Rural areas on the brink, census shows
The Waikato's small towns are getting smaller, while its big city keeps getting bigger.
Population figures from the 2013 census just released by Statistics New Zealand reveal many of the region's smaller centres, including Tokoroa, Te Kuiti and Waitomo, are experiencing an ongoing exodus.
Meanwhile, Hamilton's population has grown by 9.2 per cent since 2006. Some of the communities close to the city have also experienced healthy population growth.
Overall, the Waikato region had the country's third-fastest expansion of 6 per cent - up 22,815 to 403,638 - behind Auckland (up 8.5 per cent to more than 1.4 million) and Nelson (up 8.3 per cent to 46,437).
The country's total population grew by 214,101 to 4,242,048 since 2006.
However, the director of Waikato University's national institute of demographic and economic analysis, Professor Natalie Jackson, said 75 per cent of that growth occurred in Auckland and 11 other cities - and that would cost rural New Zealand.
"At a national level, everybody is lauding all of the growth in Auckland but the rest of the country has got to deal with it," said Prof Jackson.
She said the growth in the Waikato region was "quite magnificent" but three of the district councils in its boundaries had experienced a decline.
Hauraki was down 0.3 per cent, South Waikato down 2.5 per cent and Waitomo dropped 5.6 per cent.
Prof Jackson said Hamilton, which showed a net gain of 9.2 per cent, had 13 out of the 46 recorded area units showing a decline.
Thames-Coromandel, with a growth of 0.9 per cent, showed a decline in eight of its 12 monitored areas while 10 out of South Waikato's 16 area units showed a reduced population.
"The district councils have got to deal with these areas that are not growing and it's all lumped onto them as if somehow it is their fault," she said.
"It's not gloom and doom as much as realisation, and this is to me confirmation of the reality of regional decline and that trend continuing."
South Waikato mayor Neil Sinclair said there was widespread concern among rural communities over urban drift and the problem needed to be addressed.
"Certainly our young ones are leaving in terms of jobs and that's why my council has taken the strategy of more jobs and better promotion of our district."
Declining population put pressure on essential services and Mr Sinclair said his council was expected to pick up "the central government slack".
"We have a basic infrastructure to maintain and if you are losing ratepayers then you are losing your rating base.
"But you still have to do that infrastructure," he said.
Labour's associate spokesperson for regional development Nanaia Mahuta said the Waikato would benefit from its proximity to Auckland, but rural New Zealand needed to reinvent itself.