Growth towns in NZ: The rise of Rolleston

by Donna-Marie Lever / 08 September, 2018

Rolleston is on a roll: a new subdivision in the west of the town. Photo/John Collie/North & South

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Slapped with the slogan “The Town of the Future” in the 70s, Rolleston is finally living out its legacy. This almost-suburb of Christchurch has become a safe haven for quake outcasts and those escaping big-city life. But it was also once a bit of a joke, and many who have made the move never thought they’d end up here. Donna-Marie Lever traces the rise of Rolleston.

The gateway to Rolleston hugs a bustling State Highway One, lined in neon road cones, smoke-chugging earthwork machines and reduced-speed signs. Off-ramps and overbridges are emerging. New lanes are being carved from the edge of paddocks and showered in shingle as concrete pillars are navigated into place by cranes. This is what rapid progress looks like.

Off the highway and a few roads towards the coast and you’re in the heart of any other suburbia, except everything here seems new or under construction – and the community milling about Rolleston is noticeably young.

The Andrews, with sons Jack, 8, and Sam, 5. Photo/John Collie/North & South

Justine Andrews used to live in a small apartment in Auckland’s trendy Grey Lynn. She was immersed in the fast-paced media world of daily news, where she was quickly climbing the career ladder. As chief of staff at Newshub, she marked 17 years in the big city before her life suddenly lurched in a different direction. It started with the birth of her two sons, Jack, now eight, and Sam, five. Andrews had her children later in life and when the former Cantabrian hit her late 40s, she started to look south.

“I was trying to gravitate back down here and a couple of big life events happened,” she says. “My much-loved father, who’d been given a couple of months to live, needed a hand and I was keen to give my kids some granddad time while we had him. My husband then faced redundancy, so that became another catalyst for a move down here.”

In 2014, Justine, husband Jeremy and their boys packed up and moved back in with her parents in Lincoln to help care for her dad.

After Justine’s father died, Jeremy found a local job in real estate. They started house hunting at the same time. Christchurch is where she grew up, but the post-quake city didn’t feel like an option. “It’s still a battered and bruised environment,” she says. “I don’t feel the same attachment to Christchurch. That might sound harsh but it’s such a different place and even getting around there I find a challenge.”

Lincoln seemed the obvious choice. “Never in my life did I think I’d end up living in Rolleston. I was looking at Lincoln, until my husband widened the search criteria on Trade Me one night and we found a house in Rolleston.”

Justine quickly realised property prices were higher in Lincoln, and they could end up with a similar house in Rolleston for $50,000 less. “I had to overcome all my obstacles and ideas about living in ‘small-town NZ’, and when we saw the house, we were sold.”

It was brand-new, with four bedrooms and two bathrooms, and sat smugly on a 1000sqm site down a private lane. The Grey Lynn shoebox was sold and the proceeds more than covered the cost of their new castle. Life for the Andrews family was suddenly grand, albeit with several sacrifices.

“We’d been living in Auckland for career reasons mostly and it was a blast – it’s the only place to be if you want to be in my industry. If you want to see how far you can fly in a media organisation, inevitably you have to go there. Auckland’s a great city in all sorts of ways and we miss it quite a bit.”

Another golden opportunity opens up on the edge of Rolleston. Photo/John Collie/North & South

Justine has not long returned to the workforce; initially as a freelancer commuting to jobs in Christchurch, and now at TVNZ’s One News as a part-time senior story producer. She’s unfazed by the 30-minute trip to the central Christchurch office. “That motorway is fantastic and, unlike Auckland, once you’re on it, it hardly ever comes to a standstill.” She laughs.

“I love the fact I’ve got my kids out in the semi-country. They’re free to run around… We can go walking in the bush, it’s just an hour to Akaroa, where we can have a swim on a sunny day, or we can get up into the mountains. To me, this area – the green plains, a hot nor’wester in summer, and the fresh snow on the mountains in winter – it says Canterbury, and reminds me of the can-do attitude of the people here.”

A perfect example of that is Justine’s own family history in the town.

“My great-grandfather was one of the pioneers of Rolleston; he was a blacksmith in the early 1900s. I remember visiting my great-grandfather and great-grandma in the 70s. They had a fabulous house on Main South Rd with an old-school tree hut, chickens running around and a long-drop toilet outside.”

Described as a hard, tough man who was still shoeing horses in his 90s, her great-grandfather died in his Rolleston home aged 100.

The town Justine once giggled at in her youth could not have moved faster in the four years she’s called it home. “Fierce growth is the only way to describe it. I think the town planners need to be careful – they may need to ring-fence Rolleston in some way. The sprawl will eventually spread to the southern part of Christchurch. Developers are constantly cutting up someone’s paddock and putting a zillion houses on it.”

