Mayor: We can't do everything everywhere

Swathes of provincial New Zealand could be effectively "red zoned" as councils are forced to abandon their shrinking and ageing communities, a new report says.

Tasman mayor Richard Kempthorne said today the district council was having to make calls about where money was spent and areas that were not growing would not have the same need for services.

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, 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.

Kempthorne said that overall Tasman was growing, but in parts of the district there was static or potential for declining population.

"Providing services equally across the district is an ongoing challenge," he said.

Core infrastructure of roading, drinking water, stormwater and wastewater would be of the same standard across the district. "But there are some services as we go forward, as we are looking at using debt less and keeping rates low, we are having to make calls."

An example was in funding tourism and while not wanting to single out Murchison, he said the model for its information centre was not sustainable, as was the case in many centres across the country.

In looking at where to spend money, it would need to be where there was growth.

"We probably can't do everything everywhere, so we have to make choices. The areas that are not growing will not have the same need for that spending," he said.

Growth areas were likely to be Richmond, Mapua, when its water supply was on tap, Motueka, Brightwater, Wakefield and the Waimea Basin.

In places like Collingwood, it was a case of tailoring services. "We have been trying to do that and people in the community know that. It's money constraints rather than an open cheque book."

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 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 parts of the country will decline.

"Trying to keep every post office alive or every road at a pristine level, that would be folly."

Nelson Regional Economic Development Agency chief executive Bill Findlater said it was starting to work on a strategy around the greying population.

"A lot of people see that as a threat but I see it as an opportunity. The grey people of this generation are not like those of 30 or 40 years ago, they want to keep active and not sit around."

The Nelson Mail