Streamlining (privatising) resource decisions

A news release this summer from Land and Water BC, which we have posted and annotated in our news stories section, trumpets the elimination of a backlog in applications for water licences. The item claims this achievement clears the path for $1 billion in economic development. What the news release doesn’t talk about is the underlying story: the privatization of resource decision-making.

In fact, the “good-news” news release might very well be bad news. In a recent interview with a Victoria journalist, an LWBC representative claimed the agency has shortened the time for decisions on water applications from an average of about three years to a maximum of 140 days. The representative said LWBC is doing this with no new (in fact, fewer) staff, and no change in the proportion of applications the agency approves.

As our annotation of the news release points out, something has to give: either the agency was the most inefficient body in government before, or they are streamlining their decision-making now. No doubt some increase in efficiency has been achieved, but it is certain that streamlining is a major reason for the new timelines.

Should British Columbians worry? In this case, streamlining is a synonym for offloading: handing much of the work to the applicant. Instead of government staff looking into such matters as impacts of a proposed water licence on water volume, habitat, and health, the applicant is asked to fill out a checklist of questions. This is how LWBC has streamlined its land tenure process (questions like “is there bear habitat within x distance of the desired site?”).

Rather than investigate sites or get expert information from impartial provincial agencies, LWBC relies on the applicant. And with no staff to go out and monitor tenure activity and the impact of tenures on the land–and far too few staff inother agencies to do so, with the huge cuts to those agencies over the last three years–the only way LWBC will find out an applicant has made a “mistake” is if a member of the public complains.

The real message of this news release is that the government is, in effect, privatising more of its functions–as with forestry management, the foxes are, to modify a somewhat risible cliche, expected to not only guard but to take care of the henhouse.

Minister George Abbott says in the release, “We will only grant a new water licence after a comprehensive environmental and technical review that can demonstrate that the water use is sustainable.” This claim rings false. The agency has just plowed through thousands of applications to clear a backlog, and is now making decisions on the hundreds of new applications per year in 140 days. Who is doing these comprehensive reviews? To what standard? Where are the reports for each tenure.

We will be asking these questions over the coming year, as Dogwood Initiative starts to deal more with concerns about water in BC.

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