The country’s youngest mayor – Selwyn’s 36-year-old Sam Broughton, with his daughter, Elliott. Photo/John Collie/North & South

At the helm is the country’s youngest mayor – 36-year-old Sam Broughton. He oversees the diverse Selwyn District, which encompasses nearly 6500sqkm of agricultural land, townships, an alpine pass and a national park. The council offices are in Rolleston.

“It’s a vibrant new place that is finding its heartbeat,” says Broughton. “It’s really young; in Rolleston one in every three residents is under 15.”

Almost two years into the job, the fresh-faced mayor is overseeing major multi-million dollar projects for the district’s urban development. Fifteen years ago, the population of Rolleston hovered around 3000, but by 2013 it hit a growth spurt, charging past the 9000 mark. Today, the population sits at around 17,000 and is predicted to jump to more than 26,000 within a decade.

“We’ve been waiting for the growth to flatten, but it has just continued since the quakes. Last year, we processed as many building consents as we did in 2014. Every year, post-quake, we think, ‘Will it finally slow this year?’ No. Growth remains very, very strong.”

Broughton is even excited about the eyesore of construction at the entrance to the town. To him, the major roading project signals good growth. The motorway extension near SH1 will eventually connect the town with central Christchurch. The first half of the project will open this year, with completion expected by the end of 2019.

“With the investment that’s gone in, we’re actually planning for the growth. At the moment though, it feels like we are still trying to catch up because it’s happening so quickly.”

A housing development. Photo/John Collie/North & South

Broughton is not actually a Rolleston statistic; he commutes from Darfield, about 27km further inland. But he says there’s work in Rolleston for those who want it. Unemployment sits at 2%, and businesses are struggling to find skilled workers. Many vacancies in and around Rolleston stem from the Izone development, a business and industrial park spanning several kilometres on the opposite side of SH1.

“When you drive through, you wouldn’t know what kind of businesses you’re passing. There are warehouses and sheds, some employing 200 to 300 people, others are owner-operated with a staff of one.”

The industrial zone was created in the early 2000s before his time in office, but Broughton says it was a bold move for the council at the time. A little risky, even, but also forward thinking. Again, it’s still under construction.

“There’s a processing plant for Westland Milk, a dry port, a lanolin and cosmetics warehouse, people making houses and framing, printing stores – just everything. Already, 1200 jobs have been created and when it’s completed there will be more than 2000 jobs. It’s already returned around $23 million to the council to invest in community infrastructure.”

Housing developments are springing up too, and are still relatively affordable. The average house price in Rolleston is $550,000, but for that you get a new or nearly new, warm and dry home, double-glazed, on a decent-sized, 800sqm section.

Rolleston hosts Selwyn Council’s headquarters. Photo/John Collie/North & South

The problem is housing development land is quickly running out. The urban boundary has been set and would require a major policy change for Rolleston’s residential arm to expand. “We will be full in 10 years,” says Broughton. “I don’t think we should eat up good soil and farmland with houses. There needs to be a balance. Canterbury is strong agriculturally and Selwyn particularly so. We can’t continue to put houses on our best dirt and eat into that.”

Medical centres, daycare centres, cafes, shops and schools have all sprouted to support Rolleston’s population spike. Six years ago, there was one primary school; now there are seven schools, including a high school that opened two years ago.

For a town that could surpass the population of nearby Ashburton within a few decades, Rolleston is still a little disconnected. There’s no main street and the town centre is stitched together by big carparks.

“Developments in the centre of the town haven’t been linked together in a cohesive way,” says Broughton. “Council is working on a project that will include a library and cultural space, as well as allowing people to walk around an area linked to the existing reserve.”

Rail could be an option, too. The Tranz-Alpine train journey (from Christchurch to Greymouth return) comes through the middle of Rolleston – but no passenger service operates for locals. It’s been talked about for a long time but would need substantial government investment to come to fruition. The focus, meanwhile, is to increase bus services in the area.

Mayor Broughton wasn’t even born when a billboard on the edge of then-sleepy Rolleston boldly announced it as the “Town of the Future”. It was taken down some time ago and has not been replaced. “You don’t need a slogan to be successful.”

Quake refugees Pam and Grant Dempsey say they “landed the jackpot” with their move to Rolleston. Photo/John Collie/North & South

Pam and Grant Dempsey make up another big group of the population surge in Rolleston. They’re quakes refugees who once thrived in Avondale, near the Avon River in the heart of Christchurch. On 22 February, 2011, this area of the city was so badly hit it was swallowed into what became the red zone.

