Is bigger necessarily better? How big should London be?
142 couples let London down. That is, the 142 couples who failed to produce a new child this year. If only they’d had that first, second or third child. we could have been number 10. Instead, we are relegated to that ignominious number 11 position in population.
Or perhaps, 142 couples who did have a child should have invested in fertility drugs to encourage multiple births. That could have kept us at number 10.
And it didn’t have to be in London itself. Anywhere in the census tract described by Statistics Canada would have been fine. As long as we could have stayed number 10. We have to be in the top 10.
The previous council took this very seriously. So, apparently, does our current Mayor.
“We need to grow. We held the position of 10th for a long time and I want this city to go up, not down," said London Mayor Joe Fontana according to the London Free Press.
But now, the Kitchener-Waterloo Region has gone and done it. According to Statistics Canada, it has 141 more residents than we do. And we’re no longer in the top ten.
Should we care?
Are we losing residents? And if so, why?
People leave or move to a city for a variety of reasons: jobs, family, and health being chief among them. If people are leaving our region because they lack job opportunities, that is a concern but often reflective of economic factors beyond the control of the municipality.
The recent losses in the manufacturing sector are a prime example of that. The economy appears to be recovering and, coupled with a focussed economic strategy at the local level, should help to allow workers to remain here as well as attract newcomers.
Still, it appears that London is continuing to grow at a slow but steady just under 1 per cent rate. To date, there has been no indication of a wholesale evacuation. Indeed, in a recent address to the London Canadian Club, Craig Alexander, chief economist for TD Bank Financial Group, praised London for its diversified economy and the stability it provides.
What are the benefits of growth?
A larger population has the potential to provide more tax revenues which in turn make it cheaper to provide existing services or to provide additional services. You can spread the cost over a larger base.
Unfortunately, 141 more people don’t necessarily translate into revenues at the municipal level, unless they also buy more houses to be taxed and pay fees at local recreational facilities. That’s why the City is interested in “assessment growth”, the additional property taxes being paid by residents, businesses and industries. Assessment growth has remained well above 1 per cent per year since 2004 despite the recent economic downturn.
And the downside?
It depends on how we grow. If growth occurs on the periphery, toward the Urban Growth Boundary and beyond, the costs of infrastructure- roads, sewers, water- are enormous, as is the corresponding loss of woodlands and agricultural land.
Some of that will be paid by new homeowners through development charges, but industrial development is exempted from that. That means that the rest of the taxpayers have to cover their share. This is certainly a concern when we see the push by the current council to extend servicing to the 401/402 corridor.
There are also the costs of extending services. People in the new subdivisions expect that their development charges, assessments and taxes will go to pay for and maintain a fire station, a library, recreational facilities, snow clearing, public transit and policing in their area, not to give other residents a break on their taxes. And yet, with every budget cycle there is the Council discussion about how much of the assessment growth will be used to keep down taxes.
Of course, if development occurs in an already serviced area such as a downtown infill development or brownfield development, the additional tax revenue can be used to reduce the cost for everyone or to improve the level of service.
Population growth should not be equated with economic growth. Indeed, on a worldwide basis we find the reverse to be true. The countries with the most rapid population growth face the greatest economic challenges.
Currently across Canada, total fertility is approximately 1.5 children per adult female. That is not likely to change in the foreseeable future. We have an aging population with changing needs. To attract newcomers, we will have to recognize that maintaining or increasing our population will depend on immigration and there is no shortage of candidates for that.
In London, although we have introduced policies and programs to welcome newcomers, these have not yet translated into enough job opportunities. Too many newcomers from other countries remain unemployed and underemployed.
When I was first elected to the Board of Control, I was immediately attacked by my colleagues for what they perceived to be my opposition to growth. I merely wanted to know what kind of growth and how much. How do you know when you have grown enough? Is bigger always better? What is the ideal size of a city?
How much better was our city when we were number 10 rather than number 11?
I do have a solution, however, for all those councillors who still haven't figured out what their job is. If every member of council recruited 10 new residents for London, the problem would be solved. We would be number 10 again!
And perhaps one of them could recruit the Mayor and the Ward 9 Councillor to move to London as well. That would indeed be a vote of confidence in our City.
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