Forward, CBRM!

I lost track of how many times participants in Tuesday’s “CBRM Forward” discussion used the words “excited” or “exciting.” Literally everyone who spoke was either excited to be there or excited at the prospect of overhauling the municipality’s planning strategy and land-use by-law or excited to be drafting an economic development strategy or just found the whole darn thing “exciting” and had to say so.

CBRM Forward” is the name consultants have given to a two-year project to (in the words of the tender documents):

…complete a new Municipal Planning Strategy (MPS), Economic Development Strategy, Land Use By-law (LUB), and other related enabling by-laws including the Subdivision By-law.

CBRM Zoom special council 2021.03.30

Back in 2019, after the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board (NSUARB) ruled the CBRM had failed to follow its Municipal Planning Strategy in approving an RV Park in Big Pond, Douglas Foster, director of planning with the CBRM from 1995 to 2012, wrote a letter to the Spectator in which he provided a brief history of that strategy:

The regional plan was drafted in 1995 by a very small number of scarce staff with Malcom Gillis as the main scribe, sequestered in the bowels of the Civic Centre. This gave Malcolm some precious, uninterrupted time to put policies together with some help from other staff. Public participation was undertaken with planning staff and elected people taking part at community meetings as well as hearings at Council. Amendments have been made to the CBRM plan(s), and a secondary plan for North End Sydney, with Rick McCready as the main scribe, was prepared and adopted in 2006.

Both the MPS and the LUB have been amended and interpreted during public hearing processes, but there has been no comprehensive review of the policies which were written soon after CBRM was created. In my opinion, a comprehensive review is long overdue. But Council should not expect existing staff to do this in their spare time. It will require some serious staff or consultants’ time and some CBRM money. Ideally, the Province might help with these costs as they used to do back in ’80s – with 75 cent dollars.

The CBRM is now poised to do just such a comprehensive review and, Foster may be pleased to hear, it is not doing so on its own but has hired consultants — at a cost of $217,391.30 — to undertake the work. The money is coming from the municipality and the CBRM REN, the vehicle for provincial economic development funding. (Municipalities not having the in-house capacity to do such work and relying on consultants is neoliberalism in a nutshell but don’t get me started. I also suspect the “economic development strategy” was thrown into the mix precisely to secure provincial funding.)

The contract for this substantial overhaul of local policies was awarded, in October 2020, to Dillon Consulting, the company that designed and is now building our new Sydney Fire Station. Dillon has an office on Charlotte Street but the employees who presented to council on Tuesday — Stephen Stone and Jennifer Brown — are based in Saint John, NB. Dillon has subcontracted two additional consultants — David Campbell of Jupia, a two-person outfit based in Moncton, and Aileen Murray of Mellor Murray Consulting, which appears to be a one-person outfit, in Chatham, Ontario.

Is it a problem that the people designing our new MPS, Economic Development Strategy, LUB and other related enabling by-laws including the Subdivision By-law are not familiar with our community? That they are now busy with a long list of required CBRM reading and are looking forward to learning more about us? Very possibly. But the CBRM really doesn’t have the staff to undertake a project of this scope and a look at the other bidders suggests there was no truly local option. I will hope planning director Michael Ruus and his staff can fill in the gaps in their knowledge.

Because the planning strategy needs overhauling — and if I’m honest, I may even be “excited” about the prospect of an overhaul. But listening to the presentation on Tuesday raised a few red flags for me, so I’m just going to run them up the flag pole:


Red Flag #1

The secret to economic development is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, rolled up in an old ECBC annual report and I’m just going to come out and say it: neither Aileen Murray nor David Campbell is possessed of that secret.


Red Flag #2

Campbell, an economist who once worked with the New Brunswick government, maintains a blog called “It’s The Economy, Stupid,” and the most recent post — dated March 30 — begins with a tip- of-the-hat to New Brunswick Premier (and former Irving executive) Blaine Higgs for having “taken on the Employment Insurance program as he has.”

Higgs, in case you missed it, says EI is “broken” and the “root cause” of both the unwillingness of some New Brunswick workers to take certain jobs and the need for temporary foreign workers (TFW) in the province.

Campbell writes:

The best story I heard recently was the fish plant that shut down in Charlotte County laying of something like 50 or 100 workers. The fish plant across the street said they would hire them all, and, if the anecdotal story is correct, only 2-3 went to work in the other plant.

The “anecdotal” story is wrong in a couple of aspects — as the CBC’s Jacques Poitras explained, the number of lay-offs was “closer to 40 or 41″and precisely one person went to work at the second plant.

For Campbell, this is a story of worker disincentives and federal government complicity:

Of course you will say why would they? But that is in direct contravention of the rules of the EI program. If there is a job in your field in your community you must take that job. But, again, the decision is up to the folks enforcing the rules. And that is what has Blaine Higgs up in arms.

But for many people responding to Higgs’ comments, there were other factors to consider. Sample Twitter replies:

It’s a wage issue. When it makes more sense to go on EI than work you have a wage issue. I wouldn’t expect someone in bed with Irving to understand that

Wage and benefits. TFWs can come in and get places near work. Many NBers would have to move or have long commutes to take some of the jobs.

Yes, and high gas prices don’t help the situation.

Another way to look at it: Local businesses too reliant on captive labour from TFWs to raise wages to attract local workers. Is it time we re-examined this gov’t program? See how easy that is to turn around? Pay people more to do brutal and hard work.

Also, there’s the small matter of the ongoing pandemic.

