Although the majority of New Zealanders have lived in towns and cities for almost a century, it sometimes seems like we’re in denial that we live in an urban nation. This unease came to the fore during the debate over the Auckland Plan and the Unitary Plan. As it turns out, some people are uneasy about Auckland’s emergence as a large and increasingly sophisticated city.
At that time, the NZ Herald published several articles calling for a “national population strategy” to forestall further growth in Auckland. Here’s one example from May 2013:
Redirecting people away from settling or living in Auckland would be a positive step. A good example is in Invercargill where students pay no fees. The fees at Auckland learning institutes should be increased and those elsewhere removed or reduced significantly.
As so much of the population increase is likely to come from an increase in births, a decrease is urgent. Incentives need to be provided such as free contraception, especially to those under 20 years of age. The provision of family benefits regardless of whether you have two or 10 children should be looked at.
Here’s another one from June 2013:
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.
This is a seductive idea, but it won’t work. Developing policy to redistribute growth is bloody hard without spending massive amounts of money and tightly controlling economic activity. If we seriously tried to subsidise or regulate growth away from Auckland, we’d probably just end up misallocating resources and reduce our wellbeing. As urban economist Edward Glaeser is fond of pointing out, good policy should aim to help poor people rather than poor places.
Fortunately, we don’t have to speculate about the consequences of regional growth policies, as we have a real-world historical example to draw upon. From the 1930s to the 1980s, NZ tried a massive policy experiment – it invested heavily in regional development and used regulatory controls to spread investment and employment around the country.
Looking back on it, the reach of these regulations and investments is extraordinary. So, for example, you had:
- Economically costly production and export subsidies for farmers were propping up uneconomic farms. By 1984, subsidies accounted for almost 40% of the average sheep and beef farmer’s income.
- The Transport Licensing Act 1931, which banned trucks from moving goods more than 150 kilometres before its repeal in 1982. This imposed high costs to distance, encouraging small-scale local production rather than centralising plants.
- Regulations that virtually prohibited the opening or closing of meatworks and other rural processing plants between the 1930s and 1980s. When the Patea meatworks closed in 1982, they were the first meatworks to close in half a century – which is bizarre when you realise how much cheaper refrigerated shipping got over this period.
- A policy of distributing major industrial facilities around the country – an aluminium smelter for Bluff, a steelworks for Glenbrook, a pulp and paper mill for Kawerau, etc.
- The use of the Railways Department and Forest Service as rural employment schemes.
So it’s worth asking whether these policies worked. We know that they were economically costly – but did they actually succeed in redistributing growth from Auckland to the regions?
The data suggests that the answer is no. Here’s a graph of population growth in New Zealand’s major cities from 1926 to 2006 from Grimes and Tarrant (2013). As it shows, Auckland’s population growth began diverging from Wellington and Christchurch early on – probably after World War II.
Furthermore, the almost total removal of rural subsidies during the 1980s doesn’t seem to have accelerated Auckland’s divergence. In fact, Auckland’s annual per capita growth rate seems to have fallen after deregulation, although growth slowed more in other places.
In short, we should accept the reality of urban growth: People want to live in Auckland and start businesses here for good reasons, and we can’t (and shouldn’t) try to stop them. The idea that we can put the urban genie back in its bottle is sheer fantasy. If we try, we’ll only make ourselves worse off.
Our only choice is whether we will have a good city – an interesting and prosperous place – or a crippled, unsuccessful city. Given that, our focus should be on making the best urban places we can. We need Auckland to be a dynamic and liveable city rather than an overgrown small town. And that means investing and planning in a city-like way: getting ambitious about rapid transit, celebrating our mixed-use public spaces, and accepting that density and amenity aren’t mutually exclusive.