Moving around New Zealand: evidence from the 2013 census

The Christchurch earthquakes mean that population movements around New Zealand since the 2006 census have been different to previous trends.  This article outlines some of the key overall trends in population movements around the country, examines the most and least popular places to move to in the latest data, and looks at some of the significant changes in people’s preferences compared with the first half of last decade.

By examining these regional trends, we aim to provide a greater understanding of the economic, housing, and infrastructure challenges faced by different parts of the country.  For areas with a flat or shrinking population, there are questions about whether this trend can and should be slowed given the overarching demographic and economic influences that are driving population movements around New Zealand.  For areas where population growth has been stronger than expected, the change presents its own challenges in terms of ensuring that appropriate planning and infrastructure is in place to cope with the growth and facilitate further expansion.

The main trends in population movements

Finding more solid ground

The most dominant feature of population movements between 2008 and 2013 was the Christchurch earthquakes.  Table 5.5 shows that Christchurch had enjoyed a net inflow from other New Zealand regions between 2001 and 2006 of 0.3% of its population, especially due to people relocating from the lower half of the South Island.  But that gain turned into a net population outflow of 5.2% between 2008 and 2013.

Table 5.5


Christchurch’s biggest population losses were to Selwyn, Waimakariri, and Auckland.  Although Waimakiriri and, to a lesser extent, Selwyn were also affected by the quakes, their net population gains in the last five years ended up being greater than in the 2001-2006 period.  Waimakariri’s biggest net loss to any other local authority areas was just 120 people to Dunedin.

Ongoing urbanisation

The hollowing out of rural and provincial areas has been a hot topic of debate over recent months, and it is a trend that is evident in the census figures.  Examining the flows shows that the process has two-stages.  The first stage sees people moving “out of isolation” – from small towns to nearby regional centres, a decision which is often reflective of the lack of employment opportunities in their initial location.  Examples of this trend over the last five years are shown in Table 5.6.

Table 5.6

In many cases, though, these regional centres are suffering population losses of their own and may not end up being a final destination for people.  Examples of these secondary movements are shown in Table 5.7.

Table 5.7

This second wave represents a greater degree of urbanisation as people look for better job prospects in New Zealand’s largest cities.  For example, with a population of 17,900, Whakatane may present more opportunities than Opotiki (population 3,900).  However, Whakatane pales into comparison with the size of industry and occupational diversity offered by Tauranga and its 120,400 people.

Location, location, education

One of the other key influences on population flows is educational requirements.  Hamilton, Palmerston North, Wellington, and Dunedin all attract a significant number of young people due to these cities having universities in them.  Auckland also attracts its fair share of young people, although these inflows do not stand out as much as the number of young people moving to the other urban centre we have mentioned.  Detailed data on population movements by age from the 2013 census is not yet available, but regional data from the 2001-2006 period is shown in Table 5.8.

Table 5.8

We would expect that the Canterbury earthquakes could have boosted the flows to these other education centres over the last five years.  Canterbury has previously enjoyed significant inflows of young people from most other regions around the country, which are less likely to have persisted since the earthquakes significantly reduced enrolment numbers at the University of Canterbury.  Otago is likely to have been the biggest beneficiary in terms of student numbers, but with flow-on effects for Wellington and Waikato as well.

When the centre of town becomes less attractive or affordable

Many of the largest urban centres are showing a trend of people moving away from the centre of the city itself to satellite towns and peripheral areas.  After young people have moved to a large urban centre, studied or gained employment, and have become established, they may choose to move a little further out of town.  Living further from the centre of the city will enable them to purchase an affordable house or a property that is better suited to their needs as their family grows or expands.

The merger of the old Auckland local authorities into a single area and the lack of local board data from five years ago has made it more difficult to examine this phenomenon in Auckland in the latest data, but data from between 2001 and 2006 is shown in Table 5.9.  This data shows that Auckland City suffered a net population loss to all other local authority areas in the Auckland region, and the outlying areas of Franklin, Rodney, and Papakura all experienced net population gains from the four cities.

Table 5.9

Similar movements can be seen in Table 5.10 for the other large urban centres around the country in both the 2001-2006 and 2008-2013 periods.

Table 5.10

Attracting the oldies

As people approach or reach retirement, the family has left home, and the location of employment is no longer such an important determinant in where they choose to live.  Tauranga and the Kapiti Coast, for example, are stereotypically known as popular areas for retirees to live.  The list of the ten places with the highest proportions of people aged 65 or over are shown in Graph 5.20.

Graph 5.20

Table 5.11

The linkages between an older population and movements of people between regions are hinted at in Table 5.11.  Regional data from the 2001-2006 period shows the exodus from Auckland of people around retirement age to many other parts of the country, as well as a range of other inter-regional movements.  Marrying this data with that the figures in Graph 5.20 suggests that a significant number of Auckland retirees move to Thames-Coromandel, Wellington retirees move to Horowhenua, and Southland retirees move to Central Otago, for example.

A word about Auckland

One of the astounding trends from the 2001-2006 census was the extent to which people were leaving Auckland for other parts of the country.  The net population movement for Auckland had slipped from a net inflow of 4,953 in the 1991-1996 period to a net outflow of 16,659 in the 2001-2006 period.

The good news for Auckland is that the net outflow shrank to 4,665 in the 2008-2013 period.  Some of that reversal is due to the Canterbury earthquakes causing a disproportionate swing in the net movement of people from Canterbury.  However, even making an allowance for the effect of the earthquakes would still have seen the total net outflow from Auckland to other parts of the country shrink by about 8,000 people.  The history of net flows into or out of Auckland over the last 25 years is shown in Graph 5.21 and Graph 5.22.