The bottom line, for me, is that the man drafting our economic development strategy believes you can build a successful economy on the backs of people who’ve been forced to take jobs they don’t want to do.


Red Flag #3

Dillon, which will be overhauling the MPS and LUB and related by-laws, is drawing a distinction between “the public” and “stakeholders.” I’m not a fan of the term “stakeholders,” but if we’re going to use it, then clearly it must apply to the public — could there be a more obvious “stakeholder” in any plan for the community?

I grew particularly uneasy when I heard Jennifer Brown, who is in charge of the “engagement” aspect of this contract, state that when they get to the fifth (and final) round of input (in August/September 2022), it will:

…really focus on the land-use by-law as well as any other…implementation by-laws and really kind of, again, directly inform how these by-laws will be enabled. So, in this round it becomes very technical, so there will be a lot more focus on stakeholders in this round, specifically around the development community. If we’re proposing…land-use by-law and zoning changes we want to make sure that the folks that are interacting with that document are the ones that have their eyes on it the most.

Is it just me, or does that basically mean that while they will consult with the community, they will be giving the last word to developers?


Red Flag #4

I’m also puzzled as to the structure of the “Citizens Advisory Committee” that apparently the consultants — rather than the CBRM — is assembling. Dillon wants two councilors to join the committee but it also wants councilors to “recommend” citizens to join (Brown said she doesn’t like the word “appoint”). Ultimately, it seems the make-up of the committee will be up to Dillon, which seems a little odd to me. (Brown didn’t even say how many people would be on this committee.)


Red Flag #5

I referenced the Big Pond RV Park case above and it seems relevant because one of the themes running through debate over the park was the extent of the municipality’s jurisdiction over the environment. Then head planner Malcolm Gillis was of the opinion the municipality had no jurisdiction in this area at all — that it was entirely a provincial responsibility.

But that seemed to fly in the face of the municipality’s membership in the Collaborative Environmental Planning Initiative (CEPI) and its endorsement of the Blue Dot Movement Declaration and the  stewardship obligations of the First Nations within its borders and sheer common sense. How could the most local level of government have no responsibility for protecting the environment? (David Suzuki Ambassador Paul Strome explored this very subject not long ago right here in the Spectator.)

But I can’t really get a handle on the consultants’ ideas about this issue — and this slide is not particularly informative:

Municipal Planning Strategy, CBRM Forward slide show



Red Flag # 6

Visual aids like this:

The Leaky Bucket

There’s a hole in our local economy, dear consultants, dear consultants!

There’s a hole in our local economy, dear consultants, a hole!

(I am so sorry. That was very wrong of me. I must strive to do better.)


Red Flag #7

Everyone is going to become an entrepreneur.

This is the economic development idea that has replaced “let’s attract a big foreign company that will employ us all” and I find it particularly annoying because it leapfrogs right over an idea that should be an economic development no-brainer here in the cradle of the Antigonish Movement: let’s form workers cooperatives and share the credit and the responsibilities and the profits.

Why do we never talk about cooperatives when we talk about business?

This makes me sound critical of local “entrepreneurs” who are brewing beer and pressing cider and operating restaurants and selling handcrafted goods and pouring coffee and I don’t mean it to. I not only appreciate local businesses, I patronize them. Hell, I RUN ONE. And I recognize — and I think most entrepreneurs do — that it is not for everyone and that an economic development strategy predicated on everyone starting a business could be just as doomed as one predicated on a foreign company coming to town and employing 2,000 of us at good salaries. Neither strategy calls on us to think as a collective when thinking as a collective is something we’ve proved, throughout this pandemic, that we are more than capable of doing.


Red Flag #8

The economic development strategy hopes to harness local post-secondary institutions to ensure they are producing workers with the skills the market demands.

There are three aspects of this that are up for debate:

  1. The assumption that the purpose of education is solely to prepare a person for the workforce.
  2. The assumption that anyone can predict what skills the market will need five years out.
  3. The assumption that training workers is the responsibility of universities rather than employers.

But they are not debated, they are simply assumed as fact.


Red Flag #9

“Location Quotient.”

LQ is an analytical statistic that is, apparently, often thrown around in discussions of economic development. It refers to the concentration of employment in certain industries or sectors and CBRM apparently has high concentrations in the following: “business support services” [READ: CALL CENTERS i.e. the type of business that economic development types have been promoting here since 1998], “fish/seafood” (which would encompass both fishers and fish plant workers — and we know how Campbell feels about fish plant jobs), home health care and “water transportation.”

This last, I will admit, had me puzzled until I realized it probably referred to Marine Atlantic, which employs about 1,400 people across three ports (Argentia, Port aux Basques and North Sydney). Although how we’re to build on the presence of Marine Atlantic is a puzzle — more ferries? More routes?

We shall see.


And finally

Frankly, I’m actually not that concerned about the economic development strategy — it seems so obviously destined for that great filing cabinet in the sky, next to the Ivany report. (You can get a hint of what the finished report will look like from the slides, one of which lists “lack of proximity to Halifax” as a “potential barrier to growth.”)

But the overhaul of the Municipal Planning Strategy and the Land Use By-Law and all related by-laws will have very real effects on us and to its credit, Dillon seems to be determined to give citizens ample opportunity to make their voices heard. So please, make your voice heard. You have a chance to influence the plan that, judging by the longevity of the last plan, could guide development in the CBRM for the next 25 years. The consultants will launch the Forward Cape Breton website on April 6, and you can consult it for details.

Don’t leave it all up to the developers.