Metropolitan government is a form of REGIONAL GOVERNMENT. It may be used in urban centres with a population over 100 000, known in Canada as CENSUS METROPOLITAN AREAS (CMAs). The modern concept of metropolitan government originated in the US in the early 20th century as an attempt to devise municipal institutions to cope with urban growth.
The classic dilemma for municipalities in a CMA is that area-wide concerns are not met by policy-making institutions of similar scope. There are 3 basic problems. Policy co-ordination among local units of government is difficult in land-use and transportation planning, and decisions made in one local community will frequently have detrimental consequences for its neighbours. Policy inequities result because each municipality provides services based upon its own tax base (see MUNICIPAL FINANCE); only those suburbs with extensive industry can provide high-level services with low residential taxation, and normally the core city is hard pressed on both counts. Policy accountability is fragmented because the numerous municipalities grapple with individual problems but no one unit of government is responsible for the well-being of the complete metropolitan region.
The idea of federation was central to proposed reforms. Municipalities would be united to provide specific common services by delegating that authority to a new level of metropolitan government but would otherwise remain autonomous. The first steps to metropolitan governance were usually intermunicipal co-operative agencies (often known as special-purpose districts) created to provide public transit, water or sewerage treatment plants and distribution networks.
The creation of Metropolitan Toronto in 1953 was an important breakthrough for North American metropolitan government reform. Acting on the recommendation of the Ontario Municipal Board, the province federated the city of Toronto and its 12 suburbs as a metropolitan corporation. The existing municipalities retained their separate existences and a portion of their councillors also served as metro councillors. The metropolitan corporation assumed a wide range of regional functions that have increased over the years. In 1966, in a comprehensive reorganization, the number of municipalities was decreased to 6 and in 1988 the metro councillors became directly elected. These 7 local governments were amalgamated by the province into one city of Toronto beginning 1 January 1998.
Metro Toronto served as the model for the regional governments of Ottawa-Carleton (1969), Hamilton-Wentworth (1974) and the metropolitan corporation of Greater Winnipeg (1961-71); however, in Winnipeg the metro council was directly elected and its responsibilities fewer. Both the Montréal and Vancouver CMAs have metropolitan governments although they, too, are less well developed than the Toronto system (1953-97) was, and Vancouver is technically based upon a system of special-purpose districts. Winnipeg (since 1971), Calgary and Halifax (since 1996) each have one municipal government largely co-terminous with the CMA.
Metropolitan governments always seem to be the subject of some sort of ROYAL COMMISSION. This is because the basic problem with metropolitan government in Canada has been that it is a political compromise. Few governmental responsibilities were transferred entirely to the new level. For example, metropolitan governments would sell water wholesale to municipalities, which were responsible for local deliveries; build freeways, although municipalities controlled local roads and parking; issue area-wide plans, but leave municipalities the power to issue building permits and make the water and sewage connections. Tension results whenever the 2 levels of government are in competition with each other; sometimes urban development is seriously hindered. The conflict became so severe in Winnipeg that after the usual official studies, the provincial government was forced to abandon the metropolitan approach in favour of unitary government.