22 Jul 2014

Zombie towns looming, leaders told

7:18 am on 22 July 2014

Local government leaders are being warned they need to own up to the challenges facing rural New Zealand or risk being left with a series of so-called zombie towns.

Shamubeel Eaqub

Shamubeel Eaqub Photo: NZIER

New Zealand Institute of Economic Research principal economist Shamubeel Eaqub delivered a battle cry for change to delegates at the Local Government New Zealand conference in Nelson on Monday.

He warned them a failure to act could leave some communities at death's door, pulling down other, more prosperous, parts of the region.

His research on rural New Zealand's decline has been well-publicised and he made his message to the 550 local body members clear, urging them to use his research as a catalyst for positive change.

"In a moment of time it feels terrible to say one region, one place, might not be there tomorrow, I know it sounds so harsh, but in many ways that's the to and fro of life. It happens. The big thing is how we ensure the people affected by it have an opportunity to make something of it."

Carterton Mayor Ron Mark, challenged Mr Eaqub to provide more detailed localised statistics in order to back up his argument, to which Mr Eaqub replied: "Sir, I'm a consultant. Come and commission some work. We'll do that stuff in time".

But he warned that local governments could not just stick their heads in the sand, Mr Eaqub said.

Economic wealth was unevenly shared in New Zealand, and gaps in economic outcomes and opportunity would get wider if current policies did not change, he said.

"Some places may not be able to go on as they are, and it's about saying, 'what can we do?' and 'what is the cost of not doing anything'? Reticulated water for example. It's very expensive, and may not make sense in a small population, so we can do something different but it has to be fit for the purpose for that particular community."

Tasman Mayor Richard Kempthorne said the issue resonated with his region, with areas of static growth in and around Murchison, Tapawera and Golden Bay, and believed it could be time to start prioritising.

Local Government New Zealand president Lawrence Yule.

Local Government New Zealand president Lawrence Yule. Photo: LGNZ

"What we do have to realise is if there's a static community, then investment in other activities is going to be more limited. Again, when we have that conversation with those local communities, generally there's quite a good acceptance of that," Mr Kempthorne said.

"It does come down to us as a council being quite pragmatic of limitations on spending so we keep rates increases down, and try to reduce reliance on debt."

But Hastings Mayor and Local Government New Zealand president Lawrence Yule said letting certain townships go was not the solution.

"It doesn't make a lot of sense to actually lose those communities and give up on them, when we're a small country and, if we think it through, we can lift everybody's performance," he said.

"Otherwise, we're simply going to let the market determine and these small communities will be decimated."

Central government needed to help local governments to reduce regional inequalities across all of New Zealand, Mr Yule said.