Russell Blackstock is a senior reporter at the Weekend Herald and Herald on Sunday.

Rebooting New Zealand's regions in the shadow of powerhouse Auckland a tricky conundrum

As all the jobs and big-smoke buzz centres on Auckland, the regions are trying to find a way to carry on, writes Russell Blackstock.
Queenstown has known its ups and downs, from the boom of the goldrush days to the prosperity tourists are now bringing. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Queenstown has known its ups and downs, from the boom of the goldrush days to the prosperity tourists are now bringing. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The irresistible magnet of booming Auckland has left many regions outside our biggest city wrestling with a tricky problem.

Hardly a day goes by without news headlines screaming about average house prices in Auckland nudging the $1 million mark - then there's the hype about the inexorable rise of $2m suburbs and how 400,000 more homes will be needed in the next 30 years to cope with newcomers.

It is a story of growth. Lots of it.

The flipside of this success can be felt most sharply in the regions, where zombie towns ravaged by loss of jobs, loss of young people and an ageing demographic struggle to compete with the lure of Auckland's bright lights.

Drive through some rural areas and you'll see abandoned houses, the remains of brick chimneys and fruit trees gone wild - signs of once-thriving communities that have moved on.

A new book published this week Rebooting the Regions argues if many of these communities are to survive they need to stop trying to follow Auckland's rise and accept they are in decline rather than fight it.

Instead, they should have an emphasis on making the most of what they already have and trying to improve the lifestyles and conditions for the people they have left, says author Professor Paul Spoonley, a leading Kiwi demographer from Massey University.

It is predicted 60 per cent of New Zealand's growth will occur in Auckland over the next 20 years.

Spoonley believes "smart decline" strategies - recognising the need to plan for shrinkage - are required to complement "smart growth" initiatives in the regions if they are to survive.

"Some people think we will eventually become an island nation with one huge city and a country dotted with satellite towns," Spoonley tells the Herald on Sunday. "But I think we are actually in danger of turning into what would effectively be three separate countries within a country.

"Auckland will continue to boom, then there will be a few other places which will still attract people and continue to do okay like Wellington, Hamilton, Canterbury and Tauranga.

"But other areas that are already experiencing difficulties such as Northland and the east and west coasts of both islands will suffer further population decline and economic stagnation if more people keep heading for Auckland."

Massey professor Paul Spoonley. Photo / Supplied
Massey professor Paul Spoonley. Photo / Supplied

But why should Aucklanders care about zombie towns or "rebooting" the regions? And in turn why should the regions care about Auckland's problems?

"The Government needs to have a people plan otherwise there is going to be increasing resentment and a strong antagonism towards Auckland from the rest of the country, which is a pretty dire outlook," Spoonley says.

"People in the regions must be sick of hearing about Auckland house prices and success.

"We all have a responsibility to not just keep focusing on growing Auckland at the expense of the hinterland or it will be divisive and bad for us all."

People can feel trapped in these sort of towns.
Paul Spoonley

Rebooting the Regions argues accepting the inevitability of population decline is the first step on the road to addressing the challenges for the communities, towns and cities living in the shadow of Auckland.

But zero or low growth does not have to mean the end of prosperity, Spoonley insists.

"We can learn from countries like Japan and Germany, which have accepted regional population decline by ensuring the sustainability of smaller local populations, rather than trying to reverse the tide," he says.

Spoonley's research reveals about 20 per cent of New Zealand's 67 territorial authorities are experiencing population stagnation and decline. This could more than triple in the next 10 years, he warns.

"We are at the back of the queue internationally when it comes to doing something about rejuvenating the regions," he explains. "In Germany there is a requirement to balance regional development and in the United Kingdom areas such as the Lake District are subsidised for tourism, in the absence of other more traditional economic drivers."

Not every place can be a powerhouse so you have to make the most of the people, skills and assets that are there already rather than pouring money in to a region to try to stimulate growth that just isn't there, Spoonley says.

"Many of New Zealand's rural towns are now experiencing a huge increase in the number of residents reaching retirement age while younger people are leaving and this brings its own challenges.

"Perhaps we should be looking at improving the services already in place, such as health and leisure facilities, in order to meet the needs of the changing or ageing population and make people feel better about living there.

"People can feel they are trapped in these sort of towns as equity in their homes tends to be well below average, which means they can't buy elsewhere.

"No one wants to move there and at the same time the young people feel they have to shift to Auckland for work.

"Often the solutions involve facing up to the fact that decline is inevitable and unavoidable."

The population in Taumarunui is dwindling and shops continue to close. Photo / Christine Cornege
The population in Taumarunui is dwindling and shops continue to close. Photo / Christine Cornege

There are some areas of New Zealand already waking up to the idea that investing in growth alone is not the answer to decline.

Taumarunui in the Ruapehu district has seen its population getting older and the young moving away in recent years. And towns like Tokoroa in the Waikato and Whanganui on the west coast of the North Island have lost between 1000 and 3000 residents in the past two decades.

Ruapehu District Council is doing some much-needed urban regeneration and is asking Taumarunui residents for their views on revamping the very long main street, now dotted with closed shops and buildings.

One thought is to consolidate the main street by putting all the shops together, pull down abandoned buildings and create green spaces.

In its heyday, Kawerau in the Bay of Plenty was a small community that prospered due to the local pulp and paper mill.

