So the above suggests that Southland, on a nationally-comparable basis, is in a solid economic position and that the province’s forward outlook must be positive.

There are however growing signals that the region’s social and economic viability will in the near future be seriously challenged. The central element around the forward concerns rest upon population growth data, especially the evidence that workforce ageing and depopulation will cause major hurdles to meaningful future economic growth.

Placed in perspective, if the Southland population remained static through to 2025 it would drop from the current 2.3% to 1.8% of the country’s total. The national population is ageing and on that score the comparable Southland population ageing mix is growing faster. Adding to that negative aspect, educated Southlanders (a resident 11% have bachelor’s degrees, across NZ the figure is 20%) tend to move away permanently and regrettably the percentage of young people with trade qualifications or no formal qualifications compares in unfavourable terms to what is occurring elsewhere in the country.

There is good news around the fact that Southland leaders are not prepared to stand back and ignore the gloomy signals. An action plan is well underway and this comes in the form of a detailed and professionally researched and constructed Southland Economic Development Strategy.

The Southland Mayoral Forum has initiated the related work (ably led by Wellington-based specialist consultant Geoff Henley) and a number of regional ‘enabling organisations’ (Employers' Association is one) are contributing in various significant capacities.

To quote the formal Strategy summary:

“Substantial energy has been committed to regional economic development and with some success and the region has exhibited strong growth recently, largely (but not only) built on the dairy boom, but the fundamental vulnerability of the regional economy and community has changed little”.

“The formula (Strategy formula) is simple: more people will seek to live and work in Southland when perceived negatives such as the tyranny of distance and climate are exceeded by perceived benefits of jobs, discretionary income, quality of life, lifestyle and environment. Total livability is the key to the Strategy”.

“The Strategy, describes a long term unified approach building on local energy and leadership to deliver growth and change. A balanced economy with strong social cohesion will produce the resilience required to counter the impact of mega-trends such as international commodity price fluctuations, the south-to-north population drift, the lure of city and job losses in traditional industries, which constantly threaten the stability of regional economies”.

As will be apparent the main background thrust of the new Strategy is to lift the number of people living and working in Southland. The Strategy target is to have a total population of 105,000 people (currently 96,300) by 2025. It is already clear that the regional infrastructure can comfortably support this increase.

A higher population does not of course only mean migration-driven benefit but must also be characterized by the retention of the existing population, particularly, given worker ageing trends, the retention of the younger members of the regional workforce.

The formal Strategy fabric has been structured around broad key activity streams these encompassing people and place, commercial enterprise and community enterprise. Drilling into the detail, the Strategy will look into the expansion of those activity streams that will address specific factors around lifestyle and culture, the ease of doing business, social and business support structure improvements, an educational and industrial extension focus, and the generation of talent and resources to drive wider innovation of existing and new commercial enterprise.

There is now a further level of planning underway that will drive the Strategy implementation process. A new purpose-appointed Governance Group will be formed and a Project Director contracted to manage the over-arching Strategy responsibilities. Alongside these steps specialist Action Teams will be put in place to address direct-focus work needs. These will include urban renewal, ease of doing business, people attraction, industry extension, innovation/new industry and community enterprise.

Each team will produce a Team Action Plan (TAP) and following on from that step the process will involve the engagement of local delivery agencies such as venture Southland, Environment Southland, SIT, the Southland Chamber of Commerce and Employers’ Association.

The overriding focus of The Strategy, as covered in the Mayoral Forum Brief is to develop a plan as follows:

“The Strategy is to be a succinct and high level document that sets out a strategic direction for the region, building on its natural advantages and opportunities and addressing the issues facing the region. It needs to recognize that economic development needs to positively impact our quality of life and the environment and leverage these features for economic advantage. The Strategy will need to provide a platform for joint work and collaboration between the local authorities in the region and also with Southland’s industries, businesses and institutions”.

The ‘proof of the pudding’ here will ultimately be determined by how well the various organisations come together in an aggregated unified way to execute the wide range of identified Strategy tasks. Also in the mix will be the level of success around which “The Southland Story” is promoted nationally and internationally.

At this point there are strong signals from all quarters that the coordinated and well-planned approach carries a high level of commitment.

John Scandrett, Chief Executive Otago Southland Employers' Association