Swaths of provincial New Zealand could be effectively "red zoned' as local councils are forced to abandon their shrinking and ageing communities, a new report says.
In a wide-ranging look at the country's future, the Royal Society of New Zealand's report, Our Futures, says difficult decisions are looming in some districts - singling out the Kapiti Coast and Horowhenua - where the population is disproportionately of retirement age, and deaths outpace births.
These decisions could include making unpopular cuts to funding for roads, schools and medical services, and even abandoning some communities altogether, similar to the "red zoning" of parts of Christchurch after the 2011 earthquake, when whole suburbs were written off as economically unviable for habitation.
"Should the central government plan ‘red zones' for local authorities unable to meet their responsibilities? In some rural areas, roads are already too costly for locals to maintain, even though they are essential," the report says.
Waikato University professor Natalie Jackson, who contributed to this part of the report, says that in some small towns the decline will be difficult - if not impossible - to avoid, and the Government needs to focus more on regional development or, in some cases, "exit strategies".
Last year's census revealed about a third of councils had shrinking populations, and about one in five now had more people over 65 than children. This trend would only accelerate as the population aged overall and new, younger migrants stuck to the cities, particularly Auckland.
"If a quarter of your population is on fixed income, how can you keep putting rates up? It is just going to become harder and harder to maintain those services," Jackson says.
Some small towns were already losing access to postal services and police, and without government intervention even power and water could eventually be switched off.
"It doesn't mean you can't live there at all, but you go with your eyes wide open.
"Ghost towns are already emerging all over Europe and Japan. There is no reason New Zealand will be immune."
Professor Gary Hawke, who chaired the society's report panel, believes "red zoning" is unlikely, but says it is inevitable that the level of service in large swaths of the country will decline. "Trying to keep every post office alive or every road at a pristine level, that would be folly."
But Horowhenua Mayor Brendan Duffy rejects reducing services or abandoning towns in his greying district. Nearly one in four people in Horowhenua are over 65, the population is stagnant, and deaths are outpacing births.
Duffy concedes the population is getting older, with retirees selling up in Wellington and moving north, but says many of those people still have money and skills to contribute to the local economy.
Roading upgrades would also bring the district closer to the capital in future, increasing its appeal to families.
But while some provinces could shrink, overall the Royal Society predicts the country will become more dynamic, connected and diverse than ever, thanks largely to immigration.
This will lead to an increasingly mixed and blurred society, with more residents - such as wealthy Asians attracted to the lifestyle - not identifying as Kiwis, while the number of New Zealanders living overseas will continue to grow.
New Zealand will be a good place to live for those with desirable skills, but getting ahead could become increasingly difficult for those without a university degree.
The young who fail to get on to the employment ladder could face an increasingly bleak future and, even for those who are working, contracts or part-time work will become more common.
Diversity: With one in four current New Zealanders already born overseas, in the future we will increasingly be a country with multiple overlapping cultural identities and values.
Ageing: We are living longer and having fewer children, leading to an ageing population. However, the expectations around older people will continue to change, with today's young remaining active and earning well into traditional retirement.
Maori: Will be increasingly likely to live overseas, especially in Australia, but many will retain strong iwi affinity. However, te reo could struggle to survive as concepts of Maori identity evolve.
Migration: The importance of immigration will continue to grow, with China and India making big contributions. Australia could be a wild-card source of migrants should there be a change in its economic fortunes.
Household: Couples, with or without children, are the most common household today, but an ageing future population and high youth unemployment could see a rise in the "sandwich" generation, where workers live and support both their children and parents.
Population: More than four in five Kiwis live in a city and a third live in Auckland, with the imbalance only likely to grow. In the future, a dwindling population in many provinces will make it hard to maintain basic services, from schools to roads, forcing hard and unpopular decisions on councils.
Work: People in the future are more likely to have service jobs, as New Zealand develops into a high-skills economy. However, work will also be harder to find.
- The Dominion Post