Dom George is the on-air producer for The Country.

Dom 'Furious' George - are rural towns becoming ghost towns?

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Economist Shamubeel Eaqub has said regional towns are facing "death by a thousand cuts".
Economist Shamubeel Eaqub has said regional towns are facing "death by a thousand cuts".

While comments on last week's column suggest not everyone's convinced there's an urban/rural divide in New Zealand, there can be no arguing against rural depopulation.

The Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners has revealed this week nearly half of the country's rural GP's intend to retire over the next decade. And that void is unlikely to be filled either.

The whole country faces a GP shortage, due in no small part to the fact there were fewer GP's trained in the early 1990s, effectively creating a "missing generation" of General Practitioners.

Those that do complete the minimum of 11 years study are unlikely to set up shop in a country town for a raft of reasons, hence the projected decline.

So what is keeping doctors and other young professionals from opting for an idyllic country existence? The answers are legion.

For a start, if a GP did decide to put his or her skills to use in a country out-post, the doctor's significant other is unlikely to strike a raft of employment opportunities, such is the decline in the number and range of jobs to be found in small town New Zealand.

As economist Shamubeel Eaqub said recently, regional towns are facing "death by a thousand cuts".

Westpac's proposal to close up to 19 branches, primarily in rural towns, is indicative of a wider issue.

Eaqub says rural populations and their businesses are ageing, driving young people to urban centres and making smaller towns less of an attractive proposition for others to move there.

He says choosing to live in such places is essentially choosing to "live off the grid". The stark nature of that comment is further enhanced when consideration is given to the inadequate nature of rural broadband.

As Kerikeri GP Dr Chris Reid pointed out this week, "it's about roads and connectivity".

Of course a declining population means a continuing hike in rates to keep whatever infrastructure a town may have up and running.

Add to that the increasing cost of compliance and regulations for those that want to farm the land, which in some cases are becoming so prohibitive they're what Professor Jacqueline Rowarth calls "punitive".

You may remember the Tokoroa GP who made international headlines after offering a $400,000 salary and a slice of the business back in February, including three months annual leave, following a fruitless two-year search for a junior doctor?

He had no takers then and a report three months ago revealed the position still hadn't been filled!

Solutions are few and far between and we may have to accept the inevitability of rural depopulation. Massey University Professor and demographer Paul Spoonley has recently said provincial New Zealand has to accept its in decline and then work out how to manage it. He says Taranaki will be one of the first provinces to reach a tipping point, where over 65's will outnumber those aged under 14.

I look forward to the usual feedback on this topic. No doubt some will argue against rural depopulation, many will by and large miss the point and head off on tangents, and the more dim-witted will simply read the bits they want and discount the rest - I love you all.

- The Country

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Dom George is the on-air producer for The Country.

Dom is Jamie Mackay's reluctant sidekick and long-suffering verbal punching bag. When he's not being abused at work he's being abused at home by his wife and kids. His cheery disposition is further enhanced by the fact that he has to get up at 4 am every day to host The Country Early Edition on Radio Sport. (5-6 am Tue-Sat). Tune in...if you dare.

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