Whanganui District Council is backing a forecast for high population growth as a starting point for its next 10-year plan.
The forecast projects an influx of 4200 people to the district by 2034, taking the population from 48,700 to 52,900 and rising to 60,000 in 30 years.
At its first workshop on the Long-Term Plan 2024-2034, the council considered lower-growth scenarios before directing staff to investigate planning for a higher level.
Chief executive David Langford said the biggest impact of high population growth would be the need for infrastructure investment to service more housing, together with economic development and strategy to support job creation and private sector growth.
“If we’re able to … grow our population, that adds more households to the community and allows us to spread the rates burden further.
“For the shorter term, I think officers are keen to be ambitious and try to chase down more than our fair share of internal migration by promoting Whanganui as an attractive place to move to.
“But being able to sustain that for 30 years is probably unrealistic and at some point in the three-to-10 year timeframe we’ll need to drop back to a medium projection.”
A medium projection puts the district’s population at 51,500 at the end of the long-term plan in 2034, rising to 54,900 in 2054. The low-growth scenario has Whanganui’s population rising by 1000 in the next 10 years and holding at that level.
Langford said the risk of a high-growth approach was over-investing in infrastructure that was not matched by actual growth.
“Our advice is that risk is relatively low because we’ve got quite a bit of spare capacity so we don’t need to launch into a significant building programme.”
There was opportunity for infill development and the roading network had “ample capacity”.
“In terms of being able to put more traffic on our roads, you wouldn’t need a huge amount of investment. We’re not Auckland, we don’t need to build new motorways to accommodate a growing population.”
A long-term plan is prepared every three years to set out the council’s aims over the following decade and how activities will be managed, delivered and funded.
Infometrics senior economist Nick Brunsdon told councillors on Thursday the higher level of growth was projected on the back of expected increases in immigration and migration as baby-boomers age and the country works to replace the ageing working population.
However, all the developed world was experiencing the same demographic phenomenon and was competing for workers.
Brunsdon said Whanganui was in a good position to attract new residents moving from other regions for lifestyle reasons. They included those who could work from home and commute occasionally between Whanganui and bigger cities like Wellington and Palmerston North, and “grey movers” (the over-65s).
“That group has doubled in size over next 20 years and is projected to continue to grow.”
Brunsdon said the trends supported a high-growth plan in the first three years of a 10-year plan, but more thought was needed about planning on that scenario for a full 10 years.
Most councillors supported a high-growth scenario over the early years of the long-term plan, then dropping back to the medium projection.
Councillor Rob Vinsen was not so sure.
“When word gets out that we are a high-growth area, that has an attraction in itself. What we choose might have an influence on the result. Whether 30 years down the track we want to be another Tauranga is another question.
“I favour taking a medium-growth strategy on this. Do we want to be a buzzy big city of 60,000 people or are we a little bit happier if we are a little bit smaller?”
Whanganui Mayor Andrew Tripe said the projected growth was relatively small.
“We’re not talking Tauranga. My suggestion is we’ve got room to move, we’ve got current capacity to do that. A few more people in our district is very achievable.”
Councillor Michael Law urged the council to plan for a population of 60,000.
“Decentralisation is happening. You can’t tell people not to come here. I came here. Why? Because it’s bloody amazing. Most of us don’t need jobs, we come here with our jobs … we come here and we buy the properties. If we can’t buy them we build them.
“That low tier is not going to happen – we’re very close to that mid-tier already. The high tier will become the mid-tier and our worse-case scenario could be around 72,000.”
Langford said staff would prepare initial information for councillors on the preferred scenario before a decision is made on the growth projection.
The long-term plan must be completed by the end of June next year.
– Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air