Prime minister side-steps 'dying' comment

MARNIE HALLAHAN, SHANE COWLISHAW, HAMISH RUTHERFORD AND KATE CHAPMAN
Last updated 10:57 07/05/2013
Fairfax NZ

John Key tries to water down his comments that Wellington is a "dying" city, saying it is under pressure.

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John Key has tried to water down his comments that Wellington is "dying" and now says it is a city under pressure.

He told Takapuna business leaders last week: "The reality is even Wellington is dying and we don't know how to turn it around.

"All you have there is government, Victoria University and Weta Workshop."

The comments came just weeks after a dismal report on the region's economy, put down in part to Wellington's poor relationship with the Beehive.

This morning, Key admitted he should have chosen his words more carefully when he branded Wellington a "dying city".

In an attempt to clarify want he meant, Key stated: "I should have said 'under sustained pressure', which would have been a better terminology.

''If I've offended them then I unreservedly apologise.

''Actually Wellington is [an] extremely vibrant place. There's lots of things happening here, lots of activity. I'm not suggesting that [it's dying] in the slightest.''

Key said the comments were in the context of the departure of major companies from Wellington over 30 years, especially corporate head offices, based on his experience living in the city.

"That's put a lot of pressure on the infrastructure of Auckland. We need to work on making sure that the proposition is for them to stay here in Wellington ... the banks have migrated, the dairy board used to be here, Fonterra has migrated. That's been the pattern of those corporate head offices."

He said Auckland's population is expected to grow by more than a million in the next 30-50 years.

"My main point was really there is a lot of sustained pressure on Auckland. ... We have got to make sure that we have a sustained build up of economic activity around the rest of the country, not just Auckland."

At last week's talk, Key was speaking during discussions on Auckland's contentious Unitary Plan - which looks at its projected growth, and how to handle predictions of one million extra residents within the next 20 to 30 years.

Key said he was often asked whether some of those people should be encouraged to move to smaller towns and cities to ease pressure on Auckland. He said the idea had merit but would be difficult to achieve because other regions were not as attractive for residents or businesses.

"Auckland is a magnet for internal migration for its opportunities and, when you look at external migration, those from overseas are going to move to where their friends and family are, and that's Auckland."

His suggestion that Wellington was on the scrapheap was greeted with derision by mayor Celia Wade-Brown.

She had just finished welcoming a group of Chinese students yesterday, and said Wellington would happily encourage more internal and overseas migrants.

The film industry was booming and it was unfair to point only to Weta, as there were hundreds of other support companies as well.

More needed to be done to promote Wellington, but to suggest it was dying was ridiculous, she said.

"Maybe if John Key was out of the Beehive more often he would see it's all alive and well."

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Wellington was a vibrant city and Key's criticism was "absolutely negatively" wrong, Labour leader David Shearer said.

He slammed Key's suggestion that Wellington was a dying city.

"This is absolutely negatively John Key talking about Wellington, it's a vibrant city, anybody that drives down to Courtenay Place on a Thursday or Friday night knows that."

Wellington had a good cafe culture, good businesses, and most diplomats posted here said it was the best posting to have, Shearer said.

Key had made a mistake and the problem was stagnant economic growth around the country, not just in Wellington.

"Wellington's not necessarily all that atypical. What we need to be seeing is the provinces growing and creating jobs and instead of that we're seeing a lot of flow to Auckland and particularly to Australia."

Public Service Association national secretary Brenda Pilott said the comments were extraordinary, coming from the prime minister.

"I'm disturbed and dismayed that [the] Government seems to want to write off Wellington and there is no plan to fix it."

It was important the city did not rely solely on central government, but the loss of financial and manufacturing companies, along with deep cuts to the public sector, had left the city struggling, she said.

"I don't think you can be around in Wellington at the moment and not get a sense that the mood is low and people are feeling pretty pessimistic."

Wellington Employers Chamber of Commerce chief executive Raewyn Bleakley agreed, saying it was no secret the region's economy had been flat-lining.

But calling it a dying city was extreme.

"It certainly doesn't feel like a dying city to me. The city has a vibrancy that's the envy of many other cities, with our events programme, compactness, cuisine, and night scene leading the way in that regard."

Speaking after a Cabinet meeting yesterday, Mr Key did not deny making the comments but said he did not believe Wellington was dying.

He said he had been referring to changes at a head office level, with many companies moving their operations to Auckland since the 1980s, when he first arrived in the capital to work.

"I don't think it's dying, but I think it's an example of the contraction that's happening at Auckland's expense ... we have to do everything we can to make sure these cities outside of Auckland are seen as attractive places for businesses to be established."

- The Dominion Post

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