One of the key economic themes at the election was getting New Zealand’s regions moving again. For decades a slow, but steady drift of people to the urban areas has been going on. Some how the regions have soldiered on, wondering what it will take to be noticed in the corridors of power. but with living costs in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch getting expensive pushing people out to smaller centres around the country, what is there to help these places get growing again?
The traditional answers have been “lets get dairy projects going – everyone likes dairying” or “lets get services back into these communities, like banks, and so on”.
However the economic boost should be looking at diversifying the product coming out of the regions, rather than further stoking a select few industries. For too long New Zealand has had a habit of focussing on primary industries, that whilst they have given us huge returns on what we have put in, have also come at significant cost. Also, there is a risk that goes with not having spread the proverbial eggs through sufficient baskets – if one collapses and all of the eggs are in it, there goes the economy. New Zealand has its eggs largely in tourism, dairying and a few others. Neither the Labour-led coalition Government of Prime Minister Helen Clark, nor the National-led coalition Government of Prime Ministers John Key and Bill English made sufficient effort to diversify.
But there are ideas as to what could be done. What needs to happen though is a willingness to look outside the quite enclosed box that severely limits our ability to envisage a long term future.
One idea for example, noting that a Chinese company wants to build a Waste to Energy plant on the West Coast, is explore the feasibility of putting the waste that it would consume on rail. It would serve a two fold purpose. Aside from taking more than the equivalent of trucks of waste off the road, it would help pay the for the cost of helping to keep the Otira railway tunnel open.
In East Cape and around Gisborne I note that provisional plans are being put in place to grow marijuana that could be used for medicine in the event that marijuana be legalized. This, again, would help people who might otherwise spend their lives on the dole, or in and out of jail get some legitimate employment. It would also help decrease drug crime in the communities. A similar project could be launched in Northland too, if the demand exists.
In smaller urban areas, where large or heavy industrial or commercial development might not be so feasible, thought should be given to developing niche industries that are specific to those areas. These could be many and varied, ranging from developing ecological and/or historical sites of interest into tourist attractions, to small localized gold mining businesses – mining does not need to be open cast or done in a tunnel, as opportunities for alluvial gold mining are known to exist in places such as the West Coast.
Dunedin is a unique case. Significantly smaller than Wellington or Christchurch and about as large as the Napier-Hastings metropolitan area, it is possible to sometimes feel forgotten by the Government if one lives in the university town. Built on mining in the 1800’s, made world famous in New Zealand by the movie “Scarfies”, and unique for its strong Scottish heritage, Dunedin’s population has until recently either been static or in slow decline. The loss of the Southerner passenger train in the 1990’s, the closure of the Hillside railway workshops and the Cadbury factory closure all cost Dunedin hundreds of jobs. What would it take to get some of these industries back there?