nettime's_roving_reporter on Fri, 15 Feb 2002 10:40:40 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Lapdogs for developers

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Lapdogs for developers 


The municipal powers we all take for granted as local powers are being
lifted and put into the hands of the World Trade Organization (WTO), an
organization consisting of the largest corporations in the world that
report only to themselves.

Community groups are right to complain about the Ontario Municipal Board
and the way it pre-empts the land-use decisions of municipal councils
while destroying the relative permanence of Official Plans. The OMB used
to pride itself on the way it defended community groups from rapacious
developers and desultory politicians, but no longer. Mike Harris has
restructured and stacked the OMB so it's a lapdog of the developers.

While community groups muster to abolish the OMB, or change its members or
the way it operates, an even more critical threat to communities and local
decision-making is beginning to unfold. The mechanics of corporate
globalization are being arranged to allow companies to challenge the
ability of local councils to zone land, impose closing hours on retail
establishments, and regulate and license services.

Here's the scenario that is emerging. A World Trade Organization panel is
about to recommend that municipal zoning can be a restraint on unfettered
trade. That means that a company that doesn't like the zoning on a
property it wants to buy can complain and provoke a hearing before a WTO

Unlike the OMB, which at least meets locally, the WTO panel will meet in
some foreign location to challenge what the municipal council has decided.
WTO is proposing the same trump card on municipal bylaws that set the
hours businesses are allowed to be open.

It seems far-fetched to think that zoning and licensing in Toronto (or
Barrie) could be upset by a decision of one of the WTO's arms, but that's
what is being discussed in secret meetings in Europe. If you think the OMB
intrudes too much into municipal decisions, just imagine what will happen
if the WTO confirms this approach. It will be the end of local

According to leaked secret minutes, at its meeting in Geneva on October 2,
the Working Party on Domestic Regulations again discussed the draft on
"Restrictive regulations relating to zoning and operating hours." This is
no longer something theoretical -- the WTO has already agreed to a
preliminary draft of the General Agreement on Trade and Services (GATS).

"Municipal zoning and hours of operation will have to pass a necessity
test," says Ellen Gould, a Vancouver-based researcher on international
trade agreements. "That involves being able to prove to the satisfaction
of a WTO panel that the zoning is necessary, and there was not something
else the municipality could have done instead that would have been less
burdensome. As we know, developers are always proposing that there is
something less burdensome that municipalities could do."

Everyone knows developers always want to show that the zoning for their
property is too tough. They frequently want a higher building or more
density than the community or the council is willing to give them. Time
and again, developers have used the OMB to crash through municipal zoning
and Official Plans restrictions. The OMB seems easily convinced that
council-mandated zoning is too burdensome and should be relaxed -- that's
why residents are up in arms about the OMB and are challenging it in the

Making the same kinds of arguments before a WTO panel consisting of
individuals from other countries, probably meeting in some international
venue, won't prove much of a hindrance for large developers. Gould notes
that the new rules could be used not just by international developers, but
also by local developers. The GATS draft agreement lets corporations make
an end run around local decision-making. It's the ultimate nightmare for
local government.

The most radical restructuring suggested for the WTO is putting it under
the United Nations, but the companies have consistently opposed that
change. Municipalities are not allowed to sit at the WTO table to
negotiate, even though it is their interest that is being negotiated away.
Jean Chretien's federal government is party to these negotiations, but as
was seen last year in Quebec, critics of the WTO and GATS are considered
by his government to be criminals and troublemakers.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities has shown considerable interest
in international trade agreements, and perhaps it can begin to grapple
with this issue. Maybe community groups can intervene with their MPs. Time
is of the essence. The WTO has stated it wants the GATS draft agreement
finalized by June.

Yes, community groups are right to complain about how the OMB overrides
local zoning decisions. But an even larger override by the World Trade
Organization now appears to be on the horizon.

John Sewell is a former mayor of Toronto.

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