Local Government Magazine

Can councils help breathe new life into zombie towns?

Ross Waugh suggests different ways to combat the seemingly inevitable demise of many parts of small-town New Zealand and halt the march of the zombie towns.

Is Marton a zombie town? It’s in a slower growing region of the country. It has a declining and rapidly-ageing population, although housing is still sought after. So at first glance, yes, Marton appears to be a zombie town. Hold on, though. Ross Waugh says appearances can be deceptive.
Ross was being deliberately provocative when he asked whether Marton should be closed. Presenting his paper at the IPWEA NZ annual conference in Dunedin earlier this year he included a cautionary note. “Warning,” ran his caveat, “the title of this paper could be seen as symptomatic of the type of technocratic misunderstanding and arrogance that has led in part to the 2016 UK Brexit and US election results.”
He went on to say his paper was designed to provoke a necessary discussion “but without arrogance”.
Ross is founder and director of Timaru-based firm Waugh Infrastructure Management. An asset management and systems integration specialist, he has more than 30 years’ experience in municipal and local government infrastructure asset management and engineering.
At first glance, he says, Marton ticks all the boxes for zombie town status. Situated in the middle of Rangitikei District and with a 2013 census population of just 4548, Marton is a typical provincial service town. It’s the type of town that has been under social and economic pressure since the country’s wider economic changes of the 1980s.
Based on current trends and information, Marton’s population is forecast to decrease by almost 33 percent over the next 30 years. This is part of a steady trickle of souls leaving the town. Back in 1996, for example, the population was around 5300. By 2036, that number is expected to fall to 3710 and, by 2046, to 3050.
Like many other small rural places, its town centre looks tired, and its 1950s and ’60s infrastructure needs to be renewed. That involves a high cost of replacement. There are questions around whether or not communities can afford to do this. And, as Ross posits, what’s the point anyway if small towns are dying?
Still kicking
So here’s the other side of the story, according to Ross. In July 2016 the average house price in New Zealand was $602,000. Those figures were, of course, heavily influenced upwards by Auckland house prices. The average house price in Rangitikei District, on the other hand, was $157,000, making real estate there very good value for buyers.
Marton has become relatively sought after with a number of reasonable houses still for sale around or under $200,000.
In March 2017 the average sale time for a house in Marton was 16 days, and the rental market was very tight, with rentals fully occupied.
People are choosing to buy houses in Marton and then take the easy commute to Palmerston North, Whanganui, Feilding or Ohakea.
Rangitikei District Council has been proactive with the future challenges it faces and has already taken steps to integrate efforts to halt any decline. Council has consulted widely with its community regarding the sustainability of future service levels.
Ross says one way forward may be even more integration of central and local government services, and other community-owned assets and services.
And he suggests a national minimum level for total community services could be developed and applied.
Ross notes that, while a fifth of New Zealand’s population live in minor urban or rural areas, centralisation and cities dominate conversations about the country’s future.
“Once you look past the urban-dominated media and elite discussion in New Zealand,” he says, “everywhere you look there is investment, innovation, change and progress.”
According to Ross, provincial, small town and rural New Zealand contains a wide range of opportunities.
These are in everything from niche and high-value agricultural production; supporting industries; the education and retention of young people (high-speed internet will be a defining factor); and what he calls “Mittelstand-type” companies.

Marton gets a makeover
When Rangitikei District Council released the Marton Town Centre Plan at the end of 2014, the idea of a makeover was top of mind.
The Marton Town Centre Plan is summarised in four strategies:

  • Make great streets and public spaces;
  • Reuse old buildings;
  • Create a new civic centre as a catalyst; and
  • Deliver a boutique town.

Rangitikei mayor Andy Watson says that since the 2014 report, the wider Rangitikei region has started to see an upturn in residents – firstly in the south and then, more recently, in the north. That, in turn, is putting pressure on housing and council is putting incentives in place to help deal with that.
Work in Marton, one of three centres set for placemaking makeovers, is ongoing. “Marton’s in a cool space,” he says.
Rangitikei District Council is moving ahead with the proposal to build a new community facility including a heritage precinct in Marton’s main street.

Germans may have coined the phrase ‘Mittelstand’ but these ‘mid-sized’ companies are spread across the globe. Often located in small towns or rural areas, these are the international powerhouses that dominate highly-specialised niche markets domestically and internationally.
They are typically high-profit, mid-sized companies with strong growth potential and market leaders in their niche. They have a strong customer focus, close customer relations and put a lot of emphasis on innovation and R&D.
Mittelstand companies are often located in small to medium-sized towns and rural areas that offer stable workforces. As a result, their high-performance, high-training, apprenticeship cultures create high-performance employees.
German examples include: Winterhalter Gastronom (hotel dishwashers); Wirtgen (road-recycling machines); Bauer (deep drilling equipment); Doppelmayr (cableways) and Herrenknecht (the tunnel drilling machine firm behind Auckland’s “Alice” tunnel boring machine on the Waterview tunnel).
According to Ross, recent media articles show Marton has several companies with Mittelstand attributes.
“Given the zombie town hypothesis for small town New Zealand, it might seem surprising that such companies exist in Marton,” says Ross.
“But when we look closer at Marton’s geographic position – in the centre of a productive barley growing region, with close proximity to an agricultural research university [Massey], with good road and air links, and with a relatively stable population and workforce – it becomes apparent that Marton has many of the core attributes that attract Mittelstand companies.”
He cites Gallagher Fuel Systems (formerly PEC) which leads the way with innovative fuel dispenser systems for service stations throughout Australasia. There’s Southern Lights Biomaterials which provides processed and semi-processed bovine biomaterials for regenerative medicine throughout the world. And there’s the country’s largest malting factory, Marton Maltings, which is owned by the world’s leading malt producer Malteurop.
According to Ross, the location of Mittelstand-type companies in Marton, coupled with the wider agricultural region bodes well for the town.
“The scheduled arrival of fibre optic broadband, combined with a central location and good road connectivity to surrounding towns and regions places Marton in a good position to continue to have a place in the New Zealand and international economy,” he says.
On top of that, Marton is close to good education facilities, including Massey University in Palmerston North, he says.
Meanwhile, the Rangitikei District Council has been fleshing out ways to help Marton to thrive into the future with the creation of the Marton Town Centre Plan. (See box story “Marton gets a makeover”.)
Guaranteed minimum services
Ross also floats the idea of central and local government banding together to provide guaranteed minimum services. He suggests services and associated charges could be aligned to the size of a town’s population.
Community assets and buildings could be a good place to start, he says, citing examples that could be explored:

  • Co-location of service centres. Ross says the Ministry of Social Development is already working with some councils in rural and remote communities;
  • Combined community swimming and sports facilities;
  • Community medical clinics or small hospitals that are partnered with council or community ownership; and
  • Multiple use of school sports grounds, and consideration of these in the wider provision and analysis of parks and sports grounds.

This article was first published in the September 2017 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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