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A “myopic focus on farmland protection”?

A “myopic focus on farmland protection”?

Records show government split the ALR with limited evidence, attacked the ALC’s independence, rejected increased protections for Zone 1 farmland, and ignored staff suggestions for consultation.

When the government split the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) into two zones in 2014, there were a lot of unanswered questions. The legislation – Bill 24 – weakened the Agricultural Land Commission’s (ALC’s) mandate to protect farmland in the North, the Kootenays and the Interior, and people wanted to know why. Due to time-limited debate, the opposition could not ask questions, so I wrote to the Minister of Agriculture directly. I wanted to know things such as: What soil quality data did the ministry look at to support dividing the ALR? And how did they incorporate the ALC’s feedback into the bill?

The Minister replied that farmland in the still-protected Zone 1 was more important because it made more money: “This data illustrates that many farm families in Zone 2 are not able to generate as much income as the families in Zone 1.” The minister neglected to say if his staff had looked at soil quality, or what effect the changes might have on B.C. farmland or farm jobs. As for consultation with the ALC, the minister said the bill “was developed by the Cabinet Working Group on Core Review. As a Cabinet committee, this group’s decision-making processes are subject to Cabinet confidentiality.”

Our Freedom of Information legislation, however, says you can’t keep information presented to Cabinet secret once “the decision has been made public,” and my office filed a request for any evidence that went into crafting the legislation. At first we received a heavily-redacted response. We appealed the redactions, and more than a year later we received 551 pages of records.

These documents show just how little evidence there was to support Bill 24. The records also show that:

  1. The bill was designed to weaken the ALC;
  2. Staff considered alternative ways to divide the ALR;
  3. Further protections for Zone 1 were rejected;
  4. The minister said the bill would weaken farmland protection in Zone 2;
  5. Cabinet dismissed the need for consultation;
  6. The ALC was shut out of the discussions about the proposals; and
  7. The government thought the public would support the bill.

 

We have uploaded the records as they were provided to our office and converted them to be fully searchable. Note that some of the records are duplicates.

Some of the key findings from the records are summarized below. Please feel free to contact my office if you believe there are additional themes that deserve attention.

Limited evidence to support changes

The records show that the primary, if not only evidence to support dividing the ALR into two zones, was that farm gate receipts in the South Coast, Okanagan, and Island (Zone 1) made up 85% of the provincial total. Therefore, according to the government, Zone 1 land was more valuable.

The documents also reference a need to “balanc[e] farmland protection with responsible economic development opportunities,” as requested by the premier in the agriculture minister’s 2013 mandate letter. (219) That request, according to a Cabinet submission, grew out of a 2010 review of the ALC. (219) If asked where Bill 24 came from, the minister was told to reference those 2010 consultations and to say he had “heard from a large number of stakeholders about the need for further reform.” (2) However, the 2010 consultations weren’t about dividing the ALR. In fact, the introduction to that report said the province should move away from a “process [that] fosters and perpetuates speculation to the detriment of the ALR.” And the requests of the alleged “large number of stakeholders” are never discussed in the disclosed government records. Farm gate receipt statistics were the primary evidence used to support dividing the ALR, and they appear in all briefing materials and presentations to Cabinet.

No studies of potential effects

The government, under FOI rules, isn’t permitted to sit on factual material, field research, economic forecasts, or feasibility studies, so these records represent the total hard evidence the ministry had to support dividing the ALR. The ministry did not study the potential effects of the legislation on the future of B.C. agriculture. The following is a list of the records I requested to support the ministry’s decision, none of which appear in 551 pages of released material:

“Soil quality data; climate change data; consultations with or considerations of information from soil scientists, climate scientists and food security specialists; any other data the ministry used to support dividing the ALR into two zones; advice recommending against the division of the ALR into two zones; consideration of the ALC Chair’s feedback on the proposed changes; and any projections related to dividing the ALR into two zones with separate exclusion criteria, including changes to the number of exclusion approvals, additional loss of agricultural land, changes to the average asking price for agricultural land, and changes to the number of agricultural jobs”.

It seems as though Cabinet didn’t stop to ask what effect weakening exclusion criteria in Zone 2 would have on food security, our agricultural land base, or B.C.’s agricultural jobs.

