A former mayor has offered up a stark warning for Invercargill suggesting there is a 30-year economic recovery ahead if the Tiwai Point aluminum smelter closes in 2021.
Justin Lester was Wellington’s mayor from 2016 through to 2019 but now works for Dot Loves Data, a data analytics company.
Lester, 41, grew up with his mother and two brothers at a Tramway Rd statehouse in Invercargill and openly admits it was humble financial beginnings.
He has a soft spot for south Invercargill and it’s prompted him to hover the microscope over the state of his old stomping ground.
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Lester says the findings are both surprising and sobering.
The scars from the 1991 closure of the Ocean Beach freezing works can still be seen today and it has taken 30 years for Southland recovery, Lester says.
He adds if Tiwai was to close Southland would be faced with a similar economic recovery time.
“I remember growing up in south Invercargill and all my neighbours either worked at the freezing works or at Tiwai.
“When the freezing works closed people struggled to find new jobs.’’
There were close to 1500 people employed at Ocean Beech when Alliance closed the doors in 1991.
It was a major employer for Southland since it opened in 1892.
Following the closure of Ocean Beach, as well as redundancies at other freezing works, Southland’s population declined from 99,952 in 1991 to 90,876 in 2006.
But that’s not the sobering stat Lester was alluding to.
His data company collates information from various sources, and they measure socio-economic deprivation in New Zealand.
He says south Invercargill provides some of the most impoverished communities in New Zealand, according to his company’s data.
The Appleby suburb ranks at No 1781 out of all the 1867 New Zealand communities that Dot Loves Data measures.
Lester’s data shows median household income in Appleby sits at $34,498, significantly lower than the national average of $80,287.
The data also indicates unemployment sits at 18.59 percent and means-tested benefit claimants are 12.21 percent of the working-age population, almost four times the national average of 3.12 percent.
The suburbs of west Invercargill: Kingswell, Appleby, Kew, Heidelberg, Georgetown, and Strathern all have deprivation rankings of decile 9 or 10, according to Dot Loves Data.
‘’[It means], despite 30 years of efforts, these communities have still not been able to rebuild to their former state.’’
Because of its strong fisheries base, Lester says Bluff has performed mildly better at decile 8. Although 18.62 percent of the 1735 residents in Bluff are on a single parent, jobseeker support, or a means-tested benefit, he says.
Lester says despite the efforts to rejuvenate the economy, via investment in the Southern Institute of Technology, tourism promotion, and aquaculture, Southland’s population did not surpass its 1991 level until this year, almost three decades later.
“Past history indicates it could be 15-30 years before Southland communities recover if they ever do,’’ he says pointing to the possible Tiwai closure.
If the Southland economy falls into a significant recession, compounded by the impact of Covid-19, Lester believes the Government’s attention must turn to welfare, re-training, and targeted support of Tiwai workers.
“Multiple generations of families have relied on Tiwai to support their families. If we want to avoid seeing future generations suffer like they have in South Invercargill for the last 30 years, the work had better start now.”
Thelma Buck, a former Invercargill City Councillor and long-time south Invercargill resident, is dubious about some of the bleak numbers attached to her neighbourhood.
However, she does agree that it has only been in latter years that south Invercargill has recovered from the Ocean Beach freezing works closure.
She also holds concerns as to what the closure of Tiwai would mean.
“South Invercargill has got up, dusted itself off, and it looks quite smart down here now. We’ve got streets and streets of new houses.
“South Invercargill is not just for poor people, there is a lot of nice houses and ownership flats.’’
Buck ran a restaurant in Invercargill in 1991, and she saw first-hand the economic damage that was connected to the loss of close to 1500 meat worker jobs.
Many of Buck’s regular customers disappeared overnight.
“Some of them stayed here but most of them drifted away. If, Tiwai went the same way I don’t know how we’d cope to be quite honest. I suppose we’ll just have to grin and bear it if it does [close].’’
In 2012 the South Alive organisation was formed for an urban rejuvenation project for south Invercargill.
It has been led by the community with the goal of identifying the best possible future for south Invercargill.
Deputy chairperson Margaret Cook says when the organisation was formed in 2012 it conducted a survey, which suggested only 35 percent of residents were proud of being from south Invercargill.
The number jumped to 82 percent when the latest survey was conducted.
Cook says there is a lot of positivity in south Invercargill.
She’s unsure just where the majority of smelter workers lived, but acknowledged the potential closure of Tiwai could certainly have an impact on their community.
Do you recognise any of the former Ocean Beach workers? email [email protected]