Province must make most of its advantages

Queenstown airport, pictured above last July, is Australasia's fastest growing. Photo by Queenstown Airport.
Queenstown airport, pictured above last July, is Australasia's fastest growing. Photo by Queenstown Airport.
The future of Otago compared with other regions looks most promising, with good planning and perseverance, writes Jolyon Manning, of Alexandra.

Later this year, there will be a steady stream of figures published from the forthcoming census, delayed two years by the Christchurch earthquakes. There may be a few surprises but key elements of the present momentum for growth and sustainability are already widely understood.

Otago has often been characterised as a ''land of contrast''.

In the past decade or so, there have been distinctive differences in the residential population growth and economic expansion between inland Central Otago-Queenstown Lakes districts and the coastal districts embracing North Otago, Dunedin and South Otago.

Two annually produced reports have already highlighted the scale of these differences. For the past 25 years, a comprehensive Statistics New Zealand business pattern nationwide annual survey of employment has been conducted in mid-February. This is not the same as the much vaunted nationwide ''household'' employment survey, which is based on limited but disciplined sampling extrapolated into figures often seized upon by politicians and others. The second annual resume of economic growth at the territorial local authority level is published by Berl. These studies augment the evidence disclosed by the above quoted business pattern survey and examine the highlights of various sectors such as manufacturing, building and construction, education and health, and tourism - itself always a good talking point. Over the years it has been more challenging for Statistics New Zealand to get an accurate picture of employment in pastoral farming and horticulture, since these firms are often employing small numbers yet in some districts, such as Central Otago and Clutha, their contribution is a relatively important indicator of economic expansion.

The overall coherence between the Otago (and Southland) coastal districts, with their respective big city administrative centres of Dunedin and Invercargill, and the traditional farming hinterland, has changed markedly in the past few decades. There are major ''regional development'' issues that embrace the whole of the provinces but especially in the case of Otago, there has developed a distinctive more self-sustaining and independent vocation now seen in the Central Otago Lakes districts and especially Queenstown. It now supports the most rapidly growing airport in Australasia.

A few figures to ponder. The annual business pattern survey indicates that since the last census (2006) full-time equivalent jobs have increased by 10% in the inland Otago districts but have decreased in the coastal Otago districts by 3%, with a loss of 2500 jobs in places such as Fisher and Paykel and Hillside workshops. And while Otago as a whole suffered a 1% loss of jobs in the six to seven years Southland gained 4%, dominated by dairying expansion.

Over the same period, the difference is more pronounced. Residential population increased an estimated 3% in the coastal group (including Dunedin City) and 16% inland - the largest ratio increase recorded in New Zealand.

Furthermore, I would not be surprised if the more recent estimates of the Dunedin residential population prove to have been a little optimistic. It is recorded as having increased from 122,300 to 126,900 between census years 2006 and 2012.

In the memory of many readers of this newspaper were the days when key rural servicing functions played a much more prominent part in city affairs - pastoral stock and station agencies, grand ''winter'' and ''summer'' shows, wool sale events, departmental store and motor trade features that sought to capture the periodic invasion of wealthy country patronage spending. This has changed and today mail order and internet purchasing has divorced much of that earlier function.

And again, in the special case of Dunedin, many of us still recall the line-up of nationwide commercial firm ''head office'' administration and the various benefits that flowed from that, including in social and cultural leadership and community sponsorship. Today, there is a prominent presence in the Queenstown Lakes districts of semi-retired business and professional people who, having spent most of their days in Dunedin, now providing an important base for philanthropy in the inland districts while still having a soft spot for Dunedin-based causes.

While the recent slow-down in the economy nationwide has quite spectacularly clipped the wings of the earlier rapid expansion in the Queenstown Lakes district there are now signs of a resumption of spectacular growth. In part, this is a natural outcome of the current spurt being felt in the Auckland ''super city'' and Queenstown's closer linkages with that centre. In addition, it should be remembered in today's world, Christchurch is more readily accessible from Queenstown than Dunedin.

I believe there is likely to be a reversal of transtasman migration within the next decade or so. We might see New Zealand families, who have scored a useful bundle of working life savings, come back to our shores and be especially keen to take up residence once again in our fine lightly peopled rural landscapes of distinction and comfortable climate.

The future of Otago needs regular attention with the changing emphases in manufacturing employment, tertiary education investment, a steadily ageing population base, and looser linkages with the rural hinterland. A bright spot for Dunedin is the presence of growing strengths in postgraduate university research and applied skills, such as are provided by the Otago Polytechnic. Dunedin once again must take a renewed leadership role as a balance against the steadily growing dominance of Auckland and Christchurch. Queenstown and Wanaka have now established a significant and commercially sustainable string to the provincial bow. The future, as compared with other regions, still looks most promising with good planning and perseverance.

• Jolyon Manning was a chief executive of the former Otago Council Inc and secretary of the Otago Regional Development Council.