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Finlayson: Metro Vancouver's Economic well-being needs work

VANCOUVER — Metro Vancouver scores well in international surveys that measure  the quality of life in different urban centres. With a beautiful setting,  temperate climate and many attractive amenities, the region has much to  offer.

But while it boasts an enviable lifestyle, Greater Vancouver’s economic  performance is less stellar. Moreover, the region faces not just economic  challenges but significant demographic pressures, with the population set to  climb by more than one million by 2035. As more people cram into a small  geographic area, there is the risk that long-standing problems around housing  affordability, congestion and the provision of adequate transit services will  intensify.

How has the Vancouver region organized itself to shape its future? In the  main, this task falls to the Metro Vancouver Regional District, a public body  consisting of 21 municipalities, one First Nation, and a single electoral  district that together comprise Greater Vancouver.

Last year, Metro adopted a new Regional Growth Strategy (RGS) after years of  effort to update its 1996 Livable Region Plan. The RGS is the primary blueprint  and vision document to direct the region’s growth and development in the coming  decades. But among its shortcomings is a comparative silence on the foundations  of prosperity. Both the document itself and Metro Vancouver as a government  entity have little to say about the region’s industrial structure, export  industries, employment base, or the other ingredients of economic success. The  core of the RGS is land-use management — an important topic, but not the only  one that bears on residents’ standard of living.

Metro’s growth strategy does touch on several dimensions of regional  development, including industrial lands, housing, green space and  transportation. Oddly, the economic section of the RGS is centred on  agriculture. Vancouver’s position as Canada’s largest port and a leading North  American gateway to the Asia-Pacific is downplayed.

There is no discussion at all of the changing global economy and what it  means for the future. Nor does the RGS provide useful information on the  principal industrial clusters — including manufacturing, high technology,  transportation/logistics, finance and tourism — that do much to drive employment  and economic activity in the region. Readers of the RGS may be left with the  impression farming is the most vital industry in Greater Vancouver — which is  far from being the case.

More generally, a perusal of Metro Vancouver’s website, board and committee  meeting minutes, and published plans and reports suggests the agency isn’t  comfortable addressing issues such as competitiveness, how to build clusters of  tradable industries, workforce skills development, connectivity to external  markets, or the impact of public policies on industrial growth, employment and  business location and investment decisions. Smart, long-term regional planning  needs to consider these factors, particularly if policy-makers are interested in  strengthening the core determinants of economic success.

Advancing the economic well-being of Metro residents should be the top  concern of regional authorities. This is doubly true in light of Greater  Vancouver’s high poverty rates, mediocre record of growing real incomes and  wages, and the challenges around attracting and retaining corporate headquarters  and the jobs they support.

Despite having the country’s highest housing costs, Metro Vancouver falls in  the bottom third of Canadian urban regions in median family income. In 2010, the  top-ranked Canadian cities — Calgary, Ottawa, Edmonton, Regina, Oshawa,  Saskatoon and Guelph — all had median family incomes $13,000 to $22,000 higher  than the Vancouver area. Yet there is scant evidence in Metro Vancouver’s  published materials that jobs, incomes, business development or wealth creation  are viewed as salient issues by regional officials.

The highly fragmented character of Greater Vancouver raises questions about  the region’s ability to organize itself to compete and prosper. Put simply,  there is a glaring mismatch between 1) our metro-scaled regional economy, and 2)  the profusion of municipal governments with their attendant duplication of  bureaucracy, regulation and administrative complexity. The economic geography of  Greater Vancouver is metropolitan in scale, not municipal, and policy-makers  should be thinking in regional terms. There are no distinct economies that  coincide with the jurisdictional boundaries of Port Moody, Richmond or Delta — or, indeed, the City of Vancouver.

To effectively manage growth and reach its potential as a global city-region,  Metro Vancouver needs to be looking to build streamlined administrative and  service arrangements that deliver better value for money, reduce duplication and  facilitate improved region-wide coordination. Local political leaders and senior  officials should explicitly embrace the concepts of regional economic  development and regional competitiveness as they work to nurture business growth  and attract investment.

Finally, in the current Metro Vancouver context there is an argument for  shifting to a smaller number of municipal units in place of the plethora of  cities, districts and towns that exist today. Calgary seems to function  tolerably well with one mayor and 14 local councillors charged with managing a  geographically coherent urban region of 1.1 million people. Metro Toronto has 45  elected representatives for 2.5 million people. Greater Vancouver is an outlier,  with more than 150 elected councillors and mayors to govern 2.3 million  residents.

Jock Finlayson is the executive vice-president of policy at the Business  Council of British Columbia

Appeared in the Vancouver Sun