Duncan Garner: One people, two NZs: The good life south of the Bombay Hills
OPINION: What an eye-opener this week has been during a regional road trip, hosting my radio show in a different South Island centre each day.
We have two New Zealands. The difference has never been so stark.
On one side, in Auckland we have a massive – but choking – international city suffering from decades of under-investment.
Despite this the City of Sails continues to attract more than 30,000 immigrants a year to settle in a city already bursting at the seams.
Who knows where they all live (we wait with bated breath for another leak from real estate firm Barfoot & Thompson).
Just 7000 new houses were built in the city last year. Aucklanders are being locked out of their own city. They're moving away because it's no longer affordable – the average house price is now around $800,000.
In total 1.4 million Aucklanders clog the narrow roads because the public transport systems are either not trusted or don't take you to where you need to go. Auckland can't cope with itself. The net gain in immigrants was 57,800 over the last year. The majority stay in Auckland.
But then there's the rest of the country. I didn't strike a single traffic jam this week.
I cruised through Dunedin, Oamaru, Nelson, even Christchurch. I'd truly forgotten the joy of driving without grinding to a halt every 20 seconds.
What else have I learned? There is a wonderful, rich life south of the Bombay Hills.
It's a better one I think. The houses are affordable and if you can get a decent job then you've hit the jackpot.
Dunedin was a freezing -7 degrees on Monday, but my heart was warmed when I saw a three-bedroom house, with two heat pumps, for sale for $185,000.
Steve Barton moved his family to Dunedin from Auckland a few years ago. He earns more than he did up north. His lovely house in the "second best suburb" cost just $305,000. He has a constant grin on his face. His wife doesn't have to work.
Oamaru was a stunning little gem of a place. Don't stay an hour, stay the night. It's beautiful.
I met a local business owner who bought his three-bedroom villa for $150,000. His walk to work takes five minutes.
There's a bit of concern that the dairy slump is starting to affect people spending in the town. Local business leaders say there is a new "cautious approach" emerging.
One business owner told me she wants skilled migrants to bring their ideas and businesses to her town. That's not a bad idea really. But is anyone in power listening?
Why can't agencies, councils and the Government do more to attract (or even bond) immigrants to the regions? It would ease the pressure on our largest city. Why do call centres have to be based in Auckland? Think about it.
In Ashburton the wealth has really accumulated. The rich have got richer and their money goes a long way. Sheep now sell for $122 each, this time last year it was $110.
In Christchurch I saw more activity in the CBD than this time last year.
But I met a bricklayer who employs 33 people who are currently sitting at home because of the "disorganised and chaotic" rebuild process. They are not getting paid sitting at home.
The rebuild has peaked according to the experts. It will slow down now. The city still looks like a war zone.
Apartments and buildings remain red-stickered and are yet to come down, 4 1/2 years on.
In Christchurch East progress is slow. Yes the houses are gone, they have been levelled. But it's a ghost town. The roads remain awful.
New Brighton looked neglected and dying. This side of town needs help. Someone in power must do something. Fast.
Christchurch has moved west where the money is. The east is the new Bronx, more so than before. It looks like a ghetto in parts. I'll be criticised for that but I'm only telling you what I saw.
In Nelson they were chipper. Jetstar will soon provide competition on that over-priced route dominated by Air NZ.
Houses aren't overly expensive. Nelson is dominated by forestry and fishing, science and wine. Its exposure to the dairy slump is limited but the local Chamber of Commerce boss said it's starting to affect confidence "just a bit".
I'm not saying every region is humming, central North Island towns like Taumarunui and Tokoroa are doing it tougher.
A Foxton poultry farm has no takers for jobs paying $30 an hour. Does no-one want to live there?
But overall I found the South Island a world away from Auckland and its woes. People seem more relaxed. Less stressed. Less burdened.
It's dangerous to let Auckland grow out of control when there is so much beauty and capacity in the rest of the country.
Auckland is spreading like an unstoppable disease. I think I've found the answer to that problem – it lies south of the Bombay Hills.
- The Dominion Post