Canterbury: it’s busy but slowing
Published in May 2017 newsletter

Although the Crusaders are leaving everybody in their wake in Super Rugby, unfortunately the Canterbury economy isn’t matching those standards. Our provisional estimate is that the region’s GDP growth rate in the year to March 2017 was 0.9%, the lowest figure for five years. In fact, Canterbury is now at the bottom of the GDP growth league for all regions across New Zealand – lagging behind next-lowest Southland (1.0%) and table-topping Tasman (4.1%).

Granted, in level terms, Canterbury is generally still a busy place, especially when it comes to non-residential construction. In addition, the slowdown in the pace of growth is neither new or unexpected.  But it’s still worth assessing what’s driving the slowdown and what each district’s prospects might be.

As it happens, growth across the different parts of Canterbury is fairly uniform, with one or two exceptions. Selwyn District is leading the pack, with GDP growth of 1.3% over the past year, but Christchurch city (1%) and Timaru District (0.9%) are close behind. Waimakariri is a little further back, at 0.5%. But the notable laggard at present is Ashburton District, where GDP has been flat over the past year. The lingering knock-on effects of weak dairy payouts over the previous few seasons are clear in Ashburton, where retail trade, car registrations and commercial vehicle purchases are all subdued.

Some of those indicators are a little stronger in other parts of the region, notably retail trade in Waimakariri (8.1% growth) and Selwyn (3.8%) – both ahead of the national average increase of 2.9% over the past year – and Timaru’s commercial vehicle registrations, which have surged 17% from an already-high level.

But all districts in the region also have shared areas of softness. Most notably, guest nights are down year-on-year in all districts in Canterbury (although only by a tiny amount in Christchurch city), while the numbers of job seekers are up across the board, by between 5.5% (Timaru) and 21% (Waimakariri).  Unemployment rates remain comfortably below the national average, but are on a gentle upwards trend in all districts. The recent Fairton freezing works shutdown will accelerate that trend in Ashburton, albeit many of those workers will move over time into other industries.

Looking out a year or two ahead, Canterbury and its districts will benefit from the recovery in dairy prices and encouraging prospects for beef and lamb will also underpin the local economies. The region also has a good solid base of international education, manufacturing and exporting enterprises, which should benefit from a gradual improvement in the global economic environment and, just maybe, an easing in the New Zealand dollar. Infrastructure investment in the region, particularly in roading north and south of Christchurch will also pump money into the economy for a few years to come.

In focus: Waimakariri has some challenges

That said, Waimakariri is an interesting case regarding population and transport. Anecdotally, the commute from the district into Christchurch for work has become almost unbearable for growing numbers of people, and although improved roading will ease those pressures, we know from history that demand just rises to match (or exceed) whatever capacity is available when it comes to motorways.

Not only are those so-called ‘push’ factors becoming greater but there are also some ‘pulls’ coming through too. Christchurch city’s housing market, for example, is flat to falling and the scope to pick up a ‘bargain’ property either to buy or rent might be pretty attractive to some current Waimakariri residents. At 39% of the population, Waimakariri’s 50+ age group is already four percentage points higher than Canterbury as a whole, so the district can ill-afford to lose out to others amidst the general trend of aging populations and the long-term competition for labour.

To be fair, Waimakariri has done pretty well in terms of local job creation recently.  The Infometrics’ Regional Economic Profile shows that in 2016, 179 construction services jobs were added, with another 63 in administrative & support services, and 59 apiece for education & training and professional/scientific/technical services. Admittedly, the other end of the spectrum saw 34 jobs lost in agriculture (i.e. dairy, beef cattle farming, sheep and grain).

It is also important to note that aging populations and the need to find new replacement workers is not unique to Waimakariri. Timaru, for example, has an even higher share of people aged 50+, at 43%.  But that doesn’t mean the pressures will be any less affecting or important to address.

An overall positive message for Canterbury

On the whole, the Canterbury region is in slowdown mode at present and there will be future challenges around aging populations and new people attraction.  But there are reasons for optimism in most parts of the region, especially with agricultural prospects looking brighter.

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