff told us that he did not inform the housing minister of his part in the Greenbelt amendments.

In our view the housing minister ought to have known the key details of such a high profile and politically sensitive government exercise and ensure that cabinet and the premier were also made fully aware of these details.

The options to amend the Greenbelt boundary also call into question why the government needed to make such a significant decision so quickly. We found that the reasoning for the Greenbelt changes was just as flawed as the selection process itself.

No doubt the prospect of southern Ontario will see strong population growth for the foreseeable future provides the province with compelling grounds to prioritize residential construction. However, our report notes the following: in March 2022 the government adopted – adopted - the housing affordability task force report as the source of the goal to build 1.5 million homes over 10 years. The report itself specifically states land is available both inside the existing built up areas and on undeveloped land outside of greenbelts. Further, we found that the housing ministry had already allocated the entirety of the 1.5 million unit housing target to Ontario's municipalities in October of 2022 - one month before the government's November 2022 proposal to remove land sites from the Greenbelt.

As well, the chief planners in the regions of Durham, Hamilton and York - home to all 15 sites removed from the Greenbelt - told us that Greenbelt land was not needed and that there is sufficient land outside the Greenbelt in their regions that is already serviced with infrastructure or can be more easily serviced to meet the housing targets that, as mentioned, had already been assigned to them by the housing ministry in October 2022.

I would like to draw your attention to the report we issued in December 2021 titled “land use planning in the greater golden horseshoe”. Given the increase in the use of MZOs (Minister’s Zoning Orders) which override the normal land use planning process, it is important to reflect on the use of MZOs in conjunction with today's report.

Development companies cannot be assured of the fair and level playing field in which they need to conduct their businesses and communities and their residents have no idea whether plans that have been carefully crafted to achieve a vision for their communities will be respected. 

While the people of Ontario deserve prompt action to solve societal problems - like those generated by the need for housing - this does not mean the government and non-elected political staff should sideline or abandon protocols and processes that promote objective and transparent decision making that is based on good information.

In our view the 2022 Greenbelt exercise clearly demonstrates what can happen when a policy directive such as opening the Greenbelt to enable development is then implemented with few procedural safeguards or little expert input. Put more bluntly, expediency should not be used as a justification to short circuit sound operational procedures.

Our report includes 15 important recommendations that stem from our work. They covered the need for: clarification of roles and responsibilities between political and non-political public service staff;  limiting the use of public service staff having to sign confidentiality agreements when conducting their work; emphasizing the need for compliance with the public service of Ontario Act when liaising with third parties with vested interests in the outcome of decisions; strengthening oversight powers of the Office of the Integrity Commissioner of Ontario; clarity regarding e-mail retention and restrictions on the use of personal e-mail for government business; meaningful and (indistinct) consultation processes; complete cabinet submission information with the ability of non-political staff to document their expressed concerns around lack of process, evidence and information. 

And, finally, given that both the premier and the housing minister communicated to us that they were unaware that the 2022 pre-selection of Greenbelt lands for removal was biased and flawed, we recommended that the government revisit the particular lands site selections that were made to adjust the Greenbelt boundaries now that it has the benefit of the information contained in this report.

And now I would be pleased to take your questions. And I just want to say one thing to you before I do answer questions is that I do want to say kudos and really congratulations to really great investigative reporting and I believe it came from the Narwhal I believe there was CBC involved and I do believe a little bit from the Star as well. Thank you for that.

I think the investigative reporting has a place in the future still and good work.