Bill designed to weaken ALC’s independence; ALC criticized for “myopic focus on farmland protection”

Minister Letnick said publicly: “What [British Columbians] want is to make sure that we have a strong, independent ALC moving forward for years to come. That's what this bill does.”

But behind the scenes, his ministry and Cabinet had designed the changes to weaken the independence of the ALC. “The ALC will be modernized,” staff wrote, “moving from a slow moving, paper based organization operating independently of the Ministry and government, to a fully digitized operation that is nimble, responsive to its clients’ needs, and fully accountable to the government.” (202)

One of the “Outstanding Issues” the new legislation was supposed to fix was that the “ALC’s legislative mandate, policies and operational orientation are balanced primarily towards farmland preservation, then to the interests of farm families, and only then on allowing for broader provincial economic development opportunities.” (61) Staff lamented that the “ALC’s accountability to government is not well defined, reducing its responsiveness to government policy direction.” (61)

Finally, Minister Letnick was briefed that “the ALC’s myopic focus on farmland protection at the expense of any other considerations” was affecting “the whole province.” (212)

Apparently, the agriculture ministry thought that the ALC, whose purpose was “to preserve agricultural land,” was too focused on preserving agricultural land. A draft Cabinet submission by then-agriculture minister Pat Pimm noted that a consequence of his proposals would be the “reduced operational independence” of the ALC. (220)

I asked Minister Letnick about these records in Question Period in May. Despite the fact that I was quoting government records about what the bill would do to the independence of the ALC, he said I was “just plainly wrong.” Of course that would mean that the agriculture ministry, former minister Pat Pimm, and Minister Letnick’s own briefing notes were also “just plainly wrong.”

The bill was designed in part to limit the independence of the ALC through administrative changes and reporting requirements. If the minister won’t admit it, well, these records have done it for him.

Zones could have been split differently

The records show that alternative ways of splitting the ALR were on the table, including using soil quality to determine what land should be included in each zone. ALR land in B.C. is categorized into seven different classes based on soil quality. A staff member wrote that the ministry would have to work out a way “to include differnet critria (sic) for different land classes and/or regions.” (10) An alternative means of dividing the ALR into zones, perhaps based on soil quality, was presented to Cabinet members. They were given a choice of dividing the zones via a redacted option, or by regions; they chose the latter. (220) The issue of soil quality is seldom discussed in the disclosed records, and it appears Cabinet was committed to a regional approach from the start. Had they been more open to discussion, they might have noted that while 85% of farm receipts are in Zone 1, 85% of the best soil in the ALR (Class 1-4) is in Zone 2.

Changes to better protect Zone 1 were dropped

The government’s initial intention was to include changes to the ALR that would increase protections for B.C.’s “best” farmland in Zone 1. The Minister was told to say that “The landbase that generates 90% of agriculture’s revenues will be far better protected than it is today.” (208) An October 2013 ministry presentation said the changes would increase “Public confidence that BC’s best farmland is protected.” (327) Staff wondered how to “tighten up” protections in the south while they loosened things up in the north. (10)

An undated “Cabinet Concept Paper” attributed to Deputy Minister Derek Sturko, and to be signed by Pat Pimm, said “The province’s best farmland will be further protected,” following a number of proposals that were redacted from the document because they were not adopted. (383) Pat Pimm’s ultimate submission to Cabinet, however, recommended an option that would “Maintain the status quo in Zone 1.” (514) When speaking publicly about the bill, the minister said it was “status quo” for Zone 1.

The ministry likes to say that “Zone 1” is the best farmland in B.C., and these documents reveal they were considering ways to protect it even further. If the ministry thought it was of vital importance to increase protections for agricultural land in the Okanagan, South Coast, and Island – which, as of 2009, have had a cumulative net loss of 63,000 hectares of ALR land (17) – it’s worth asking: who told them to back off?

Zone 2 farmland not-so-protected

Speaking about the bill in the legislature, Minister Letnick said “We have a strong ALR.” However, Pat Pimm’s draft Cabinet submission clearly stated that a consequence of splitting the ALR was “Weakened farmland protection in Zone 2 (90% of the Reserve).” (221)

To consult or not to consult?

