Northland should avoid becoming a "mini Auckland" and needs to develop an articulate voice to central government to improve the region's dismal infrastructure, says the chief executive of Auckland Chamber of Commerce. Michael Barnett talks to Christine Allen about Northland's evolving relationship with its big neighbour and how the North can learn from Auckland's mistakes.

"Northland is not a subservient economy to Auckland. It needs to stop calling itself the poor relation."

Barnett says the region should avoid comparing itself to Auckland and change the language it uses when discussing the dynamics between the two, but instead should leverage on the relationship it has with the region that has the "luxury of scale".

The head of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce is MC for the Business Mix in Whangarei on May 25, a business leadership conference organised by the Northland Chamber of Commerce.

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The Forum North event is an inaugural event featuring speakers such as Olympian rower Rob Hamill, Vodafone CEO Russell Stanners and NZME's chief strategy officer Sarah Judkins.

The conference is relevant, says Barnett, as growth and change requires strong leadership.

But leadership requires one, articulate voice, something Northland is lacking, he says.

"Northland also needs to make a conscious decision to leverage off its proximity to Auckland.

"And Northland can learn from Auckland's mistakes.

"Northland has the luxury of seeing where Auckland has screwed up. The region can leapfrog over those mistakes and get ahead or keep up, without going through the same pains."

One example is Auckland's development of homes without supporting infrastructure.

It could also learn from the Supercity around supporting unemployment initiatives.

"We place around 1000 people, unemployed and new migrants, into jobs each year, through our partnership with government and the help of a network of 4000 people, such as employers."

Mini-Auckland
In growing, especially thanks to the influx of Aucklanders, Northland needs to avoid becoming a mini-Auckland or "commoditising" its tourism offering to look like urban counterparts.

"People come to Northland for the environment, the humanity and the customer service.

"Often, they want to get away from the cities, from Auckland. Northland needs to stay true to its persona and learn to embrace its difference and look for those gaps that it can cater to."

The Auckland Chamber has around 5000 members, mostly SMEs (small and medium sized industries), but operates as more than a membership organisation.

"It's about networks, connections. We have thousands more that we work with, who want to back us and our advocacy and projects. Northland can develop more networks into Auckland."

The region could leverage off its proximity to Auckland by continuing to market itself as a solution to the city's congestion, offering cheaper land for companies to relocate.

"This would also allow the North to soak up the skills base from Auckland, which would benefit the region."

He says the region could utilise "the power of us", with the business community working together and agreeing on goals and priorities, such as access to the region.

"If it's going to be 10 or 15 years before access and transport is improved, Northland needs to have one voice that says, 'that's not good enough'. Agree on one narrative around that, get together and just go for it."

Auckland was hearing strong messages from Northland's Chamber of Commerce, and from politicians.

"Think what you will of him, but Shane Jones is Northland's best advocate right now. He's showing the rest of NZ that Northland does things differently.

"The voices of politicians are only as strong as the voices of those who approach them for support," he said.

Northland is lacking in private sector voices and must shake off the "poor cuzzy" attitude, opting for language that supports the region's goals.

Infrastructure tension
Recent announcements from central government, favouring major investment into Auckland's transport network, over Northland's, was a sign of a poor funding model, he says.

"Auckland is playing catch-up after 40 years of deficit in leadership. But it comes down to the funding model for infrastructure, that needs to change.

"Local government can either have assets, or infrastructure. Local governments across NZ own $115 billion of assets, yet those council can't afford basic infrastructure.

"We need to be asking, do councils need port shares over roads?"

Public/private arrangements and toll roads were options and he says he is confident that the Labour-led government would deliver some alternative models.

However, he said the recent fuel tax in Auckland was a "waste of time" as it didn't encourage a change in behaviour.

Northland's growth is all about leadership, says Barnett.

The upcoming conference was focusing on strengthening the region's leaders, so a louder voice could be heard.