Population growth in 65 of 67 territorial authorities

Statistics New Zealand’s latest subnational population estimates show an acceleration to population growth, with 65 of New Zealand’s 67 territorial authorities recording growth. This blog dissects where grew the fastest and what has been behind regional New Zealand’s ongoing demographic resilience.

More than 100,000 more people

Population growth nationally accelerated from 0.1%pa in the June 2022 year to 2.1%pa growth in 2023. This surge saw New Zealand’s population lift an incredible 105,900 people in just 12 months to reach a total population of 5.22 million. Behind the population growth were almost 90,000 international migrants, with evidence since June suggesting that international migration into New Zealand has lifted further.

Population growth was evenly spread

What was interesting about population growth this year was that it was spread throughout the country. Of New Zealand’s 67 territorial authorities, 65 recorded growth, with only Buller and the Chatham Islands showing decline.

Widespread regional population growth is quite remarkable when you consider that aging demographics meant that 16 territorial authorities faced a situation last year where deaths outweighed births, and so is testament to the rejuvenated appeal of regional New Zealand for international and internal migrants.

The following table highlights how this population growth was spread. At the top of the list was Queenstown Lakes, with 8.0%pa population growth. Such growth is the equivalent to one in every 12 people sitting in a room being new to town in the past year – that is an incredible statistic when you consider how big a deal it is to completely up sticks and move towns.

Last year’s growth is no flash in the pan for Queenstown Lakes, with the district’s population having doubled within 15 years.

Nestled in behind Queenstown is another fast growing South Island district – Selwyn – where population growth of 5.2%pa was recorded and, like Queenstown, Selwyn’s population has also doubled in the past 15 years.

Behind Queenstown Lakes and Selwyn, the next fastest growing parts of New Zealand were Mackenzie (3.6%pa), Hamilton (3.4%pa), Western Bay of Plenty (2.9%pa), Auckland (2.8%), Waikato District (2.6%pa), Tauranga (2.5%pa), Central Otago (2.4%pa), and Waimakariri (2.2%pa).

Kiwis prefer regions to cities

Although the fastest growing parts of New Zealand included a mix of cities and regions, scratching beneath the surface shows that population growth in most cities only occurred because of surging international migration.

Closer analysis of Auckland’s population growth showed that the city gained 47,800 international migrants, but lost 11,200 internal migrants to other parts of New Zealand. Given that natural increase in Auckland was only 10,400, the data suggests that had it not been for international migration then Auckland’s population would have declined (as it did in 2022).

The reality is that a train is in motion across New Zealand, where kiwis are deciding to leave cities and seek out the good life in the regions.

Alongside Auckland, other notable cities to suffer from negative internal migration trends included large cities such as Hamilton, Wellington, and Christchurch, as well as smaller cities such as Rotorua, Palmerston North, Nelson, and Invercargill.

In all cases these cities would have experienced outright population decline had it not been for the offsetting force of international migration. The only major city in New Zealand to gain from internal migration was Tauranga.

If we look at the regions who gained from the internal migration losses of cities, these included several districts in and around these major cities, as well as key lifestyle destinations. Selwyn, Tauranga, Waikato District, Waimakariri, and Queenstown Lakes all gained more than 1,000 internal migrants from other parts of New Zealand over the past 12 months, with Western Bay of Plenty, Far North, Whangarei, Tasman, and Waipa each gaining more than 500 internal migrants.

What’s driving the ongoing trend of moving to the regions?

The exodus of people from Auckland and some of our other big cities into the regions is being driven by a combination of ‘push’, ‘pull’, and ‘enabling’ factors.

On the push side – a key factor is house prices. Although house prices in Auckland have moderated by a small amount, the surge in mortgage rates since 2021 from 2%pa to 7%pa+ means that it is now more expensive than ever to service the interest on an Auckland mortgage. The socio-economic consequence of these extreme housing costs has been a pattern of migration out of the cities and into neighbouring regions and beyond. Houses can also be expensive in some regions, but generally they are not yet out of reach in such a widespread fashion.

On the pull side – a key factor has been lifestyle. The unsettling pandemic period has been a wake-up call for many and given us time to reflect on what matters in life. A quieter life, with simple pleasures and a nourishing environment to raise children is clearly something that matters for many. The allure of the ‘good life’ pulls people into our regions.

But alone these push and pull factors are not enough – there are other practicalities which are necessary to enable people to actually carve out a new life in our regions. 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. The enabling role of New Zealand’s extensive regional flight network should also not be underestimated.

The reality is that while many people are happy moving to a region, they still value having easy access to social and business opportunities in nearby cities. In other words, cities aren’t completely broken – it’s just that New Zealanders eyes have reopened to the charm of our regions. This isn’t a bad thing when you think of the hollowing out of many regions which occurred over the past generation and the rapidly aging existing populations in most places.

If you want to learn more about the demographic trends in your local area, and what that means for employment and demand for services then get in touch. With the macroeconomic context always changing, it is important to not lose sight of demographic forces in motion.