Sleepyhead manufacturer the Comfort Group has a grand plan to build a company town in a rural Waikato location. But is it really such a good development?

Company towns are an old-fashioned idea.

Internationally and in New Zealand entire settlements have been built around mining or a mill or even a hydro-dam project. Twizel as a hydro construction town in the late 60s is but one example.

But decades after the last big company town was built, Kiwi bed manufacturer Sleepyhead is pouring new life into the concept.

Its billion-dollar 178-hectare development in the Waikato includes plans for a massive 100,000 square metre main factory, as well as a foam factory and 1100 new homes for the workers.

Last week those plans passed a major planning hurdle, with the re-zoning of the development site approved.

Today The Detail’s Jessie Chiang looks at the Sleepyhead estate in Ōhinewai, about 9km north of Huntly; the strong opposition against it; and whether it’s actually a good idea.

Waikato Times reporter Ellen O’Dwyer has been covering the development since early 2019.

“I don’t think there’s anything quite like it being planned in the rest of the country at all,” she says.

O’Dwyer explains the reason behind moving factory operations from Auckland to Ōhinewai and the reaction from locals.

She also tells Chiang why there’s been concern from Waikato-Tainui and why the Waikato Regional Council and Waka Kotahi Transport Agency have reservations.

But it’s looking like Sleepyhead has the upper hand after Waikato district planning commissioners gave the green light to rezone the area for industrial and residential development.

“They looked at the economic opportunities … they estimated that could be up to $200 million per year to the local economy,” O’Dwyer says.

“They thought that was so significant that other concerns [transport, infrastructure, wastewater, environmental risks] could be dealt with, and should be dealt with.”

But O’Dwyer says the report has laid out conditions for Sleepyhead to meet and there are still a lot of unanswered questions about what the housing will look like.

She says iwi and the council are both now looking at the report in depth before deciding whether to appeal the decision.

The Detail also speaks to University of Auckland architecture and planning lecturer Bill McKay about the pitfalls of company towns.

“Fifty years down the track will Sleepyhead still be there, or will it become another ghost town? If so, how does it reinvent itself?” he asks.

McKay remains sceptical of the project because “fundamentally it’s about making money, that’s why they’re doing it, they’re not primarily there for the public good”.

He also talks about the importance of diversity in the resident population – will families be raising children away from their grandparents, for example.

And O’Dwyer is cautious over whether she thinks the company town is a good idea.

“I think this is a really ambitious idea … there’s always need for better jobs,” she says.

“But I do still have lots of questions.”

Want more from The Detail? Find past episodes here.

Jessie Chiang is the associate producer of The Detail podcast.

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