Councils cautioned over red tape

Prime Minister John Key has stressed a new urgency in kick-starting the sluggish economy, with steps to get more young people into work.

Mr Key, in his first speech of the year, signalled a more hands-on approach from the Government, with a $12 million boost in apprenticeship training to aid the Christchurch rebuild.

National's plan includes an uncharacteristic outlay - up to $2000 to cover trainees' tools and course costs.

He also confirmed National aimed to float shares in another state-owned asset this year, winding back on an earlier hint from Finance Minister Bill English that three may go on the block.

Mr Key also singled out the Taranaki region for praise, which has kept unemployment low and wages high by attracting investment from the oil and gas industry. "New Zealand has to be a magnet for investment," he said.

He warned local councils to open up more land for housing and cut red-tape, or face greater intervention from central government.

He also played down fears about the high dollar, saying a strong exchange rate meant cheaper prices for household goods such as clothing, fuel and food.

While business and construction industry groups welcomed the shot in the arm for Christchurch, Opposition politicians said it was "too little, too late" and said the speech lacked vision.

Mr Key got in first, using his speech to the North Harbour Club to lash opponents for "chequebook activism" and resisting proposals to promote growth, such as oil and gas exploration and labour law changes.

His "business plan" to encourage growth included a "rebooted" apprenticeship scheme to boost skills and get more people into the workplace. Unemployment stands at 7.3 per cent and the level of young NEETs - people aged 15 to 24, not in education, employment or training - is 13.4 per cent.

The programme and a boom in trades from rebuilding Christchurch will get an extra 14,000 into training in the next five years. Mr Key also singled out housing and the reform of the Resource Management Act as priorities.

He fired a warning shot at local authorities.

"If councils aren't able to change their planning processes, then the Government will have to get a lot more pro-active because we are very serious about the issue."

He gave no indication more state houses were on the cards.

"We are already a huge player in the housing market and I'm very wary of spending more of taxpayers' money."

Mr Key also signalled that after four years of austerity, his Government was ready to shift tack.

"I don't think we have a fiscal problem any more.

"We've done four years of hard work to get ourselves back on track to surplus.

"The issue the country faces is ultimately a productivity and growth issue. I don't think you'll see National delivering a zero budget in 2013 . . . I think we're on the right track."

Under National, the budget deficit had been brought down from $18 billion to "pretty darn close to zero".

"I think we've resolved those issues."

Labour leader David Shearer was scathing, saying the "newfound enthusiasm" for apprentices had come four years too late.

Modern apprenticeships declined 20 per cent under National, he said.

Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei accused Mr Key of "excuse-making".

His speech was "visionless" and the public would be underwhelmed.

The Dominion Post