We need more people in Southland

Solutions for encouraging sustainable
population growth

By Tim Hanna

The Southland Regional Development Strategy Group has set a goal to swell the population of the region by ten thousand people by 2025. The rational to do so is that Southland faces an imminent labour shortage, given that we are one of the oldest relative populations in the country and that by about 2030 that number will have retired. Given that government funding is based on population we also need to grow or risk funding cuts. 

Apparently, thanks to mostly immigrant arrivals, we are on track to achieve the 10,000 but it seems to me that attracting other New Zealanders to our region would be beneficial to both the overpriced and overpopulated places they relocated from and for us.

So who do we want? Motivated and young might be two good words to start with and it would be useful to ask what they want. We know that a place on the property ladder rates high on the wish list of young people who despair of ever getting on it and this could be our significant edge. Given the fact that the relative number of home owners in New Zealand is the lowest it has been since 1951, and that this is only getting worse, our relatively low land values, especially in our small rural towns, might be the key to persuading them to come. 

Of course lower land values is only half the battle and with building costs running at about double the rate in Australia, despite wages there being about 30% higher over there , the kinds of homes the recently abandoned Kiwi Build program envisaged are still prohibitively expensive. 

One solution may be to look back to the time when new settlers created a new world to live in with first homes that were generally small cottages. With the modern global movement toward tiny homes we should consider the fact that many of the people we want to attract will have not yet started families or if they have will most likely have only an infant. For such folk a small single bedroom home of around 40 square meters might offer everything they need, especially if that home is well appointed, warm and stylish. Such homes are currently available through a number of providers with solid commercial track records as fully built up relocatable units. 

Relocatable homes fall into something of a gray area when it comes to council involvement but I propose that so far as is possible the council stays away from any consent issues which only add cost and offer little benefit. Instead manufacturers and builders should bear the burden and the cost of all compliance and all liability for the finished product which by law must of course be fit for purpose and meet all building codes. Similarly if those wishing to build such a relocatable home should be able to employ properly qualified local tradesmen to sign them off.  

When and if the time comes for the home owners to move on the bigger or fresher pastures they could take their homes with them, perhaps to relocate them on their own new property as a temporary place while building, or as a rental property or to create another infill subdivision. Or they could sell them as part of the package to the new owner.

To encourage this population growth council should minimise the costs of subdivisions in built up areas, which in the case of the area controlled by the SDC are small towns. It may even be of benefit in the long term to offer a year-long moratorium on fees attached to land splitting to facilitate small sections for small houses that incorporated the mandated areas for free space and car parking. 

Imagine a young couple who currently pay 60 to 70% of their combined income on rent being able to afford a home they love on land they own for between 100k and 200k. Imagine they can have this in a great Southland community with access to all the things that make this such a wonderful place to live. 

Our small towns are the places we want these folk – where their presence adds to the viability of those towns by increasing both the rate base and the variety of activities being pursued while taking advantage of existing infrastructure.  Think of your own town. What would a significant number of new people living there mean for you, especially when those people are the best kinds of citizens you could wish for – happy home owners with a stake in the well-being of your town? 

It would also be useful to revisit bylaws controlling the establishment of small businesses in residential areas to actually encourage them subject to the normal constraints that protect the well-being of neighbours. ‘Garage’ start-ups may have failed as often as not but a significant number have led to the establishment of significant new businesses and industries. If there is no harm then council should ask itself why not?

Another kind of new citizen would be the kind that likes growing things. Farmers should have an option to sell a percentage of their land as small holdings suitable for both building a home and growing the kinds of products we need to introduce diversity to our rural sector and to add value. For example crops like hemp, linen and flax could add value to wool while new products like oat beverage will need a range of other crops to add value with fruit, berry and vegetable flavourings for cheeses, ice-creams and yogurts. 

One way to stop all this dead in its tracks would be to burden everyone with layers of expensive compliance costs and in fact there is a wider conversation to be had about this. Councils all over the country cannot afford to do the things they have to do to keep communities safe and comfortable. To an extent it is about doing the essentials and not trying to follow all the glittery objects but it is also about the proliferation of council employees. The corporate model imposed in the eighties by central government, with a CEO ‘directing’ a raft of managers who ride shotgun on a vast herd of staff, effectively handed power from elected councillors to a bloated body of extremely well paid bureaucrats. The same thing happened in the health sector with consequences like people dying on waiting lists. Federated Farmers report that since 2000 local government operating expenditure has tripled from 3.5 billion dollars to 10.8 billion dollars while debt has risen during the same period by a factor of five to over 15 billion dollars. 

This huge blow out in costs and debt supports a system that is demonstrably inefficient, unresponsive to public opinion and basically beyond our means. Perhaps the first place to start dismantling this top heavy structure might be in the area of building consents and inspections. It might finally be time for qualified tradesmen to sign off their own work across the board and to accept liability for anything that goes wrong. Right now if it does the council generally won’t help in spite of all the money they took along the way and that’s just wrong. As mayor I would not have the power to change all that but I can make a start and try to persuade other mayors to also push back. It’s way past time.

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