Graph 5.21

Graph 5.22

The extreme outflow recorded between 2001 and 2006 is likely to have been caused by high house prices in Auckland, strong international migration flows into the region, and a good performance by other regional economies around New Zealand providing employment opportunities in other areas.  Over the last five years, Auckland’s relative economic performance has been better and population pressures in the region have not been as intense as net international migration has not been as strong.

Nevertheless, we believe that Auckland will continue to suffer a net population loss to most other parts of the country in coming years as house prices remain high in the region, foreign migration inflows are strong, and the number of retirement-age people expands.  The region’s relative unpopularity as a location for retirees to live means that, with the aging population, the outflow of people to other more retirement-friendly locations is likely to persist for the foreseeable future.

Winners and losers

Having looked at the overarching trends in the population movements around New Zealand, we conclude by doing a stocktake of a range of areas around New Zealand from two different viewpoints.  Table 5.12 and Table 5.13 show the major winners and losers in terms of population movements over the last five years.  Table 5.14 shows areas where the population gain or loss has changed significantly since the 2001-2006 period.

We don’t want to re-litigate all these figures in detail, but it is worthwhile highlighting some of the numbers.

  • Carterton’s population is about 670 people, or 8.6%, larger than was shown in Statistics NZ’s previous 2013 population estimates.  In net terms, the district attracted almost 500 people from other parts of the country between 2008 and 2013, mostly from other parts of the Wellington region.  The biggest single change is that the town is no longer losing significant numbers of people to Masterton as it had previously.
  • Selwyn’s population is about 2,500 people, or 5.7%, larger than was shown in Statistics NZ’s previous 2013 population estimates.  The district has long been a popular one to move to, but the net inflow has been boosted over recent years by people moving from Christchurch in the wake of the earthquakes.  Population growth in Selwyn has averaged 4.2%pa since the 2006 census, and the district’s expansion includes growth of 9.8%pa in Rolleston and 4.8%pa in Lincoln.
  • Waipa’s population is about 2,300 people, or 5.0%, larger than was shown in Statistics NZ’s previous 2013 population estimates.  As Hamilton has flourished, Waipa has also been an increasingly popular place to live.  The major change from previous censuses seems to be a greater number of people moving to the district from the middle and lower North Island, as well as less of a drift from Waipa into Hamilton City itself.
  • Nelson’s population is about 1,900 people, or 4.1%, larger than was shown in Statistics NZ’s previous 2013 population estimates.  The city has lost far fewer people to the Tasman district over the last five years, with the net outflow shrinking from 990 people to 384 people –the smallest net outflow from Nelson to Tasman since data for the area was split in 1991.  Nelson’s population was also boosted by earthquake-related movements.  The net movement with Christchurch switched from a 381-person outflow in 2001-2006 to a net inflow of 501 people between 2008 and 2013.
  • Ruapehu’s population is about 600 people, or 4.6%, smaller than was shown in Statistics NZ’s previous 2013 population estimates.  The district’s population has now shrunk 29% since 1992.  The fact that Statistics NZ overestimated the district’s population is a little surprising given that the shrinking trend is an ongoing one and that the internal migration outflow has, if anything, been less pronounced over the last five years.  Highlighting the district’s plight is that Taumaranui’s population is at its smallest since 1971, Ohura since 1966, Waiouru since 1966 (which is how far back our data currently goes), Raetihi since 1921, and Ohakune since 1911.
  • Westland’s population is about 380 people, or 4.2%, smaller than was shown in Statistics NZ’s previous 2013 population estimates, reversing a trend of growth between 2001 and about 2009.  Westland's weaker-than-expected population growth appears to have resulted from a general worsening of internal migration flows to other South Island areas (excluding Canterbury).  Hokitika’s population is now at its smallest since 1981.


Movements between regions are by no means the only determinant of population growth around various parts of the country, but they are a component that we get an insight into only very rarely.  Many of the overriding trends evident in the latest data are in line with previous experience or were obviously going to appear given the Canterbury earthquakes.  However, there are some key differences with what we have seen in the past.

Perhaps the most significant change is in the movements into and out of Auckland.  The very high departure numbers from Auckland between 2001 and 2006 have not been sustained, although the region is still suffering a net outflow, which contrasts with trends prior to 1996.

Other changes are less significant on a nationwide level, but are still important for those districts that are directly affected, such as Carterton, Ruapehu, or Westland.  For areas that have performed unexpectedly well, maintaining conditions that are conducive to population and economic growth are important, such as ensuring that adequate land is available for increasing the housing stock and that essential infrastructure services such as roading and wastewater are able to cope with the growth that is occurring.

For areas that are struggling, the challenges faced are more difficult, with questions asked about the long-term viability of some areas as depopulation occurs and the provision of social infrastructure and other services becomes more problematic.  A shrinking rating and population base implies the erosion of revenue for both local councils and businesses in these areas, which will only be reversed in the long-term with major sustainable investment in new industry to improve these areas’ employment opportunities and economic prospects.

The data also highlights likely focuses for new building activity over coming years.  International and internal population movements suggest that priorities for residential construction, in particular, will include:

  • expanding Auckland’s dwelling stock, particular around the edges of the city
  • replacing Canterbury’s housing stock, with a significant proportion of demand located in Selwyn
  • catering to first-home buyers on urban peripheries or in satellite towns
  • providing housing for retirees in selected locations such as Mangawhai, Pauanui, or Levin.

Table 5.12

Table 5.13

Table 5.14

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