Regional Districts – Looking Back Over 25 Years (Plus) of Regional Government Services

In 1964, the year the Beatles released “A Hard Day’s Night”, the Municipal Act of British Columbia was amended to authorize the incorporation of regional districts to enable a form of local government for persons living outside municipal boundaries who wished to have a mechanism to establish services and to allow for land use control at the local rather than provincial level.

Between 1964 and 1967, 28 regional districts were incorporated covering most of the province, with the exception of the extreme northwest.  Municipalities were included as participating members of the regional districts, but maintained their own corporate autonomy.  The areas outside municipal boundaries were divided into electoral areas, which were given letter designations although, in some jurisdictions, the letter designations were supplemented by formal names for the electoral areas.

Originally, regional districts were granted authority to operate services through letters patent which would confer on the regional district the essential authority for the service, would typically provide for a mechanism of recovering costs for the service, and then refer by cross-reference to sections of the Municipal Act for the purpose of conferring regulatory powers on regional districts.

That model endured for approximately 20 years.

When a regional district wished to undertake a new service, it was obliged to apply to the Lieutenant-Governor in Council for supplementary letters patent setting out “further objects, powers, obligations, duties, limitations and conditions”.

The service powers of regional districts were fundamentally altered in 1989.  Regional districts were given a list of services that they could undertake on behalf of residents of the regional district, with different rules to apply to the establishment of different types of services, and no longer needed to apply to Cabinet for supplementary letters patent to take on new services.

Regional district services at the time were grouped into three categories – general services, local services, and extended services.  General services included both general administration and electoral area administration, as well as the service of management of development services (“planning”) under Part 29.

“Local services” encompassed those services that typically involved infrastructure and assets, such as sewer systems, water systems, landfills, community parks, recreation systems, libraries, street lighting and television rebroadcasting or closed circuit television.

“Extended services” were essentially regulatory services such as animal control, nuisance control, soil deposit and removal regulation, building inspection, building numbering and emergency planning.  These services did not generally require the regional district to borrow money or acquire assets.

The one exception to this was the service of regional parks, a service that had been carried out at the time under the Park (Regional) Act.

In addition to the shopping list of services set out in the Municipal Act, the Lieutenant-Governor in Council retained authority to grant additional service powers to regional districts.

With the Local Government Statutes Amendment Act, 2000, SBC 2000, c. 7, which came into effect August 30, 2000, the Province again revamped the authority of regional districts, and a new approach for the new millennium allowed regional districts to establish any service considered to be “necessary or desirable for all or part of the regional district”.

The shopping list of “general”, “local” and “extended” services were also replaced by the current model in 2000, providing regional districts with “regulatory services” and services that are not “regulatory services”.  If there was a “real” Y2K bug, it may lie in trying to decipher the definition of “regulatory service” that the legislation introduced.

Regional planning vanished in 1982, dying with the last days of disco, to be replaced with authority for regional growth strategies in 1994, a watered down but still sometimes contentious approach to the big picture of coordinating growth between various jurisdictions.

Other significant amendments over the past 25 years include broad powers to enact regulatory bylaws that distinguish between classes of people, places and activities, properties or things (s. 796.2, Local Government Act) and significant expansion to the corporate powers to contract and delegate found now in section 176 of the Local Government Act.  Fax machines and VCRs have come and gone since 1988, but regional districts have come a long way in 25 years and seem to be here to stay.