Regional Districts in B.C.

The local government system in B.C. is unique in Canada. In addition to its 162 municipalities, it is composed of 27 regional districts. Regional districts in B.C. range in population from under 4,000 to over two million, and range in size from 2,000 to 119,337 square kilometres.

Regional districts are modeled as a federation composed of municipalities, electoral areas, and in some cases, Treaty First Nations, each of which have representation on the regional district board.

The boundaries of the regional districts span nearly the entire geographic area of the province. Each regional district is divided into smaller areas called electoral areas (mostly rural).

History of Regional Districts

Regional districts arose out of a need for greater regional cooperation and equitable cost-sharing between municipal areas and rural areas.

Rapid urbanization in the 1950's caused development in rural areas, with residents commuting to urban centres for work. Development in the rural areas increased demand for services such as water, sewage and zoning.

By 1965, the Province amended the Municipal Act to enable the creation of regional districts. Originally, the powers and services of the regional districts were quite limited; however, as regional districts became more established they were granted more power by the B.C. government.

Today regional districts help achieve regional economies of scale, and provide flexible service arrangements in which residents only pay for the services they receive.

Regional District Roles

Regional districts have three basic roles. They provide a political and administrative framework to:

  • Provide region-wide services such as regional parks, and emergency telephone services such as 911
  • Provide inter-municipal or sub-regional services, such as recreation facilities where residents of a municipality and residents in areas outside the municipality benefit from the service
  • Act as the general local government for electoral areas and provide local services such as waterworks and fire protection to unincorporated communities within the electoral areas

One of the critical elements of the local government financial system is regional-joint-and-several-liability, whereby the debenture debt of one municipality or regional service is essentially guaranteed by the entire regional district. This is achieved through a regional district security issuing bylaws, whereby all municipal and regional debenture debt is done under the authority of each of the province’s 27 regional district.

Regional-joint-and-several-liability ensures that if a municipality ever defaults on a debt payment, the broader regional district (including the defaulting municipality) will cover the debt payments. This provides greater assurance against default risk to bond holders and helps support the Municipal Finance Authority’s AAA credit rating.

Regional District Governance

Regional districts are governed by a board of directors composed of a director elected from each electoral area and one or more directors appointed from the elected council of each municipality and from a Treaty First Nation (if any), based on the population of the jurisdiction represented. The municipal and Treaty First Nations directors serve on the regional board until the appointing body decides to change the appointment. The directors from the electoral areas serve for a four-year term.

Regional districts are a unique form of regional government in Canada, as the member municipalities “lend” authority to the regional-scale government, rather than being “under” its authority. The appointment of municipal and Treaty First Nation (if any) directors ensures that those governments play a critical role in determining how local services will be financed, even when delivered by a regional or sub-regional partnership through the regional district.

Regional district board of directors make decisions by voting. There are two types of votes:

  1. Weighted votes - board directors representing densely populated areas have more votes than those board members representing less densely populated areas.
  2. Unweighted votes- each director on the board has one vote.

In general region-wide issues are decided by unweighted voting, while budgetary matters are decided using a weighted vote.

Sometimes the discretion of a board of directors may be constrained by the need for input or approval from the electors or the Inspector of Municipalities before, for example, a bylaw is adopted. Regional Districts are also subject to the jurisdiction of bodies such as Ombudsperson, the Information and Privacy Commissioner and the courts.

The regional district board of directors has a close working relationship with the administration of the regional district which provides professional advice to the board and implements its direction. Key administration members are the chief administrative officer and the required statutory officers (corporate officer; financial officer).

Regional District Powers & Services

Regional district powers come primarily from the Local Government Act and Community Charter.

Regional districts are obligated to provided very few services, including emergency management, planning for regional solid waste management, and governance for electoral areas. Regional districts have no role in roads and policing, as these services are municipal or Provincial responsibilities.

Regional districts can and do choose to provide a broad range of services with the support of the electors or taxpayers. It is often said that regional districts can provide the services that their participants are prepared to pay for. The breadth of services therefore varies with each regional district according to its circumstances and local opinion. This is possible because the geographic boundaries of each service can be customized to match the area that benefits with the area that pays.

Regional District Planning

Regional districts are able to regulate land use and development in electoral areas using generally the same planning and land use management processes and tools available to municipalities, including zoning and official community plans. Regional districts differ from municipalities as regional districts do not have a direct role in approving subdivision of land (a Provincial responsibility in non-municipal areas).

Regional districts may play a role in region-wide planning by developing a regional growth strategy that links or coordinates the otherwise independent planning and land use regulation choices of the member municipalities.

Local Government Infrastructure

In places where regional districts provide services such as water and sewer, they own the infrastructure and are responsible for maintaining it. While most of a regional district’s infrastructure is located in communities that are not incorporated as municipalities, there are a few instances where the regional district is responsible for municipally-based infrastructure.

Regional District Letters Patent

The B.C. government can change the boundary of a regional district and its electoral areas by amending the letters patent, typically after a locally-based restructure process. Learn more about:

Local Government Support

The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing approves certain regional district bylaws. For example, the Inspector of Municipalities is responsible for approving service area establishment bylaws and borrowing bylaws as well as for processing regional district financial requisitions. The Ministry also provides information and other supports to regional district:

  • Local government information
  • Advisory materials
  • Approval on a select set of bylaws, for example long-term capital borrowing and development cost charges
  • Advice on changing boundaries, municipal incorporation, and resolving local government disputes
  • Conditional grants to be used for a specific purpose
  • Unconditional grants to be used for any purpose the local government wishes

In addition, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing may play a role facilitating regional district service reviews and regional growth strategies.