Letter to Northland:
Stay connected, stay on track, and let large legacy projects complement place-based initiatives
There is no doubt in my mind that communities and regions can influence their own future.
Lots of things surprised me when I arrived here five-and-a-half years ago to take up the role of CEO of Northland Inc, the regional economic development agency.
I quickly discovered that there was more to Northland than beaches, cows and avocados.
Not surprising was the heavy reliance on tourism and primary sector for economic activity.
Beneath the radar was a deep and capable secondary industry - engineering, energy, marine, wood processing and various other manufacturing businesses.
But the region had too many different groups working on economic development and no cohesive plan.
There was no clear roadmap and in 2013, we were still working off a revised 2004 strategy.
On top of that, there was substandard infrastructure.
Connectivity facilitates trade, trade pushes productivity, productivity facilitates higher incomes. Northland was under-connected.
The roads were, and still are, second rate, sea freight routes under-utilised and digital connectivity was dismal. That all constrains economic development and the deficit needed to be addressed immediately.
This is why we worked so hard on the Hawaiki Cable project as we knew this would be a cornerstone to build our regional, national and international digital connectivity.
Northland now has a plan for 99 per cent digital connectivity by 2022 thanks to increased funding into UFB, rural broadband, marae connectivity and addressing mobile blackspots with new towers. This will open up all kinds of opportunities for our rangatahi, new and established businesses alike.
A business case for rail is due any day, which should dovetail to an Upper North Island Supply Chain Strategy designed to get the best out of our ports and connecting infrastructure.
We have a marine industry that's investing and getting stronger, cruise ships on their way, a growing containerised port, and let's see what else comes down the line with Northport having its own plans to service the region's growing export industries.
Māori are also investing in their future with investments and plans across a number of sectors like agriculture, horticulture, honey, forestry, digital, fishing, aquaculture and tourism. They hold the key to addressing our tourism high seasonality and dispersal issues through increased Maori cultural tourism products. Much more can be achieved in partnership.
We need a multi-model approach to connecting Northland; by rail, road, air and sea and yes, let's continue the four-lane highway so we can upgrade that 65km/hr "state highway" between Northland and Auckland.
Rail can reduce the heavy freight dependence on SH1 but all other vehicular traffic, electric, hydrogen or otherwise, has only one route – the road. The interdependence between Auckland and Northland for tourists, locals, commuting, freight and logistics will only increase.
How did we get here?
Central government called for a study but the region had been studied to death.
We met in the middle – a study would happen, but we wanted an action plan afterwards, and we wanted Wellington to stick around to help us implement that plan.
The Tai Tokerau Northland Economic Action Plan is our road map, tailored to the region's needs and strengths. We have achieved so much under that plan already and it will continue to influence what gets done.
Back then, MBIE's Regional Growth Programme had an overall budget of just $11 million.
In spite of that challenging funding environment, we leveraged well and got significant projects rolling.
Fast forward to the $1 billion per annum Provincial Growth Fund (PGF), of which Northland (one of six surge regions) has received over $100m to date - with more to come and you can feel the progress.
The PGF has allowed many of the Action Plan projects to be funded and has provided a catalyst to back-fill and improve the infrastructure deficit.
There has been a noticeable shift in the Action Plan too, with projects moving from feasibility studies and business cases, to planning and implementation. That's a sign of progress. Now we must deliver.
Economic development is a long game and you can't create jobs from fresh air. Projects and programmes must be sustainable and evidence-based.
Some of these are legacy projects – things that will improve the structure of the Northland economy.
We make no apology for starting with an action plan, there was too much inertia. Too many regional strategies are well written and inactive.
The previous Government's regional growth study, the development of an Action Plan and this Government's PGF have catalysed and crystallised projects that were good ideas but lacked funding to get going.
It is time to revisit strategy. Time to reset and rethink about a long-term strategy for Northland's economy – the "why" and "how" for Northland's future. The Action Plan is the "what" and "when".
Sometimes action drives strategy. We learn from doing.
But after the injection of cash that the PGF will bring into a series of strategic projects we need to be thinking about how we leverage those projects in the medium to long-term for the benefit of generations to come.
We must look forward and create a strategy that looks at climate change, sustainability, inclusiveness and diversity – issues confronting us all.
Smart economic development will align profit with progress in these areas. The private sector, innovation and technology have a lot to offer.
Alongside this we need to focus more on place-based approaches for less-advantaged communities.
A place-based approach brings together agencies, funding and resources to develop a co-ordinated, systematic approach to lift a community. Solutions tailored and driven by the community with higher tiers of Government, Maori and the private sector supporting those efforts.
* Dr David Wilson was CEO of Northland Inc from September 2013 until March 31. He remains a member of the Provincial Growth Fund Independent Advisory Panel and will remain working for a time with Northland Inc in a consultancy capacity on major projects.