A presentation prepared by ministry staff on October 30th, 2013 said that one of the “Outstanding Issues” for the proposed changes was “Consultation.” (115) In November, Pat Pimm’s submission to Cabinet noted that while “Local governments, industry and the public were consulted extensively in 2010 on reform of the Commission,” they “have not been consulted on the specific changes now being proposed.” (222) A December 9th presentation from the ministry said the “Consultation plan [was] TBD based on direction (e.g. key industry stakeholders, UBCM, etc) – December 2013.” (377) That direction, which was presumably to be provided by Cabinet, never came.

Contrary to former Minister Pimm’s 2013 comments, in 2014 Minister Letnick was told to say: “Extensive consultations on reform of both the ALC and the ALR were undertaken in 2010, and since becoming Minister I have heard from a large number of stakeholders about the need for further reform. Further, broad based consultations are not being considered at this time.” (2) The 2010 consultations that Pat Pimm said did not concern the current proposals had suddenly become more than adequate. Minister Letnick did ask his ministry in April 2014 to organize a province-wide consultation, but he later revised his statements to say he would only be consulting with select groups and “reading every letter” he received. In the end, no organized public consultation took place, despite staff’s warnings in 2013 that consultation still needed to happen.

ALC excluded from decisions

If it wasn’t clear by now, the decisions to reform the ALR were largely political. The ALC itself was kept in the dark about the proposals until the very end.

In 2012, Pat Pimm and MLA Bill Bennett contacted the agriculture minister (then Don McRae) to lobby for changes to the ALR. My office requested records going back to 2012; however, the earliest records released were from September 2013, when Bennett’s “Core Review” process officially got underway. (271) The Globe and Mail published a leaked Cabinet document in November 2013 that confirms there was a request to “Modernize the ALC to ensure that government’s priorities for economic development are reflected in ALC decisions.” The leaked document corroborates the timeline provided in the Cabinet documents released as part of this FOI.

The ALC was not involved in the conversation about specific changes to the ALC and ALR until long after the direction had been set by Cabinet. Pat Pimm’s submission to Cabinet in November 2013 notes that the ALC had been consulted “on most of the notions raised in this submission but has not been consulted on the specific changes proposed.” (222) The ALC was brought into the conversation a month later, when “These proposals were discussed with the ALC Chair and Executive Directors on Thursday December 12th,” (389) which the Tyee reports took place via a video conference with ministry staff.

Eleven days after that meeting, ALC Chair Richard Bullock sent his response to the agriculture minister. According to a letter obtained by the Tyee, Bullock said “it is not correct to suggest that the Kootenays, the North and the Interior possess, as regions, lesser agricultural lands.” He further added that the ministry should “collect real data on the ALC’s decisions” – i.e., do some real research – and consult with farmers, stakeholders, local governments, and the ALC before arbitrarily deciding to split the ALR.

Despite the ALC Chair’s objections to the proposed legislation, agriculture ministry staff wrote that “The ALC recognizes that it is with government’s purview to amend the legislation governing their activities, and that the role of the ALC is to carry out its duties within the legislative mandate provided by government.” (3) In other words, the government can do what it pleases and the ALC must follow suit.

Status of ALC Chair

One briefing note for the minister asked the hypothetical question: “Isn’t the real problem at the ALC the staff and chair? Why not just change the leadership? Will the leadership be changed as a result of these proposals?”

The first part of the answer was that the ALC lacked “effective operational leadership,” and that a CEO would be appointed, which had long been planned. (210)

The rest of the answer is redacted. ALC Chair Richard Bullock was fired in May 2015, five months before his term was set to expire. According to documents obtained by the Globe and Mail, Pat Pimm had previously complained in 2012 that he was not able to personally contact Mr. Bullock, prompting him to ask “Who the hell is running the province anyway.”

Government thought public would support changes

The government believed the ALC did “not meet the government and citizen’s expectations on transparency, accountability and service delivery.” (1) The minister was even told to say: “I am confident that British Columbians will support what we are doing regardless of any comments by the opposition.” (2) On the contrary, a 2014 poll found that “71% of respondents believe that laws protecting the ALR should be strengthened or maintained.”

Maybe the government should have done its homework.

Full records available

The records are available in their entirety at the link below. In the interest of transparency, we have included all the records that were released to my office, which means that they include some duplicates. We have also made the records fully searchable. Please feel free to contact my office if you find additional themes that deserve attention. Thank you.

FOI Documents on BC Government's ALR Split (MLA Huntington) by VickiHuntingtonMLA

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