18 Jun 2013

Graeme Easte: Auckland needs population strategy

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Written by: Graeme Easte
Photo: Dean Purcell
Published: The New Zealand Herald – 18 June 2013

Auckland needs a national population strategy to deal with growth, writes Graeme Easte.

Realistically we cannot talk about Auckland in isolation from the rest of New Zealand, says Easte.

Realistically we cannot talk about Auckland in isolation from the rest of New Zealand, says Easte.

Concern about how to handle another million citizens in Auckland has recently become rampant. But much of it has been misplaced into wondering how this could possibly be. The real question is not about whether it will happen but how long it will take. And I would add, what can or should we do about it?

Some have mistakenly seen the extra million as a deliberate policy or goal on the part of council. Far from being the result of an intentional decision to “super-size” Auckland, such strong growth will be the result of the complete lack of a population strategy for the city and the country as a whole.

Barring some unforeseen catastrophe, we certainly will grow from 1.5 million citizens to over 2.5 million by mid century.

Even if Auckland’s population was increasing by only 1 per cent per annum, and growth has never been that slow, we will add another half million by 2042 and a million by 2065. At the other extreme, 2 per cent growth would get us there a lot faster: to 2 million by 2028, 2.5 million by 2039 and 3 million by 2049.

Although Auckland’s growth rate generally averages about 1.5 per cent or a bit more, it has ranged in the last decade between 1.4 per cent and 2.4 per cent.

Auckland has a relatively youthful population (more young people and less elderly) which contributes to a higher birth rate and a lower death rate compared with other parts of New Zealand. This is significant as the rate of “natural increase” (the balance of births and deaths, allowing for increased life expectancy) accounts for about two-thirds of the rise in our population. The other third comes from immigration.

Many people are keenly awaiting publication of the latest Census results on December 3 – but even these will have to be taken with a pinch of salt as there is traditionally an undercount of about 2 per cent. Not that we should get too hung up on the precise numbers – even if they show a slight reduction in growth as some are predicting. The essential point is that whether it takes 25 years or 30 years or even 40, the extra million will happen. And growth will not stop there.

So to the second question – can we do anything about it? I do not for one moment believe that we can or should stop Auckland growing. But I have long advocated exploring options to moderate the pace of growth. Auckland’s problem is not growth or change but constantly struggling (“running hard while standing still”) to keep up with the need for new and enhanced infrastructure and facilities.

Short of putting contraceptives in the water supply we are unlikely to do much about our rate of natural increase – so realistically any policy needs to focus on migration patterns, particularly within New Zealand – the so-called “northward drift”.

Realistically we cannot talk about Auckland in isolation from the rest of New Zealand. We have no national population strategy – though some useful work has been done in the past. Neither do we have a regional development strategy, an essential mechanism for achieving a more equitable sharing of economic and population growth.

Auckland would benefit greatly if we grew a bit more slowly and other regions would gain by having a bit more growth. I have spoken to mayors of several small towns who are particularly concerned to retain or enhance employment opportunities for their young people, and are very interested in these ideas.

The Population Association conference later this month (June 27-28 includes a timely debate: “Does New Zealand need a population policy and if so what should it be?” I plan to take some key findings from that discussion to the Local Government Conference next month in hope of sowing the seeds of a wider discussion among councils throughout New Zealand.

Graeme Easte is a local board member, Auckland Council.

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