What would happen if regional governments disappeared?

Pamela Blais and Patrick Luciani
The Next City
September 30, 1996
First Opinion: Pamela Blais

Reality check. We need real regional government, not the current patchwork. The city is a single economic unit—one labor market, one production complex, one consumption market. As responsibilities are devolved from higher levels of government and as globalization proceeds apace, our economic fate is evermore tied to cities. Like any company, city regions need a strategy to compete effectively on the world stage. They particularly need a strategy that coordinates major investments across the city region so as to avoid duplication, optimize leverage with other investments and maximize competitive impact.

Flourishing bureaucracy. Some functions are best done at the city-region level, while others are suited to the local level. Moving appropriate functions up to the region can eliminate duplication and significantly decrease the amount and cost of bureaucracy while improving effectiveness. Take economic development departments—the Greater Toronto Area has 29. Why duplicate this function among myriad local municipalities when the real economic growth comes from outside the region anyway—either from incoming investments or from exporting locally produced products and services?

Traffic paralysis. If not properly planned and coordinated with infrastructure investment, urban growth patterns can be simply unsustainable, leading to a virtual seizure of urban transportation systems. The experience of London, England, is instructive. Having abolished regional government during the Thatcher years, traffic now travels at the pace of horse-drawn carriages—not really what is called for with just-in-time delivery and time-based competition. Labour party leader Tony Blair is promising to bring regional government back again if elected.

Eroded quality of life. Watersheds, forests and countryside regenerate our air, supply our water and provide recreational opportunities close to the city. Waterfront trails, parks, bike paths—these kinds of amenities also attract footloose industries and labor. Because natural systems don’t follow municipal boundaries, they will not be protected by the real estate market as urban growth spans outward. A coordinated, regional approach is required for their protection and programming for public use.

Second Opinion: Patrick Luciani

Competition would make municipalities better. We have this silly notion that competition works in business, but not in government. If local governments were forced to compete for our tax dollars, they’d provide better services at lower cost. People could then vote with their feet in choosing where to live. Businesses, too, would invest and bring jobs to communities that provided value.

Regional governments reward inefficiency and discourage innovation by insisting that their component communities “compete on a level playing field.” The reason urban transportation is so inefficient in large cities isn’t lack of cooperation, but lack of competition.

We’d have diversity in government. We have too much government, but too few governments. Public systems work best under a mix of different types of governments instead of a single centralized bureaucracy. We think we need bigger governments to force cooperation in the delivery of services, from tax collection to park maintenance. Instead we need many specialized governments to deliver specialized services, such as Meals on Wheels, the John Howard Society and other knowledgeable nonprofits who run efficient operations that don’t lose sight of their mandate.

Won’t diversity lead to confusion and disorder? Venice, now considered a planner’s dream, grew out of diversity, not out of a greater regional planning board.

We’d save money. Regional governments claim to save money by spreading costs over a larger population and avoiding duplication of services. But there’s no evidence that larger regional governments save anyone any money. If we’ve learned anything over the last 30 years, it’s that big government means more spending, not less.

Citizen participation would flourish. If you don’t believe it, ask the average citizen which level of government takes care of snow clearing, parks and garbage collection. We don’t know because our few governments are too big, too complex and too remote. That destroys participatory democracy. When people feel out of touch with their politicians, cynicism about all politicians grows. What looks messy to planners is really just democracy in action.

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