The town was founded in 1953. It was purpose-built on the back of a ready water supply from the Tarawera River and a large supply of pine timber from the nearby Kaingaroa forest.

However, in January 2013 it was confirmed nearly half the mill's jobs would be lost, casting a dark shadow across the region.

Kawerau used to have a population of about 8800. This dropped by more than 2000 in the wake of the job losses but this has now stabilised and is even showing a small increase.

The mayor of Kawerau, Malcolm Campbell. Photo / Alan Gibson
The mayor of Kawerau, Malcolm Campbell. Photo / Alan Gibson

Longstanding Kawerau mayor Malcolm Campbell says the town is fighting to stay alive through a number of smart shrinkage strategies.

These include the "Seamless Boundaries" scheme, in which Campbell and Matamata-Piako mayor Jan Barnes worked together to "export" Kawerau workers to Matamata.

Silver Fern Farms freezing works in Matamata-Piako couldn't get enough workers from the area, and Kawerau youth, by contrast, had low life expectations, low self-confidence and high unemployment.

The workers were given housing close to the factory and training to earn NZQA qualifications.

Ninety per cent of the 33 first workers ended up in fulltime employment.

"We didn't want our young people either on a benefit and hanging around the streets or running with the gangs and getting into trouble with the police," Campbell says. "At first some people in town fell out with me over this scheme because they thought I was sending our kids away.

"But a lot of these workers now stay away from home during the week and come back at the weekends, which is good for the community and local economy."

Shoppers in Kawerau. Photo / Jason Dorday
Shoppers in Kawerau. Photo / Jason Dorday

Campbell says other services in Kawerau have been restructured to cater for an increasingly ageing population.

"We used to have just one GP surgery and now we have seven doctors here," he says. "You have to meet the needs of the people who are here and make this still a great place to live."

Down in Clutha near the foot of the South Island, mayor Bryan Cadogan is adopting a similar smart decline approach.

The region's population has been dwindling for more than 20 years, leading to systemic issues including a crumbling housing stock that is scaring people from moving there.

Cadogan and his team launched an initiative called Ready, Steady, Work, a five-week course to prepare young people for jobs and keep them in the area.

Another venture was brought in similar to speed dating - youngsters are introduced to potential employers and have a few minutes to leave a good impression, and hopefully secure a job.

Other incentives to keep people in the area while attracting new workers include land and home packages from just $230,000 in Kaitangata.

"We had three sawmills close down overnight and this left 149 people out of work," Cadogan says. "It was a psychological downer for the area but virtually everyone who was made redundant got another job through our speed dating session with employers in Dunedin.

"Another campaign we ran focused on people having a job, a house and a life in this area. We have had enquiries from all over the world from interested people.

"There is more to life than making money from the Auckland housing market. We want to keep our best people here as well as attracting new workers with skills that will benefit the region.

"This is a great place to live and raise a family and it would be nice to lose our previous 'Clutha sucks' tag."

Although "smart decline" strategies might be the answer to many of New Zealand's regional problems, growth is still not a dirty word in a few areas outside of Auckland that are booming after a previous decline.

Venture Taranaki is a scheme to work with business, individuals groups, media and industry to help businesses in the area thrive and grow.

Hastings District Council is aiming to ban GM crops and animals under its district plan to attract global customers forits food and wine, supported by Pure Hawke's Bay, a food producers organisation.

Strenuous efforts have been made to boost the region by exporting fine wines and food to countries such as China and Australia. Tourism is also a big drawcard.

Hastings mayor Lawrence Yule. Photo / Duncan Brown
Hastings mayor Lawrence Yule. Photo / Duncan Brown

"We have almost reinvented ourselves after falling into decline when the global financial crisis hit a few years ago," Hastings mayor Lawrence Yule says. "We are now not selling boxes of frozen meat and low-quality fruit and instead sit at the high end of the market.

"This is the best time I have seen in 15 years in office. It is not about increasing volume but increasing value.

"People in the area now feel very optimistic about the future and are remaining here - the population has been growing at about 2.5 per cent a year."

Tourism mecca Queenstown is another town that has reinvented itself after previous economic crashes.

There are still visible ruins left over from the boom-and-bust gold and sheep farming era.

Now it is booming again and newcomers are struggling to afford to buy or rent new housing. New supermarkets and mega-shops are springing up - and there are traffic jams.

"Some parts of our community don't wan't any more growth," Mike Theelen, chief executive of Queenstown Lakes District Council, says. "But the reality is Queenstown has an international airport and is attracting an increasing number of visitors from overseas all year around.

"You can't ring-fence growth in a place like this. If we are not in growth, we are in decline."

You have to meet the needs of the people here.
Malcolm Campbell

Although the supercharging of the Auckland economy remains something of a national obsession, Spoonley believes simply trying to replicate this success elsewhere in New Zealand would be foolhardy.

"Decline is generally seen as a negative term, a failure, " he says. "Governments don't see it as a vote catcher and and people instead want to hear about plans for growth and attracting young people."

The overall message is that major demographic shifts are coming to a region near you, Spoonley warns.

"Regions, organisations and business sectors need to revisit their policies and plans to make sure they fit this change."

Rebooting the Regions is published by Massey University Press. Out now, it retails at $39.99.

- Herald on Sunday

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