Dunedin, no-growth city?

Dunedin City Council critic Calvin Oaten, in a piece he has also sent to the mayor and incoming council, proposes the city should be run on a ''no-growth basis''.

Maybe a good starting point would be to review some recent history. The health of any community is unarguably based on its financial stability and its leaders being fully mindful of the need to protect the citizens' treasure, spending it wisely, and quietly maintaining and improving their wellbeing.

Has this been the priority of our leaders over time? Recently it seems not. In fact one sometimes wonders if there is any comprehension at all of what is meant by good governance and prudence.

When I look at the long-term annual plan of 2003-04 I found the city's net debt was $53.463 million and was scheduled to peak in 2011-12 at $147.466 million. Looking at it 10 years later, the 2013-14 plan shows the debt at $270.290 million. If we include stadium debt of $146 million, this comes to a total of $416.290 million. So, an increase over 10 years of $362.82 million. Does that indicate financial prudence?

Oh, and we should not forget DCHL's contribution to our malaise. It has been extorted and mismanaged to the point where it and the DCC's combined consolidated debt amounts to about $623 million. As shareholders, this by extension is ours. Think about that.

So after all that spending why do I not feel substantially better off? What has changed in my life in 10 years, indeed, what has changed in any citizens' lives? We have a stadium, (but we already had one before), we have a revamped Town Hall Conference Centre and a seriously upgraded Settlers Museum.

All good stuff we are told.

How did we arrive at this position? It seems it all started when the council basically ceded all development and strategies to the bureaucrats. This resulted in management structures which took off on ''planning'' schemes and ''visions'' of taking Dunedin to places it had no business in going to.

We had a ''Choices, towards 2021'' plan, followed by ''Embrace the Opportunity'' new ''greenfields'' stadium in 2007. Now, we have the ''Spatial Plan for Dunedin''. This latest plan is a product of this current council and mayoralty and is ambitiously aimed at the next 30-plus years. It is all full of grand aims and feel good ''strategic'' directions, such as ''an environmentally sustainable and resilient city''!

It cites the city's population in 2006 at ''about'' 122,300, and usually on a peak day a population swells to about 146,900 with visitors. Not true.

The official census for 2006 was 118,683 residents. It then projects a modest growth to 139,000 by 2061. This is just a part of the ''vision'' outlined. Is this likely?

I decided it was time for some research to see how they arrived at these plans. I found it on the top floor of the Central Library (a wonderful institution), and the answer appears not to be aligning the stars at all. It all lies in the ''demographics'' of Dunedin.

Dunedin, we all know was a seriously robust city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was founded on the discovery of gold in the province. From this, Dunedin became quite rich and entrepreneurs were attracted here. They established commerce and industry to such a scale as to be the centre and suppliers to much of the country. Engineering, woollen mills, clothing manufacturing, importing and warehousing operations all abounded. Jobs were abundant and rich people got infinitely richer.

But about 1900 it plateaued. Since then, Dunedin has been in a slow, inexorable decline, whether we acknowledge it or not.

The statistics demonstrate this clearly and concisely. The 1901 census shows Dunedin's population was 70,000 while New Zealand's was 815,862. We were 8.5% of that total. In 1921 we were 81,848 souls and New Zealand 1,284,873. We were 6.3% of that total. Then in 1936, 82,000, 1950, 91,200 and in 2006, 118,683. Meanwhile, New Zealand in 2013 is 4,480,182. We are just 2.64% of that. Put another way, in 105 years Dunedin grew by 69%, while the country grew by 450%.

Need any more? Look at the University of Otago and we find FTS (full-time students) in 1961 numbered 3000. In 2007 they numbered about 18,000. We could extrapolate this as meaning the difference is largely made up by outsiders, or transient citizens. If this difference of 15,000 was subtracted from the census total, that would give a true population figure of around 103,683.

The question is, how much cognisance of these figures was taken into account before spending $260 million establishing a stadium with the capacity to hold a ''third'' of the population on any given day? How many non-paying people would be expected to regularly visit the Settlers Museum? How many international conferences could we reasonably expect to come to Dunedin?

Should we have a different approach, to running our city on a ''no-growth basis'' economically, cutting costs to give a point of difference if we ever wish to attract substantial newcomers?

Spending ourselves into bankruptcy will attract no-one and only accelerate the real decline. Is it too late? Maybe it is, but if there is no change in direction urgently it most certainly will be.

Cities can die

What the last DCC failed to realise is that there are examples in the richest counties in the world of cities actually dying. Chicago and some Western Euorpean ciries are at serious risk. If we are on that path as Calvin Oaten has researched and highlighted we must insist that the new council change tack and forget "visioning" and other non-productive excercises so that we can consolidate, pay off our debt or at least have that as a main goal, and leave the visioning of the future to the next generation who unlike us old fuddy duddies will have to make the best of it for themselves. Remember this: the present DCC will be long gone before the debt the city has built up is still to be completely paid off. Oh my goodness! There's another rates bill getting put into my mailbox right now!