Population growth flatlines, but some regions are still booming

People have been leaving New Zealand as the borders have reopened – following the tumultuous events that have taken place over the last few years it is not surprising that people are wanting to escape and explore the world again. At a headline level, the exodus of people has meant that population growth across New Zealand has slowed to 0.2%pa in the June 2022 year, down from 0.4%pa in 2021, and is now sitting at its lowest level since the 1980s. Delving further into the details using subnational population estimates for 2022 shows that ten out of sixteen regions experienced net international migration losses.

But that isn’t the end of the story for regional population growth. Taking an even closer look at the regions shows that people are not only leaving New Zealand, but are also migrating within the country. Regions whose overall population growth was pushed highest by gaining internal migrants from other parts of New Zealand included Northland, Bay of Plenty, Tasman, and Waikato.

Whereas at the other end of the scale, Auckland, West Coast, Nelson, Southland, and Wellington saw their populations decrease as a result of negative internal migration to other parts of New Zealand.

Within the cohort of places who experienced significant population growth from attracting large numbers of internal migrants, two areas of note are Selwyn in the Canterbury Region and Papakura within the Auckland area. We will quickly explore both of these places and what they have in common.

Selwyn’s Success

Across the country, the standout territory was by far Selwyn, with the country’s highest growth of 4.8%pa. On closer examination we can see that the driving factor behind this remarkable uplift is the high internal migration to the area. During 2022, Selwyn gained 3,000 people from internal migration and whilst some of these people will have moved from Christchurch, the high quantity would suggest they came from other parts of the country as well. Indeed, previous research we have done showed that people leaving Auckland has historically been the second biggest contributor to Selwyn’s internal migration gains.

Papakura’s Prosperity

In a seemingly similar story, Papakura was a star performer within the Auckland Local Boards, even though the population across Auckland region as a whole fell. Over 2022, the population in Papakura rose 4.0% – interestingly, the causes of this were not just a migration story but were also heavily influenced by natural increase (births minus deaths). Papakura natural increase was 1,000 people. This is because the area has one of the highest proportions of people under forty years and one of the lowest proportions of people aged greater than 65 years, which means there is relatively high fertility and a lower death rate.

However, relatively high fertility rates are nothing special in South Auckland, where many local boards having young populations. The true difference that sets Papakura’s recent population growth apart from the rest of Auckland’s Local Boards has been an additional high rate of internal migration that boosted their population by 1,700 people. Papakura’s success in gaining internal migrants is in contrast to most other parts of Auckland which suffered significant migration losses to other parts of New Zealand.

What sets Selwyn and Papakura apart?

Although they are at different ends of the country, both Selwyn and Papakura have some similarities. Auckland and Christchurch are the two most populated cities in New Zealand and Selwyn and Papakura are located on the outskirts of these cities. During 2022 we saw many of the main cities shrink, including both Christchurch and central parts of Auckland, with more people opting to live in their surrounding areas. Thus, the key to Selwyn and Papakura’s success is their proximity to main cities.

People are wanting to get away from the busyness of the cities, but still be close enough to remain connected to family and work, as well as enjoy the amenities that cities provide. The other key appeal is that the affordability of housing improves the further out from the cities. This trend has been further made possible due to changing work environments that allow more flexibility to work from home some days, and to incorporate work into one’s lifestyle rather than needing to always fit their lives around work.  

It isn’t a one-way street to the regions

This trend we are seeing, of places like Selwyn and Papakura gaining residents from nearby cities, is echoed throughout the country. Northland, Waikato, and Bay of Plenty in particular are seeing increased population growth, while we are also seeing further afield places, with great lifestyle offerings and job opportunities, such as Hawke’s Bay and Central Otago, gaining.

However, there are some regions which are not sharing in the spoils of internal migration gains from the big cities. One such area is the West Coast where the region’s population has fallen in 2022 as a result of outflows of people to other parts of New Zealand. A factor behind the West Coast’s losses may be based around a decline in employment opportunities since Covid-19.

The West Coast’s story highlights that there are limits to a region’s ability to lure internal migrants out of the cities. We know that people will move to a region for an affordable and high-quality lifestyle, but at the same time this must be complemented by other factors. Some of these other factors that attract a migrant into a region may be strong local job prospects, but they may also be because the region is located close to opportunities and amenities on offer in a larger nearby population centre.

Ultimately, while many people are leaving the cities to seek a better lifestyle in the regions, many still value easy accessibility to the many things cities have to offer.

This article has been written by Emma Riley. Emma has recently joined Benje Patterson | People & Places as a graduate economist.