News Releases and Op-Eds
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