“We sat in our house for weeks running on a generator; we still had no toilet or waste water when we left. I dug a soakhole to let us do some washing or have a shower [and have somewhere to drain the water]. The last straw for us was having to carry the toilet down the road to empty it into a tank. The idiots put the tank in a place which meant you had to stand in the gutter to empty it; the snow was over my gumboots. That was it for us; we desperately wanted to get away. The house was falling in around us.”

Winter passed, and by October that same year, Pam, 59, and Grant, 48, were finally free. “Rolleston was not on the agenda, initially. We really loved being in town and loved being able to walk around the river. But as a family, we’re heavily involved in speedway so we needed a decent-sized section and big garage where we can park tow-vehicles and trailers.”

After finding nothing suitable in Christchurch, they finally opted for an established home in Rolleston. The blended family have four boys, but with the kids now grown up, the couple were also on the lookout for a home to see them through their retirement.

Rolleston College. Photo/John Collie/North & South

“This property works for us,” says Pam. “We have everything within walking distance; we don’t even have to jump in the car to go to the supermarket. And even with the travelling distance to work [in Christchurch] and the roadworks on the main road, by the time you get home you’ve unwound. You’re not fighting traffic the whole way. It’s really nice.”

Pam’s line of work is quite specialised. A registered nurse, she now writes policy for the NZ Blood Service in Christchurch, a job she didn’t want to give up because of the move south. “I really enjoy it and if I got a job here, I don’t think I could do something in this field that uses my skillset.”

Husband Grant is a courier driver and although he could probably get a local job, the relatively quick commute to Christchurch means he’s not motivated to make a change.

“The driving doesn’t worry us,” says Pam, “but you see some absolute idiots on the road every day. I always text Grant to let him know I’m at work. It’s sobering to drive past some intersections where you know there have been fatalities or near-misses.”

Foster Park adventure playground. Photo/John Collie/North & South

Seven years on, they love it here, and have no plans to return to Christchurch, even though their social circles and work draws them back there daily.

“It’s very young in Rolleston. There are lots of mums and toddlers, lots of creches and sports groups for younger people. So for people like us, we struggle a bit with a sense of community. We have little reason to connect with the community because we don’t have children going to Scouts or the rugby club.”

But they do feel safer. “When earthquakes roll through now, they feel completely different. It’s good being a bit further away from the centre. We have our freedom, without the same degree of hustle and bustle. It’s a slower pace of life and you can turn back your brain five degrees when you get home. If you want to go to the country, it’s five minutes away.”

Pam describes the growth in the past seven years here as “unreal” and enjoys watching the township expand. “Back in Christchurch we were dealing with everything, holding it together at work then going home to an absolute shithole, to be honest, so for our own sanity anything would have done. We landed the jackpot with Rolleston. Someone was watching over us.”

Fast facts on Rolleston

Distance/time from: Christchurch CBD: 25km, 30 mins by car, 43 mins by bus (adult fare, one way, $5.50). Ashburton: 63km, 45 mins by car.

Population: 17,350 (Rolleston); 59,000 approximately (Selwyn District).

Average house price: AThe average house value in Selwyn District was $549,278 in the year to March ($659,904 nationally).

Average weekly rent:
$440-$480 for a three-bedroom house in a new subdivision.

Average annual rates 2017/18: $3088 per year for a property with a capital value of $640,000.
$2719 per year for a property with a capital value of $410,000.

Schools in Rolleston: West Rolleston Primary School, Rolleston Christian School, Rolleston School, Lemonwood Grove School, Clearview Primary School, Waitaha School (state-funded school for children with special needs); Rolleston College.

Medical Facilities: Rolleston Medical Centre, Rolleston Central Health.

Recreation: Nearby: Mt Hutt ski field, Lake Coleridge, Lake Ellesmere, Sumner Beach in Christchurch. Within Rolleston there are multiple reserves and community centres, skate parks, sports fields, new shops, cafes and restaurants, with a new social-recreational area under development.

Broadband: 4G, fibre broadband.

Climate: Typical Canterbury dry, temperate climate, with cold winters and hot summer stretches. Weather averages for Rolleston: January high/low 24°C/11°C, 5 days rain. July high/low 11°C/0°C, 6 days rain.

Environment/water quality: ECAN Groundwater science manager Carl Hanson: “I can’t say about changes in Rolleston specifically, but in general in the Central Plains area, we’ve seen a slight increase in nitrate concentrations in groundwater. In terms of bacteria/pathogens, there continues to be a risk to shallower groundwater, but this has been the case in the past as well.”

Resilence futureproofing: All new builds in Rolleston comply with strict earthquake strengthening guidelines; there are no specific changes in the Selwyn district as a result of the earthquakes. There is no flood risk to Rolleston as the gravel layers allow for free draining; the water table is well below the ground surface.

This article was first published in the August 2018 issue of North & South.

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