Labour-led governments have generally been in favour of it, without quite understanding what ‘it’ is, using it instead as an opportunity to pork-barrel popular, often unsustainable local projects. The Nelson Cotton Mill of the late 1950s and the West Coast’s Matai Industries in the 1970s are the most blatant examples.

For their part, National-led governments have been inherently more suspicious (except during by-election campaigns), fearing that it might lead to a form of centralised planning. The combination of their inaction and relatively frequent changes of government have meant that nothing much ever really happens.

Every now and then regional and local government step into the breach, but they often have less idea than their central government counterparts. Local government-led regional development is like a modern version of the cargo cult – expensive projects developed at ratepayers’ expense in the often vain hope something may turn up.

I live in Wellington where we currently have two classic examples of this thinking. Our port company wants to dredge deeper harbour channels to make it possible for larger container ships to come into Wellington Harbour, despite the fact that their existing wharf capacity is far from fully utilised, and there is no evidence larger ships will want to call here anyway. The driver seems to be more a case of Auckland and Tauranga being able to handle such ships, so Wellington feels it should too, even though Auckland and Tauranga are our major import and export ports.

And then there is the case of extending the airport’s runway, which the City Council seems ready to commit hundreds of millions of dollars towards to make Wellington more attractive to long-haul flights. This coming at the very time when the numbers of long-haul flights into and out of airports other than Auckland are being wound back, and none of the airlines is expressing any interest in longhaul flights into and out of the capital.

Not about ‘nice-to-haves

Regional development is not about a wish-list of regional nice-to-haves, but about ensuring that each region can do to maximum effect the things it is best at. That means trusting our regions to develop their own opportunities, rather than decide them for them. But then we have to be prepared to back their decisions.

Hawke’s Bay is a very good example of where central government thinks it knows best when it comes to regional development. A couple of years ago, Hawke’s Bay decided to market itself and its produce to the world as GE Free, only to be stopped by the government on the grounds we marketed ourselves as brand New Zealand, not a series of competing brands within it.

It decided instead that what would go down really well in the region was a massive dam to boost irrigation and foster dairy conversions. The facts that the proposal was widely rejected locally, and was unlikely to achieve the economic benefits claimed, and would certainly inflict significant environmental damage were deemed secondary considerations.

Indeed, the Board of Inquiry that was established and other related approval procedures were designed in such a way to facilitate the outcome Wellington had already decided would suit the national interest, regardless of the regional impact.

The same type of thinking afflicts much of our transport planning as well. Regional concerns and interests run a distant second when it comes to planning our national transport infrastructure. The Napier-to-Gisborne rail line is a classic in this regard. Its future is determined by how it fits into Kiwirail’s national model, not the contribution it could make to regional development.

Recently, I argued the cancellation of Air New Zealand’s Taupō to Wellington flights with a senior executive of the company. He dismissed me, saying that Rotorua was only an hour away from Taupō, and that many people living on Auckland’s North Shore were further away than that from Auckland Airport! A point completely and arrogantly missed.

The fallacy in our thinking about regional development is the dangerous assumption that one size fits all, the capital knows best, and New Zealand – longer than the length of Europe – is all the same from its north to south. That is clearly not so.

Yes, we abolished provincial government in favour of a unitary national system nearly 140 years ago, but that did not mean we abolished the distinct identity of our regions. Noone would seriously suggest that Auckland is the same as Otago, Canterbury is no different from the Bay of Plenty, or Hawke’s Bay has just the same issues as the West Coast. Yet the ‘one size fits all’ approach clearly implies that, which is utterly absurd.

What’s each region best at?

The key to developing effective regional development policies is enabling regions to focus on what they are best at, not at all inconsistent with the overall national interest. So, if Hawke’s Bay wishes to market itself internationally as the home of GE free produce, let it do so, as the benefit that will accrue to it as a consequence of export markets and opportunities will also accrue to New Zealand as a whole. If Hawke’s Bay does not want the Ruataniwha Dam, let it have the power to stop the project in favour of something more regionally and environmentally sustainable.

In turn, building viable regions through strong regional development policies is the way to counter the dominant growth of a region like Auckland, because the necessary infrastructure they create leads to long-term jobs, stable populations, better communities and stronger families.

But – and there are a couple of major ‘buts’ – regional development also requires regional organisations that are coherent and share a common vision, all of which places pressure on local and regional government and its organisation. If regions cannot articulate a focused regional vision and set of aspirations, we will simply end up with more of the same. Wellington will continue to do what Wellington has always done, and the divide between the major cities and the regions will grow ever wider.

Hawke’s Bay, with its population, the fertile Heretaunga plains, good infrastructure, and long reputation as the ‘fruit bowl of New Zealand’ is well placed to play a leading role in redefining regional development in New Zealand. A coherent regional vision, and a central government prepared to back it will set the scene to let that happen.

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