Sunday, 27 July 2014

Forget 'zombie towns', there's entire 'zombie districts' coming to a rural area near you

In the NZ Herald last Sunday, Bernard Hickey looks at the possibility of depopulation in New Zealand. He quotes this Royal Society of New Zealand report:
Some territorial local authorities will have increasing difficulty in maintaining service levels for an ageing and possibly dwindling population, not to mention burgeoning numbers of visitors and tourists.
Hickey says:
Councils will have to make difficult decisions to return tarseal roads to gravel, turn off town water and let parks return to bush... Anyone buying property in places such as Wanganui, Gisborne, Whangarei and Greymouth should look at their area's population projections before putting deposits on houses or office buildings.
But forget future 'zombie towns', there's entire districts that are already depopulating, and that trend is only going to increase. Consider this Treasury Guest Lecture (PDF) given by my NIDEA colleague Natalie Jackson. Between 2006 and 2013, the population of the Gisborne Region declined (all other regions increased in population), and the population of 20 of the 66 territorial authorities declined.

And this isn't a new phenomenon either. Consider these examples [*]: between 1964 and 1984, Patea (in Taranaki) declined from a population of 2,040 to 1,928; Raetihi (in the central North Island) declined from 1,390 to 1,247; Taihape (the gumboot capital of the world!) declined from 2,800 to 2,586; and Runanga (on the West Coast) declined from 1,720 to 1,264. By the 2013 Census, the populations were 1,098 for Patea, 1,002 for Raetihi, 1,512 for Taihape, and 1,023 for Runanga (excluding neighbouring Rapahoe). So, those rural towns have been in decline for a long time.

And there's more to come. Bill Cochrane and I have been working on population projections for the Waikato Region. Of the ten component territorial authorities in the region (excluding Rotorua District, of which a little bit is in the Waikato), all but Waikato District and Hamilton City are projected to peak in population and begin to decline sometime between now and 2063. Three of them are projected to experience immediate and sustained decline in population (Otorohanga, South Waikato and Waitomo Districts). Moreover, South Waikato District is projected to decline in population in even the most optimistic high scenario (the other two increase slightly in population in the highest scenario).

We saw something similar when we did projections for the Bay of Plenty region earlier in the year (see here, PDF). Of the six territorial authorities in the Bay of Plenty, only Western Bay of Plenty District and Tauranga City are projected to avoid any population decline, and three of the other four (Kawerau, Whakatane, and Opotiki Districts) are projected to experience sustained decline. See for example Kawerau:

Maybe it's not all bad news though. Population decline could just be a slow-burn version of the collapses that lead to a redistribution of towns and cities to more preferable locations. And there is lots to learn from population decline, which hasn't been investigated nearly as much as population growth. Natalie Jackson is leading a multi-disciplinary team in a Marsden-funded research project to further explore these issues, by identifying, classifying and modelling the mechanisms and thresholds of subnational decline. Bill Cochrane and I are both contributing to this project, through which we hope to be able to better project population decline and when and where it might begin.

Will that help local councils that are trying to arrest population decline and encourage more people to live in their jurisdictions? Unfortunately it's unlikely to help much - these councils are largely engaged in a zero-sum battle for future population. If one council comes up with a new 'sure-fire' attractor of new migrants, then other councils will quickly copy it. It's a Tiebout competitive race-to-the-bottom at the subnational level, that none of them can 'win'. Absent any sudden shift in economic fortunes (like the shale oil boom that has led to massive increases in population in North Dakota), future subnational population growth in New Zealand will most likely continue to be concentrated in the major cities, particularly in the golden triangle of Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga.


[*] These figures are taken from the New Zealand Official Yearbooks for 1965 and 1985. It's pretty cool that these historical treasure troves are all freely available online.

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