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A lesson in council-led regional recovery

When the lockdowns began to take out local jobs, Marlborough District Council (MDC) swung into action to produce what it claims is the country’s first economic recovery response plan. By Brendon Burns.

During the Easter break, as early job losses began to mount from local and international pandemic impacts, MDC staff and councillors worked from home to sketch out the bones of a region-wide effort to respond to the economic impacts of the pandemic.

Deputy Mayor Nadine Taylor had been asked by Mayor John Leggett to lead the initiative.

“Not all ratepayers realise that councils have the statutory responsibility to be a region’s lead during emergencies,” says Nadine.

“We’d done so during the Kaikoura earthquake, but we knew this was going to be so much bigger and more demanding. As well as leading the economic response, the council is also at the helm of Marlborough’s Covid-19 Welfare Response and Recovery programme looking after people and communities.”

MDC is a unitary authority and also provides the region’s economic development function as there is no separate ED agency in the Marlborough region.

Councillor Taylor and MDC Economic Development manager Neil Henry brought together a core support group that met on Easter Monday and the initiative was branded TEAM – The Economic Action Marlborough group.

Within 10 days, representatives from Marlborough’s economic powerhouses – wine, aquaculture, Maori, farming, forestry, tourism, small businesses and transport, along with the regional MSD lead – began meeting regularly with Nadine Taylor, councillor Mark Peters and the TEAM support group.

“Marlborough neatly makes up one percent of our national population, so we saw ourselves leading a TEAM of 50,000,” says Nadine.

“We knew we needed everyone in Marlborough to help lead our region out of what Covid-19 was doing to our economy and community.”

MDC had already brought together a list totalling more than a third of a billion dollars in ‘shovel ready’ infrastructure projects – including some from the private sector – to feed into the Government’s efforts to pump cash into the economy. At the time of writing, the country was still waiting on the Government’s project announcements.

Not that the TEAM group or MDC saw there could be total reliance on the Crown. MDC used a strong balance sheet to finance over $60 million of capital expenditure in 2020-21, with similar amounts over each of the next three years.

Also, with close to $40 million of projects budgeted in 2019-20 still going out to tender, around $100 million from MDC alone will be pumping into the Marlborough economy in a little over a year.

Councillors also backed an $865,000 package proposed by the TEAM group that included a six-month campaign, led by Destination Marlborough and the region’s Chamber of Commerce.

The resulting Make it Marlborough campaign is encouraging Marlburians to support local businesses through winter and spring. As the first stage of an extensive domestic tourism marketing campaign it is also funded along with a range of advice measures for local businesses and free parking in the Blenheim and Picton CBDs.

Work was meanwhile being done developing the first phase economic recovery response plan. Recognising that many aquaculture, wine and forestry businesses in particular operate across the top of the South, there was contact with the TEAM group’s Nelson/Tasman counterpart, Project Kokiri.

Both groups commissioned Infometrics reports providing some early estimates of the economic effects of the pandemic.

Marlborough’s was delivered in early May and provided some sobering statistics. While the region had been heading for record low unemployment of less than three percent in March 2020, this was now forecast to lift to more than eight percent in March 2021 with some 2600 jobless. Young people, especially local Maori, working in tourism and hospitality jobs were immediately hit hard.

Councillor Taylor briefed local Maori leaders on Thursday May 21 before the release of the TEAM plan the following day. It details 60 projects and initiatives to offset the initial impacts on Marlborough businesses and jobs which can be started (or have elements commenced) in the May-July period.

Some Council projects are already underway such as the Make it Marlborough marketing campaign and free CBD parking.

Other projects and initiatives which TEAM is recommending to central Government for early potential advancement include developing spare land around Wairau Hospital for housing, a marine extract facility planned near Blenheim by Sanford, the Picton port and rail upgrades, and the combined Marlborough colleges campus build.

The TEAM group plan also recommends Government support for MDC’s own Smart Services project to connect marine farms to sensors and the Nga Wairau o Ruatere cultural and heritage centre celebrating early links in Marlborough.

“These are all projects which could proceed in the next few months or have elements such as design that could be advanced,” says Nadine.

She says Marlborough also wants to see some of the $1.6 billion provided in the Budget for skills training used to support redeployment into the wine industry and Maori-tourism partnership and training.

“The TEAM plan is not a stand-alone document. It links to the enormous effort going on from central Government, via wage support, ‘shovel ready’ infrastructure projects and other spending, including that from the council, to keep cashflow going in Marlborough and people in jobs.”

Nadine adds that this was a first phase economic recovery response plan with a focus on helping Marlborough businesses through the three months to July.

The TEAM group saw four likely phases to the recovery: The first ‘respond’ phase dealing with the immediate lockdown issues; ‘resilience’ where maintaining cashflow and jobs are the focus; a ‘return’ phase where capacity and scale are rebuilt – hopefully starting late this year; and finally, ‘reimagination’ where some learnings from Marlborough’s recovery can be integrated in a ‘new normal’ including environmental benefits.

The TEAM group is now starting work on a second, longer-term recovery response plan due out in spring.

“Marlborough’s diverse economy will help blunt the worst of the recession,” says Nadine. “Council has already stepped up to the plate and we will work hard as a region to get our share of the benefits from announced and yet to emerge Government measures.”

Marlborough Mayor John Leggett says the TEAM group and council staff worked cohesively to deliver the nation’s first regional economic recovery response plan.

“This is undoubtedly already helping take some of the edges off the economic impact of the pandemic on our community,” he says.

“We have every reason to be proud of what we’ve achieved. If we can share any of our learnings with fellow councils, we’d be only too pleased to assist.”

Summary: Economic Impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Marlborough District – Early Estimates – Infometrics April 2020

Indicator Marlborough District  New Zealand
GDP % change, year to March 2021 -7.5% -8.0%
Job losses to March 2021 -2,646 -250,522
Unemployment rate March 2021 8.2% (year to Mar 2020 – 2.8%) 9.1%
Loss total earnings to March 2021 -$137m -$14,191m
Residential construction % change to March 2021 -34.5% -18.8%
Non-residential construction -5.5% -18.3%


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