Palmerston North set to go metropolitan

Palmerston North is set to go metropolitan in about five years' time.

Latest population projections from Statistics New Zealand show the city is the fifth-equal fastest growing area in New Zealand.

Shortly after 2016, it is projected to be home to more than 90,000 people, meeting Local Government NZ and Internal Affairs definitions of a metropolitan area.

Mayor Jono Naylor said the projections were encouraging, but he was not "hung up" about numbers as a measure of how well the city was doing.

"What is good is that our population growth is at a sustainable level."

He said Palmerston North had already joined LGNZ's metropolitan group, as it was already close to the mark at 85,100 and had more issues in common with the major centres than other provincial cities.

Statistics' mid-range projection, still building on a baseline provided by the 2006 census, is for Palmerston North to experience an annual increase of 0.8 per cent, up from the 2007 projection that the city would grow by 0.7 per cent a year.

The areas growing faster than Palmerston North are Auckland, Tauranga, Hamilton and Wellington. Whangarei is expected to share fifth position.

Palmerston North City Council economic policy adviser Peter Crawford said Palmerston North was currently the eighth largest population area, and growing faster than the bigger cities of Dunedin and Lower Hutt.

It was also pulling ahead of Hastings, Napier and New Plymouth.

Mr Crawford said the city's growth was greater than could be explained by the inclusion of 2400 residents from Manawatu as a result of the boundary change.

The city's projected growth would see an extra 17,100 people living here in 25 years' time, compared with earlier projections that put that number at 12,500.

Palmerston North would then be close to topping the 100,000 milestone.

That could happen earlier, in 10 to 12 years' time, if Statistics' high projection of a 1.1 per cent growth rate is realised.

Mr Crawford said Statistics NZ was basing most of Palmerston North's growth rate on strong birth rates among a relatively young population outstripping death rates.

The fact some of Palmerston North's young residents were tertiary students who moved on before having families was factored into the projections.

But Mr Crawford was not sure whether the arrival of 600 extra Defence personnel had been included. That was likely to have an upward impact on birth rates.

Mr Naylor said Palmerston North's likely, steady population growth was preferable to a rapid increase in residents.

"Cities that have experienced rapid growth have faced difficulties with infrastructure provision and funding.

"And given the challenges faced by areas with a declining population, we would not want to have those either."

Mr Naylor said what put Palmerston North ahead of areas it had been compared with in the past, such as Hawke's Bay and Taranaki, was the presence of Massey University and the Defence bases.

But some of its advantages, such as the ease of getting about and lack of congestion, would be threatened if the city grew too big.

"For me, the higher priority is that our economic growth is reflective of people in Palmerston North being better off, rather than simply having more people spending the same amount of money."

City planner David Murphy said finding homes for about 5000 more people than earlier residential growth plans were based on should not be difficult.

The city's next expansion at Whakarongo had been expected to boost the current land bank enough to satisfy new housing demand for about 12 years. Current, low building consent figures suggested it could last longer.

If building figures picked up along with the projected population growth, the next area for development, currently earmarked as City West, might need to come on stream a couple of years earlier.

However, that would depend on where the city's new residents wanted to live.

"Ultimately, whether or not we need to plan for more residentially-zoned land depends on people's choices about greenfields subdivisions, in-fill, including apartments, or something more rural."

There had been a market preference for in-fill housing in the past two to three years. It now accounted for about 40 per cent of new homes, whereas in the past, only 25 per cent of new homes were built in the existing urban area.

Mr Murphy said next year's census would give a better indication of how the city's population was changing, how accurate the projections were, and whether future plans needed to be advanced more quickly.

Manawatu Standard