Masterton expected to shrink

By Teuila Fuatai

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Increased tertiary education opportunities and better employment for young people will stave off dwindling population numbers in Masterton, Mayor Garry Daniell says.

Figures from Stats NZ estimate fewer people will be living in Masterton by 2026 - the year New Zealand's population is expected to reach 5 million.

Last year, Masterton's population stood at 23,500, according to Stats NZ estimates. However only 23,300 people are expected to be living in the district in 13 years.

The overall Wairarapa population is projected to reach 40,820 in 2026, according to Stats NZ - up from 40,630 last year.

Mr Daniell said declining population growth had been a huge problem in much of provincial New Zealand.

"It's been a perpetual challenge."

In particular, limited opportunities in Masterton for school leavers had made it difficult to retain young adults.

"Masterton is seen as a retirement city for many."

But better tertiary education services and increased apprenticeship offers should help young people move into work, Mr Daniell said.

He was cautiously optimistic about the region's future, despite Masterton's projected population decline.

"Things like forestry, fishing and farming have all been operating in positive terms so I'm hopeful that not only the town itself will hold population but also that there will be some increases in the rural areas as well."

A population expert, meanwhile, says high living costs in the capital are likely to push "commuters" into regional centres like Carterton and Masterton - lessening the effect of Masterton's predicted population decline.

Massey University sociologist Professor Paul Spoonley said: "Peripheral towns to major centres benefit from housing affordability issues and lifestyle.

"And so people work in the main centres but live in the smaller centres."

Prof Spoonley warned many of New Zealand's regional areas would struggle in the next 20 years.

"The challenge for regions is how do you keep jobs and how do you keep people?"

More people were looking to New Zealand's largest city for better opportunities - a pattern set to continue.

"Auckland has a big city effect, in that it tends to suck in those people in jobs."

According to Stats NZ, by the time New Zealand's population reaches 5 million in 2026, about 38 per cent (1.9 million) of the population will live in Auckland.

Currently, about one in three Kiwis call the City of Sails home.

He warned that "one industry" towns would face the biggest battle for survival in the next two decades.

Bay of Plenty town Kawerau, which has struggled with high unemployment, job losses and teen suicides, was a prime example, he said.

"When you get job losses and population loss, you lose other services like the local school [and] it becomes a bit of a downward spiral."

Keeping the birth rate high was also important, he said.

Nationally, 61,178 babies were born last year, of which 510 were to Wairarapa mothers.

About 30,000 people died - 415 were from Wairarapa.

But without job opportunities, younger people would be hard-pushed to find reasons to remain in many provincial areas.

And despite predicted increases in immigration numbers, which are expected to help overall population growth, Prof Spoonley warned that regional areas were unlikely to benefit.

"Migrants don't want to go to small-town New Zealand.

"Our focus on migrants is on skilled people, so 60 per cent of our migrants come in the 'skilled and business' categories and they're really big-town people."

One of the biggest challenges facing national population growth was competition from across the Tasman.

Stats NZ senior analyst Kim Dunstan said the mass exodus to Australia was one of the greatest contributors to last year's population growth of just 0.7 per cent - the lowest in 10 years.

And a New Zealand in Profile 2013 report, released last week, predicted growth would continue to slow.

An estimated 4.4 million people were living in New Zealand last year. By 2022, there will be 4.8 million New Zealanders - a growth of 407,000. APNZ

- WAIRARAPA TIMES-AGE

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