An independent review of the planning, zoning, permitting and inspections process in Manitoba has found a number of inefficiencies and concluded that the province is losing out on opportunities.
The review, conducted by the Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS), paints a picture of an industry that is very frustrated – and confused – with the permitting and inspection process, and notes that development activities are subject to a patchwork of inconsistent and often arbitrary regulatory authorities.
Provincial statutes have created inconsistent and overlapping regulatory authorities in the development process, the review states, with examples of projects that have been stalled for years.
The review, which had a province-wide scope and includes permitting administered at the provincial and municipal levels, singles out processes at the City of Winnipeg, identifying them as “dysfunctional” and notes that by failing to adopt best practices, the province is losing tangible opportunities and better outcomes.
Darryl Harrison, manager, policy and research at the Winnipeg Construction Association (WCA), says the report identifies a number of concerns that have been previously expressed by contractors and the hope is that now the findings are out fixes can be put in place to improve the process.
“Overall, I think the report depicted a certain level of frustration which exists in the building sector,” he says, noting that the WCA would like to focus on making sure there are positive outcomes.
“If we can put aside the questions around the methodology, the industry and government should work together to evaluate the merits of the final recommendations.”
WCA has raised a number of concerns in the past, one being that increases in planning department fees weren’t being used to improve services. Other concerns were that there are inconsistencies between inspectors and lack of reliance from the City of Winnipeg on stamped drawings.
The review found that Winnipeg has been increasing fees related to development and building applications and permits. In 2016, the city increased some fees by 650 to 850 per cent and created several new fees. The review heard from the industry that there has not been a corresponding increase in service.
The review also found that inspectors in Manitoba are not licensed by the province but they are in Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan, and there is also a perception that some inspectors are unqualified, untrained and given too much discretion to interpret plans and codes without supervision.
“We would like to see greater consistency across inspectors and a greater reliance on seals in Winnipeg’s permit evaluation process,” says Harrison. “These two items in themselves will help speed up the beginning stages of construction. We also have concerns with the higher permit fees not being used in the permit department and being transferred to general revenue for the city. The industry does not mind paying more if that translates to improved service and permit processing times.”
Harrison says he can’t answer why increases in planning department fees haven’t been used to improve services.
“I think only the City of Winnipeg could answer that question, but all we could say is that we would much rather have planning department fees used to make sure there is a right amount of resources and technology in the department to be as efficient as possible.”
Harrison says the system needs improved because Manitoba is a cold place and prime construction time is summer and fall which are short.
‘If projects are being held up due to slow permitting time it can add considerable cost to the build process and potential lost revenue for commercial and industry business that need to get into their new or renovated buildings.”
The review found that the amount of private sector capital invested in the residential, commercial and industrial sector represents $5.1 billion of investment a year, or around seven per cent of the province’s GDP, and creates 24,000 jobs as well as a robust tax base for financial stability.
It notes that for every day permitting delays are reduced, the provincial GDP would grow by $17 million, municipal tax revenues would grow by $400,000 and tax revenues would rise by $1.7 million.
Harrison says while the review included estimated costs to delayed permitting, the WCA is also concerned that construction is happening in metro and regional areas, but not in the City of Winnipeg.
“A more consistent approach may see more in-fill development in Winnipeg rather than new sites developed outside of Winnipeg,” he says.
The TBS has released its findings to stakeholders and has met with some of them to get feedback on the review before releasing recommendations.
The Secretariat says in the report that the conclusion is that the regulatory processes should be more efficient and specific development projects should no longer be judged as “good or bad” sometimes based on arbitrary and subjective views, but rather “compliant or non-compliant” based on objective and transparent plans, zoning bylaws and codes.
“We expect that our recommendations may be based on that working conclusion, and that many of our recommendations will require a collaborative approach and working groups involving all of the regulatory agencies involved in this review,” the TBS states.
Harrison, meanwhile, says that the WCA would like to see the industry and regulators work together to evaluate the priority levels of the recommendations and figure out how to deliver them.
With the strong possibility of an election being held in Manitoba in September, though, he says the WCA is not really sure what can be done before then.
“No matter what happens in September, the TBS report is now out there in the industry and it can be a positive springboard for change post-election.”