Community benefits policy must be at the core of Ontario’s infrastructure investment strategy
Social procurement expands our understanding of “value for money,” beyond the lowest cost to include the broader costs and benefits of our collective purchasing power. That sometimes means “fair trade” or “sweatshop free labour,” but it can go much further. Like buying from companies that hire and promote marginalized workers or take measures beyond regulatory requirements to reduce their carbon impact.
This is not just a “feel good” ethical concern – there are real economic, social, and political consequences of a business-as-usual approach. We see the headlines about economic growth that leaves out too many people, about increasing job precarity, inequality, and distrust of government. We know that the benefits of our collective wealth have not been evenly shared and we need new tools to tackle these challenges.
A community benefits policy is about the smart use of planned infrastructure investments so that they give the greatest possible collective benefits to communities across Ontario. It’s about our public dollars supporting multiple policy objectives at the same time. A community benefits policy for Ontario would encourage government to seize the opportunity presented with every infrastructure project to leverage spending for further benefit to communities. Transit and highway projects, cultural attractions, hospitals, housing developments, and other capital projects – all of these have the potential to create high-quality jobs, training opportunities, community amenities, social enterprise opportunities, and environmental benefits.
So how is this done?
Government simply makes community benefits a condition of a successful bid in the same way that ensuring workplace health and safety is part of the deal. Bidders are asked to provide certain benefits to the local community as part of a larger project. And construction companies have to engage community members in dialogue about how residents can benefit from large infrastructure investments in their neighbourhoods and towns. That way local residents have a say and will see some benefits when a large-scale project transforms their community. From international experience with community benefits, the incremental costs to contractors are modest.*
Why is a community benefits policy a good idea for Ontario?
That’s how much the Ontario government has committed to spending on its 12-year infrastructure plan. With that kind of budget, doesn’t it make sense to ensure major projects are leveraged to train and apprentice marginalized workers, that courier services and catering are provided by social enterprises, and that urban developments incorporate affordable housing, rehabilitated brownfields, or child care centres? The government’s unprecedented infrastructure commitment represents a tremendous opportunity to build more inclusive growth in Ontario.
We’re not starting from scratch here, either. In Toronto, there’s already a Community Benefits Framework for the Eglinton Crosstown project. Under the recently signed Eglinton Declaration, Metrolinx, Toronto Community Benefits Network (a community-labour coalition), the builder (Crosslinx Transit Solutions), and the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development have committed to ensuring that 10% of all trade and craft working hours on the project will be performed by apprentices from historically disadvantaged communities.
And with the 2015 passage of the Infrastructure for Jobs and Prosperity Act, we already have a commitment to the principle of community benefits in Ontario law. ONN and our partners working under the umbrella of Community Benefits Ontario are advocating for the Ontario government animate this principle in policy and practice – at a scale that matches their ambitious infrastructure plan. Community Benefits Ontario has created a proposed policy framework to put this into action.
What have we learned about how to make this work?
There is plenty of evidence that community benefits approaches have already generated positive impacts in Canada, the USA and the UK. For example:
– The Vancouver Olympic Village, where a community benefit agreement was signed between Millennium Developments, a community agency, and the City of Vancouver, led to 120 jobs for targeted inner-city residents and $42 million in procurement to inner-city businesses.
– In Scotland, through 24 contracts with community benefit clauses over 6,700 individuals from priority groups received training and 1000 individuals from priority groups were recruited as a result of the contracts.
– Through a community benefit agreement in Oakland, California, the redevelopment of an old army base resulted in 50% of the workers on the project being recruited from the local community.
Three critical elements
These examples show that community benefit approaches can offer tangible value for communities above and beyond the infrastructure built. They provide real experience from which Ontario can learn. There are three critical elements necessary for community benefits to work:
1. Good policy that includes mandatory language, early setting of targets, and accountability measures, and that applies across government.
2. Effective pathways for workers that ensure contractors and developers have access to a labour pool from which to recruit.
3. Leaders inside and outside government who will drive processes and work with coalitions that can identify and respond to local needs.
Let’s advocate as a sector for the prompt and enthusiastic adoption of the community benefits framework. And let’s take advantage of local opportunities where infrastructure projects are planned to organize as communities and raise the importance of community benefits – whether it’s a new transit line, a bridge refurbishment, or a cultural attraction being built.
Together we can ensure that our government’s large-scale infrastructure investment helps us achieve our broader economic, social, and environmental objectives, at the same time as “building Ontario up.”
* A recent analysis of eight (private sector) community benefit agreements shows that the incremental costs of CBAs range from 0.5 to 2.5 percent of overall project cost for the contractor. (Dina Graser, Community Benefits and Tower Renewal. Evergreen. May 2016. p. 4)