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London-area population gains mean infrastructure strains: ‘Daunting’

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As the London census metropolitan area’s population shoots 600,000 people, cities and towns have been struggling to keep pace with the growth.

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As the London census metropolitan area’s population shoots past 600,000, cities and towns have been struggling to keep pace with the growth. LFP’s Jack Moulton spoke with some local mayors to identify the pain points and what’s being done about them.


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LONDON

The heart of the census area, not surprisingly, is also the seat of its population. Of the region’s 567,539 inhabitants in 2021, the City of London was home to 422,324, representing a 10 per cent increase from five years earlier.

Spread over 400-square kilometres, London was better positioned than most of its neighbours to accommodate the growth. But being the landing spot for most newcomers to the area has put a strain on housing, says Mayor Josh Morgan.

“We know that we have affordability challenges the way that housing prices and rents have escalated,” he said. “When you’re building faster and faster than you ever have, and yet demand continues to go up and up, this is a challenge that is very difficult to get ahead of.”

Morgan applauded Queen’s Park and Ottawa for stepping up with money not only for housing, but for the water, sewer, and road connections to make new housing possible, something he says is critical to the equation.

Using some of those dollars, the city is looking to open up new space for housing, whether its in former office spaces, downtown parking lots, closed schools, or vacant city-owned lands.

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ST. THOMAS

Between 2021 and 2023, the London census metropolitan area (CMA) added nearly the equivalent, population-wise, of a whole new St. Thomas, more than 40,000 people.

But the second largest city in the region also has a special circumstance that likely will trickle down to its neighbours: a $7-billion Volkswagen electric-vehicle battery plant on 600 hectares that will employ 3,000 people.

Mayor Joe Preston says planning ahead of the plant’s expected 2027 opening is important and that’s on top of the growth largely being driven by international students and people moving from the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

“We set forward a very strong plan here in the City of St. Thomas, having to do with housing, jobs, parks, roads, and servicing,” he said. “By following a plan for growth, we’ve made it far more organized than just letting the growth happen.”

The city is launching a new strategic plan this year, and has reached an agreement with neighbouring Central Elgin and the province that would allow Central Elgin to turn the grounds of former St. Thomas Psychiatric Hospital into housing.

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STRATHROY-CARADOC

The largely rural municipality of Strathroy-Caradoc is home to several smaller centres including the town of Strathroy, Mt. Brydges and Melbourne. It’s become a popular destination for new residents, including some migrating from London.

Mayor Colin Grantham said rapid growth is good and bad news for the municipality. Growth can attract industry but also strains roads, water, and sewer systems, the upgrading of which may require a steep investment from a small tax base.

“When you look at all the small towns, I’ve got to talk about Mt. Brydges,” he said. With the increased traffic, “now, you’ve got to widen the roads, you’ve got to put in stoplights, crosswalks,” he said. “It just brings a lot of inherent challenges, which are more amplified” in a smaller community.

Strathroy-Caradoc is looking at reviewing its own planning, as well as development charges to help pay for some of its networks.

SOUTHWOLD

Bordering St. Thomas and Central Elgin, Southwold is a rural township along Lake Erie of roughly 5,000 people. Mayor Grant Jones says his township, home to several villages, has grown by nearly 10 per cent over the last few years.

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He believes “once this housing market comes back to life” as interest rates fall, it’s possible for the township to double its size in the next decade. Southwold has had to bring on more staff to handle planning and infrastructure issues such as power and sewer systems.

Jones said Southwold lacks the electricity capacity it needs to develop its industrial lands, and a wastewater plant for Fingal and Shedden will cost around $30 million.

“It’s daunting. There’s a lot of money flowing right now and hopefully the province and feds can help kick-start some of that,” he said. “Because for a population of about 5,000 . . . those are some very large numbers.”

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LONDON CMA POPULATION ESTIMATES

(The London census metropolitan area includes London, St. Thomas, Strathroy and parts of Elgin and Middlesex counties)

2019: 548,743

2020: 559,067

2021: 567,539

2022: 586,059

2023: 608,343

Source: Statistics Canada

jmoulton@postmedia.com

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