Julian Wood

By Julian Wood - 28/03/2017

Julian Wood

By Julian Wood -

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Recommendations | Rethinking the goals of regional development in NZ


For all the current talk of “zombie towns” and bank closures, we are really only experiencing the beginning of a “death by a thousand cuts” for many regional towns.[1] New Zealand needs to accept that this sweeping economic and demographic wave of change is coming, and in many ways, already acting upon us. Regional development goals that simply aim to maximise a region’s economic growth potential are inadequate for this future. Spatial or place-based regional development policy is increasingly going to be key to facing this new future.

The current regional development paradigm fails New Zealand on three counts. First, the goals of regional development policy are not clearly and explicitly articulated and include vague statements like “supporting the quality of life” instead of explicit regional wellbeing indicators. Second, the goals of regional development policy are not ranked with tensions, trade-offs, or subservient relationships between the goals explicitly outlined and prioritised. Third, the goals of regional development are solely focused on maximising growth.

We therefore recommend a re-think of regional development goals in New Zealand:

  • All regional development goals need to be explicitly and clearly stated to enable clarity, transparency, scrutiny, and co-ordination
    • this includes developing “regional wellbeing indicators” to be included within the regional development goals[2]
  • All regional development goals need to be prioritised and ranked with tensions, trade-offs, or subservient relationships between the goals explicitly outlined and prioritised[3]
  • Customised regional development pathways, and Option C more generally, should be developed in light of the economic and demographic change on New Zealand’s horizon

In addition, we also recommend:

  • Exploring the following areas for further research
    • the role of second tier “areas” as a way of understanding growth beyond Auckland and Christchurch. This would include an analysis of economic complementarities within these wider regional areas
    • the role of multi-level governance as a way of finding new and innovative regional solutions based on modern spatial theory and subsidiarity. This would include exploring ways to fund multi-level governance arrangements to enable both inter-regional co-operation and new regional development pathways to be explored
    • ways to unlock the economic opportunities afforded by the demographic profile of Māori and Pacific communities
    • spatial innovation policy options (beyond regional research institutes) including smart specialisation as a way of overcoming non- spatial innovation policy capture by the main urban centres and further linking innovation policy into the primary base of the country.


The full effects of economic and demographic change are still years away—this is both an opportunity and a risk. Opportunity: there is still time to turn New Zealand toward this slow-moving wave of change and face it head on. Risk: the current political environment continues to promote short-term policies that merely shuffle the deck chairs by focusing on the latest regional development crisis.

While we do need to ensure that our major urban areas grow well, for the majority of the country there is a need to shift from an “anticipating growth” paradigm to a little or “no growth” paradigm. This is not a popular political message, but it is a necessary message if we are to adapt well to this change and ensure that decline is managed well and opportunities remain for those in these communities. Decision-makers, and the public that vote them into office, need to take a longer-term perspective. We need to think ten election cycles in the future and act accordingly.

One might draw a parallel to the significant changes associated with the reforms of the 1980s. Had we known of the social dislocation and economic disruption that would be experienced by many New Zealanders as a result of the reforms, would we, many years before, have planned a nuanced and incremental approach to managing change instead? When it comes to the long- term trends and forces articulated in Section 2, we have opportunities to start planning and making changes now. Every election that passes without a renewed regional development paradigm, one with clear and transparent and prioritised goals that look beyond the next ten years, is an opportunity lost.

Taken together, we hold that our recommendations will best place New Zealand to meet the future wave of economic and demographic changes. The long- term economic trends and demographic issues facing the regions will become confronting and may seem overwhelming the longer we continue to ignore them. Real spatial solutions will be difficult to unmask and, at times, potentially politically unpopular. Given the risks and costs associated with spatial policy, the effective measurement and evaluation of these solutions will be essential. Despite these difficulties, this is far better than the expensive waste of “bridges to nowhere” or simply ignoring the problem while New Zealand is slowly engulfed by the wave of change. If we wait too long the economic and demographic wave will hit and the wider regions will be broadside and unprepared. Far better to hit the wave head on. The good news is that there is time to try and steer a course together.

This is an extract from Julian’s research paper “Growth Beyond Growth | Rethinking the Goals of Regional Development in New Zealand” Discussion Paper. (Released 2017) 




[1] Gussen, “Subsidiarity as a Constitutional Principle in New Zealand,” 129.
[2] John Anthony, “Westpac closures reflect bigger trend affecting small town New Zealand”, Stuff News, 24 August 2016, last accessed on 24 August 2016, http://www. stuff.co.nz/business/industries/83464715/westpac-closures-reflect-bigger-trend-affecting-small-town-new-zealand
[3] This criticism of wellbeing versus growth is an ongoing discussion in much of the New Zealand regional development literature since then publication of James E. Rowe’s work in 2005. Rowe ed., Economic Development in New Zealand: The Dynamics of Economic Space.”

Julian Wood

By Julian Wood -

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