Population growth has already ended in a number of countries around the world. Significant demographic trends are transforming the global population, with record low fertility across the globe, increasing longevity and increasingly mobile populations. Depopulation is multifaceted and has major flow on effects for the allocation of resources, the provision of services and the viability of communities isolated from the economic powerhouses.
This thesis studied the drivers of depopulation, the policy responses to population decline and the spectrum of interventions available to address population decline from a number of OECD countries. It also looked at whether population decline could be slowed or reversed through studying the demographic and distance challenges of peripheral towns in the Waikato Region in New Zealand. The literature proposes that there are only three possible policy responses to population decline, non-intervention, countering and accepting. It was found that successful ‘countering’ strategies were dependent on the location, economic and demographic context of each community and primarily slowed decline rather than reversing it. None of the ‘accepting’ strategies that were identified were able to stop population decline. It is easier to achieve improved quality of life than to slow population decline. The research showed that in the context of zero or low national population growth peripheral towns are unlikely to gain population. Outmigration is even more significant in peripheral communities in nationally declining countries.
What became apparent through this research was that towns are like businesses – they need to keep reinventing themselves in the global marketplace to remain competitive. However, some communities do not have the functional elements to succeed.
It will be many years before New Zealand is depopulating at a national level, so there may still be opportunity to slow down population decline in peripheral locations. The Waikato case study showed that this would be a challenging proposition for some Territorial Authorities on the periphery. At the very least New Zealand can adapt to ageing population structure and increase the quality of life for those that inhabit small declining towns. As more regional areas shift towards natural decline with low fertility rates and ageing populations and many enter permanent zero growth or decline, it is important that there are policies which are fit for purpose.