Sleepyhead estate: Waikato Regional Council under fire for ‘anti-business’ opposition to plan

With the clock ticking down to crucial regulatory decisions on the proposed $1 billion Sleepyhead commercial and residential development at Ohinewai, Waikato Inc. is suggesting opponent the Waikato Regional Council is “anti-business”.

Waikato Chamber of Commerce chief executive Don Good said the organisation struggles to understand the council’s “strenuous and highly public objections” to the proposal by Auckland’s Turner family to build an 1100-home plus state-of-the-art bedding manufacturing centre on 178ha 5km north of Huntly.

In a newsletter to chamber members, Good said with more than 30,000 people unemployed in the Waikato region, “we are concerned about the regional council’s seemingly anti-business stance”.

Sleepyhead, formally known as The Comfort Group, is seeking a zoning change in the Waikato District Plan to allow the project, which will consolidate several worksites it has outgrown in Auckland, and provide a residential lifestyle estate.

A decision from independent commissioners following a September hearing is expected early next year, but, meanwhile, a separate resource consent application for a mattress foam factory and rail siding has qualified for a fast-track hearing under the Government’s new, special fast-track legislation. That hearing is also expected in the new year.

While broadly supported by the Waikato District Council, which covers Ohinewai, the regional council has said it is “seriously concerned” about building a large residential community in the rural area.

Mayor Russ Rimmington said the council also wants the Huntly business community to thrive and the Sleepyhead proposal could undermine that.The council also has concerns about flooding and the loss of elite Waikato soils.

Good said it seems to the chamber that regional councillors “appear to be intent on being a roadblock”.

On the council’s objection that Ohinewai may become a ghost town in 50 years if the iconic Kiwi business Sleepyhead fails, Good said many people would say Ohinewai became a ghost town after the motorway bypassed it, and the development will revitalise it.

“Secondly (the suggestion) that Sleepyhead should build or buy in Huntly. The regional councillors were unaware of the constraints within the Huntly residential market, especially around the geotech issues which hamper major building developments.

“Thirdly, (their) issue was the coverage by the industry of elite soils for agriculture, which is a fair one for them to consider, but the regional council didn’t object to the subdivisions north of Hamilton, in Morrinsville to the north, east and west of Cambridge, all on the elite soils of the Waikato.

“The most obvious objection was around flood issues, which was well-answered by both Sleepyhead and Waikato District Mayor Allan Sanson,” said Good.

Rimmington, in a response statement to the Herald, said far from being “anti-business”, the region’s economic development was built into the council’s purpose. It provided $300,000 a year to support Te Waka, the region’s economic development agency, and the council’s economists contributed significantly to regional economic intelligence reports.

During the hearings, the council had indicated its support for the foam factory and rail siding at Ohinewai.

“It’s through the establishment of industrial activities that the majority of potential employment opportunities will arise,” Rimmington said.

“However, we are seriously concerned about building a large residential community, including local shops, at Ohinewai.”

Rimmington said the council believed a community in Ohinewai would almost entirely rely on private cars even if public transport were available because residents would have the Waikato Expressway on their doorstep.

This was contrary to funding principles for the expressway, the regional approach to providing integrated public transport and the council’s commitment to tackle climate change.

“It will also take up space on the expressway that should be protected so it can do what it was built for now and long into the future.”

The expressway when complete would improve economic growth and productivity, and be a key strategic transport corridor connecting Auckland to the agricultural and business centres of Waikato and the Bay of Plenty, Rimmington said.

“Using it for school runs, daily commuting and trips to the nearby shops and community facilities is short-sighted and risks undermining the benefit of this $100 million-plus investment the regional council has strongly advocated for.”

The chamber’s Good also asked members for feedback on the depth of business operating experience among councillors in all Waikato local authorities.

Noting recent reports of “dysfunction, petty behaviours and perceived incompetence” in some New Zealand councils just 12 months after their election, Good said it seemed voters were not engaged, “far too slack” and didn’t know the skills lacking in candidates.

“We didn’t engage with the democratic process and we now find we elected to councils people with the wrong skill sets, attitudes and purpose.

“Worryingly, it seems that for many councillors, it is no longer what you can do for your council and constituents, it has become what can being a councillor do for my media profile and personal ego.”

“We, the voters, must take responsibility for the mess that is current New Zealand local government and do something about it.”

It was time for voter activism, said Good.

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