Environment Minister David Parker yesterday indicated he was ready to wade into the middle of a Resource Management row which has pitted two Waikato councils against each other to create jobs and potentially to build hundreds of houses.
The Waikato District Council supports a proposal by the Sleepyhead mattress company to build a 169-hectare factory and village at Ohinewai 10 kilometres north of Huntly on State Highway One.
But the proposal has been vigorously opposed by the Waikato Regional Council which is required to rezone land on its regional plan to allow the development to go ahead.
Parker is proposing to overrule their objections using the fast track provisions that were introduced to facilitate infrastructure projects as part of the Covid-19 economic stimulus package.
Ironically, one of the regional councillors is Angela Strange, wife of Hamilton East’s Labour MP, Jamie Strange.
Parker has agreed to fast track a proposal from the Comfort Group, Australasia’s biggest bedmaker, which owns the Sleepyhead, SleepMaker and Dunlop Foams brand, and employs 500 people at three sites at Otahuhu, Avondale and Glen Innes.
It says it cannot grow because of space constraints in Auckland so it is proposing to build a new foam factory on a 37 ha site at Ohinewai.
Parker has approved that application going to a fast track panel early in the new year.
But it is only part of a much bigger proposal which includes 1100 homes to be built for workers as part of the development.
It was not clear last night how this is affected by the announcement yesterday.
But obviously, the factory would be unable to function if it could not find housing for its workers so it must be assumed that eventually the housing proposal will also need to be fast-tracked, particularly since it is the housing component that the Regional Council is opposed to because it might lead to a further decline in already-depressed Huntly.
Announcing the fast track yesterday, the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said speeding up the consenting process meant that the projects were able to deliver much needed short and long term employment opportunities in the regions and act as a catalyst for regional economic growth.
“Importantly, some will also add to the delivery of much-needed housing,” she said.
Parker said the foam factory was a big project and involved its own rail spur.
The company says that it expects it to provide 1000 – 1500 jobs once it is up and running. It wants those workers to live in an affordable housing development it wants to build alongside the factory.
But the Regional Council is worried that would further depress small towns like Huntly. A Parliamentary Library study of economic deprivation in the Waikato ranks the town at the bottom of the scale. Genesis Energy has guaranteed the operation of one of the town’s biggest employers, the Huntly Power Station, to 2030.
“Speeding up the consenting processes means that these private sector projects have the potential to deliver jobs sooner,” Parker said.
Two other projects were announced with the foam factory; Dominion Road mixed-use commercial and residential development in Auckland, and The Vines Subdivision in Richmond.
They will account for 160 houses.
But the Ohinewai proposal has always included the 1100 houses.
Comfort director Craig Turner, announcing the project in 2019, said housing was an important component.
“For many of the people that work for us, housing is not affordable – certainly not in Auckland,” he said.
“Our dream is to provide an opportunity for people who work for us and for others in the community to be able to get into their own home, to have equity in something as they work.
“Currently, that is incredibly hard to do if not impossible.”
The goal is to keep the house prices under $500,000, he said.
The proposal has been backed by the Waikato District Council and Waikato-Tainui.
In its planning application, the company says the housing proposal Has potential to provide district-wide social benefits.
“The proposed development will provide affordable housing, enabling people to live, work and play in the same township,” it says.
“The employment-led masterplan is projected to assist in maintaining the population of Huntly (which is declining) and support the housing-led development in Te Kauwhata (which has not grown at the rate expected).”
But the Waikato Regional Council opposes the proposal.
In a submission to a planning hearing in September, it said the proposal would potentially replicate “the sub-optimal outcomes that are currently experienced at other Waikato townships, such as Te Kauwhata, Huntly, Taupiri and Ngaruawahia.”
“This existing situation results from historic decisions.
“Just because these towns exist and that services (such as public transport) need to be provided to these communities, does not provide a reason for creating another similar community. “
The Council’s submission said that by enabling an isolated, car-dependent urban settlement at Ohinewai with few community services, the proposed rezoning would be contrary to the Waikato Regional Policy Statement “and therefore, unlawful.”
But now the question becomes whether the foam factory can exist without the houses and if it cannot (which would seem probable) whether Parker will then use the fast track again to approve the houses.
In short, is Parker using the fast track for the factory as a prelude to fast-tracking the entire development.
It is clear that until the Resource Management Act is replaced, hopefully by the end of 2022; Parker will use the fast track process to get contentious major projects approved.
He said yesterday that he intended to use it for the new Dunedin Hospital.
Parker talked up the efficiency gains of using the fast track panels which can only consider projects referred to them by the Minister — him.
“The fast track process has already seen the Matawii water storage reservoir in Kaitaia approved,” he said.
“It was one of the projects named in the act that’s already been approved by an expert consenting panel that took fifty-five days.
“That’s half the time it would take in a normal process, even if it wasn’t appealed and even if it was appealed, obviously that could take an extra year or so.
“Decisions on the projects that are announced today are expected early in twenty twenty-one by an expert panel.”
And both Ardern and parker sounded as though they would welcome the housing proposal for Ohinewai to go on the fast track.
“These are opportunities to utilise a process to expedite both housing, both jobs and a pipeline of work for the construction industry,” Ardern said.
Parker endorsed that.
“We’re trying to improve the supply of both houses and house building opportunities by increasing the supply of both,” he said.
“We’ve done that through changes to the national policy statement already under the RMA.
“And this is another route to assist for those who bring their applications to us.”
It is a measure of how keen this Government is to build houses that it is ready to over-rule a Council which includes political sympathisers.