City councillors have passed a policy that encourages Richmond, B.C. business owners to include English text on their signs.

The controversial idea has been on city hall's agenda for a few years, with some businesses accused of alienating potential customers by using signs only in Mandarin, Cantonese or other languages.

Last year's census data shows approximately one-third of the city's 197,255 people consider English to be their first language. While English is the most common mother tongue in the city, 22 per cent said Cantonese was their first language, and 20 percent chose Mandarin.

The number of people who said English was their first language was down nearly 6 per cent from 2011 to 2016.

Approved Monday night, the signage policy was brought forward by the city's manager of customer services and licencing, Carli Edwards.

The policy was drafted following a meeting in June 2016, where council approved a report on a strategy that would encourage use of the English language on all signage.

It is also in response to nearly 600 complaints made to the city from 2015 to the end of the first half of 2017. More than half of all complaints were made this year.

A staff report said the majority of complaints were in relation to real estate signs and signs located on city property.

Many of the signs were removable, enforcement officers used the opportunity to educate business owners on sign bylaws and the benefits of using English.

Tickets were only issued in cases of signs prohibited by the city, and only if owners refused to remove them after speaking with a bylaw officer.

There has never been a bylaw or written policy forcing business owners to use a minimum of 50 per cent English, but city staff members have been going to local businesses for years, educating owners on the benefits of multilingual signs.

The newly approved policy is not a bylaw, and those who continue to use non-English signs will not be penalized. The city said a bylaw isn't necessary.

Instead, what will change is that the informal direction from council to encourage staff to educate business owners on the opportunities of using English will be formalized, put in writing as an official policy.

Having a written policy will ensure that the practice remains over time, as staff and organizational changes occur, the staff report said.

"Staff tell us they've gone out more than a thousand times in the last three to four years," Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie said at Monday's meeting.

"100 per cent success. They've always been successful in persuading the people they should have some English."