The City of London is currently reviewing the structure of advisory committees. I joined the Advisory Committee on the Environment (ACE) in 2012 and the London Advisory Committee on Heritage (LACH) in 2019, and served as chair of ACE in 2015, 2016, and 2019. During my service on ACE to date, the committee proposed successful initiatives such as establishing London as a pollinator city, bringing forward a dark-sky policy (which evolved into bird-friendly development in conjunction with two other advisory committees), and officially declaring a climate emergency. When I first joined ACE, advisory committees were described to me as having three roles in providing advice to city council:
- Produce suggestions about policy changes and introduce new ideas;
- Receive items from city council for review and input; and
- Act as a contact point for the public to bring forward their ideas and concerns.
The first role has been in full force during my experience. Committee members work with city staff to produce reports that reflect the desired outcome of the concept along with any restrictions of existing legislation at all levels of government. Much of our collaboration with staff have resulted in stronger ideas being put forward, and even strengthening existing programs that were in need of review.
The third role has been used effectively to introduce ideas such as joining the Compact of Mayors and establishing London as a Blue Community, which have been accepted by city council to varying degrees.
Unfortunately, in the over eight years that I’ve been serving on advisory committees, never has the second role taken place. City councillors can’t possibly have both breadth and depth of knowledge to address all of the issues faced by modern society. Having advisory committees act as a resource for knowledge about a diversity of topics is a boon to how a city acts and operates. Council needs to make better use of advisory committees as such. These committees are not deterrents to how decisions get made: in my experience, ideas put forward by advisory committees are taken seriously and considered by councillors. While not every concept gets accepted in the end, the fact that citizen advisors are able to have input into the direction of city policy means we have a strong democracy.
A very recent example of advisory committees going underutilized was at Tuesday’s council meeting. The recommendation was put forward (and ultimately failed) to change the tree preservation bylaw, in an effort to increase conservation of our urban forest by requiring a permit for cutting down trees of diameter 40 cm or larger instead of the current 50 cm minimum. The Trees & Forests Advisory Committee was not even consulted on this. Had they been, perhaps the experts on that committee would have given their insight and aided staff in producing a business case for the change.
There are many problems with the proposed new framework for advisory committees. While I could comment on all of them, I will instead focus on the two committees that I work on: Advisory Committee on the Environment (ACE) and London Advisory Committee on Heritage (LACH).
The proposal is to combine the current ACE with the Trees & Forest Advisory Committee (TFAC), and rename it to deal with “climate change” shows how those involved in this reformation process do not understand what these committees do. We are (supposedly) “The Forest City” – wouldn’t we want to ensure our city can proudly live up to that moniker? London is sadly underforested and would benefit from TFAC continuing as its own entity.
Adding trees to the ACE mandate would make the committee quite unwieldy: ACE already deals with how to protect the natural environment (pollution of the water, air, & ground; species at risk; impacts on nature and human health) and the built environment (sustainable development; renewable energy; impacts of active transportation and transit), on top of the climate emergency. As it is, ACE should perhaps be split into two separate committees!
Combining these two committees would be like combining the Ministry of the Environment with the Ministry of Natural Resources. It sounds like they deal with the same thing on the surface, where the mandates and city departments connected are a lot more diverse.
We have a similar nonsensical combination with LACH and the Agricultural Advisory Committee (AAC), and turning it into a planning advisory committee. LACH already has agendas that can reach upwards of 700 pages, and is required by provincial law to provide advice on heritage issues. It also has a massive mandate and doesn’t need anything further to dilute the focus of the committee.
If there is a feeling that AAC isn’t being effective, it may find a better home with another committee that deals with planning issues, or needs a broader mandate.
A dry spell
All of this is also occurring during a global pandemic, which has prevented the majority of the committees from meeting starting mid-March. It wasn’t until August when LACH started meeting again, and that was only because there were legislative items that required addressing. Why weren’t all of the other committees asked to start meeting again in September? October? Now that we know how to run digital meetings, it should be easy enough to allow anybody to join the committee meetings.
Having digital capacity should also allow for more participation across our community. It removes the undue burden of requiring physical attendance, which presents a problem for many with mobility issues, lack of transportation options, or caregiver responsibilities.
While a review is welcome and needed on occasion, it has to be done with thoughtfulness toward consideration for how to best engage citizens and produce appropriate policy for our city. Let’s make sure we don’t end up losing out in a blind attempt to save a few pennies.
This article is also featured as part of the Urban League of London’s series on reforms to London’s advisory committees.