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Is Winston Peters the new saviour of Auckland or a trouble-making villain?

Winston Peters wants to move the cars from the Auckland waterfront to the port near Whangarei in just two years, and the whole container port within ten. Is he nuts? Simon Wilson reports.

How do you decide on the future of the ports of the upper North Island? We now have three clear ways to do it.

1: Establish a region-wide strategy for freight.

2: Go with the parochial demands of the most influential politician.

3: Don’t do anything. The market will decide.

Enter Winston Peters, who suddenly needed to go all “Look at me! Look at me!” He’s announced his new number-one policy: to move the containers, cars, bananas and other mixed goods operations of Auckland’s port on the Waitematā, to Northport, at Marsden Point near Whangarei. It’s a spectacularly good example of option 2, although it’s not the only one.

Peters didn’t mention that the government doesn’t own Ports of Auckland Ltd (POAL). Auckland Council does. So there is no legal basis for an incoming government to do a deal with Peters over the operations of the port. Of course, it could change the law, or lean on the council with all sorts of financial pressure. Withdrawing funding for transport projects might do the trick.

But either move would kick off a new and pretty interesting war for Auckland. The Auckland Chamber of Commerce, just for starters, is rather keen on Auckland holding onto its port operations.

Still, if you’re a Northlander, the Peters port pledge might look pretty good. More to the point, if you’re an Aucklander sick of the stalemate over the future of the Auckland port, it might look very fine indeed. Get those damn cars gone in two years? Finally! Someone committed to the bleedin’ obvious. Get the whole container and mixed-goods operation gone in ten years, so the most valuable real estate in New Zealand can be opened up for both commercial and non-commercial development? Wow, let’s do this!

Or not. Winston Peters isn’t planning to move the port to Marsden Point. He might want to do that, but what he’s planning to do is get your votes. What happens after – how the future of the port gets resolved – is a problem for another day.

And that’s the real problem with Peters’ new bottom line. Not the legality, which can be addressed, nor even the logistics, which are immense but also manageable. It’s the lack of context: if you’re going to do something as economically disruptive as move a port, you’d want it to be part of an overall strategy, right? And you’d want to put in the time and effort to get support from a lot of different parties, so it’s not going to be undermined and obstructed every step of the way.

Which leads us back to those three distinct models for deciding what to do about Auckland’s container port. Option 2 can now be read as “leave it to Winston”, although to be fair to him, many Auckland politicians have been just as parochial in their own views of the port.

But what about Option 1? Creating a freight strategy for the upper North Island (or perhaps the whole North Island, or the whole country) means deciding how to get the optimum benefits out of the interlocking functions of our seaports, rail and road infrastructure, coastal shipping options and inland port development. And that strategy has to be developed by central government because local-body politicians will argue only for what’s best for their patches, not for the region or country as a whole. If you think all that sounds, well, sensible, you may be surprised to learn that it is not government policy.

On the contrary. The government is committed to option 3: leave it to the market. Transport minister Simon Bridges said on RNZ National yesterday that competition between the ports was working very well, and gave as his example the way Fonterra has been able to play the ports of Auckland and Tauranga off against each other to drive down the cost of using them. He didn’t mention, but could have, that overseas shipping corporates routinely do the same.

Put that another way: the government is happy for the financial health of publicly owned ports to be subjugated to the financial interests of private companies.

There’s a certain irony in this. The government doesn’t leave it to Auckland, or the market, to decide which major roads and railways we need. It wouldn’t dream of doing that. But it doesn’t have a view on which ports should be where, or used for what. It’s not consistent.

The regional strategy approach, you may have guessed, is the preferred approach of both Labour and the Green Party, and of the Auckland Council and many other affected local bodies in the upper North Island. Winston Peters’ ultimatum will be met, on National’s side, with horror that the market is to be subverted; and by Labour and the Greens with dismay that a regional strategy is still not going to happen.

Auckland’s reclamation zones and the original 1840s shoreline (red). Map shows historic bays (light blue), headlands (yellow), paleo-river/stream channels (white arrows showing direction of flow). Source: nzgs.org.nz

Some other things it’s worth remembering about Auckland’s port

1: The Auckland port will have to move. Not yet, but in a few decades, it will have reached the limits of its capacity in its current location. Its rail and road connections will also be at capacity. As for the land it sits on, there are far better uses for it – commercial, and also cultural and recreational.

Who doesn’t want a proper swimming beach and park created right by downtown Auckland? And would many people object if some of the land was made available to commercial developers, to pay for the transformation of the public space? Build in a regular commercial return and caveats on the use of the land, and the council could be earning well in excess of the $50 million-odd annual dividend currently paid by POAL.

2: That the port will have to move is not idle fancy. It’s one of the key findings of a special Consensus Working Group set up by the council, which reported in July last year.

That report, called the Port Future Study, represents the views of business groups, the freight industry, iwi, urban lobby groups and Ports of Auckland itself. It was produced after the group had met for a year and heard expert testimony from all quarters.

The report also says the port should not expand on its current footprint, and identifies two preferred options for a shift: Manukau harbour and the Firth of Thames.

3: While the Port Future Study enjoyed the consensus agreement of everyone in the room, some interested parties were not in the room. Politicians, for example, were not included. That might have seemed constructive at the time, but it meant none of the real decision makers are committed to the findings of the group.

Auckland Council responded to the report by voting, by a narrow margin, not to do anything with it. That was unfortunate. But it’s scheduled to be retabled with council in a couple of months, after the general election, and more can be expected then.

4: More significantly, the Consensus Working Group was an Auckland group. The interests of Northland, Tauranga, Waikato and everyone else who will be impacted by port decisions were represented to the group but were not directly represented on the group. If Winston Peters chooses, he will be able to attack the Port Future Study on that basis.

5: The Manukau and the Firth of Thames are not proposed as great new locations for the port. There are no great new locations, and those two are merely the best of a bad lot. The Consensus Group had a long list of 28 options, including leaving the port where it is, and Northport and Tauranga, and every one of them involves quite big compromises.

As Peters has said, Northport has some obvious advantages: lots of land available for expansion, a deep water channel and a big employment catchment to call on. He’s quite right that it would revitalise the region, and heaven knows the region needs revitalising.

6: The report is not very forthcoming on why Northport and Tauranga were rejected. It said that both could, at least in theory, take some of the Auckland port functions very quickly. But it gave four reasons for that being a bad idea:

  • Both Northport and Tauranga face their own “capacity constraints”, so they would offer only a temporary solution.
  • Shifting to one of them would disrupt the existing supply chains to the Waitematā, add freight costs and environmental impacts, and make the Waitematā facilities, workers and investment redundant.
  • Increasing the use of the current site, until capacity is reached, would allow growth to be more balanced.
  • Staying on the existing site until capacity is reached would protect the revenues of the operation, thus strengthening the case for future investment in a new port.

In other words, moving some of the functions to Northport would be temporary and create other problems. But the report is merely a summary of findings and no evidence for its claims is given. Again, it won’t be hard for Winston Peters to argue that the interests of Northland have not been taken seriously.

7: Here’s the biggie. A decision on what port operations go where should involve economic factors at the local, regional and national levels. Also, environmental impacts and impacts on iwi – both of which will be major, whatever is proposed. This is the shoreline we’re talking about. There are engineering issues, too: even Northport will involve some ongoing dredging.

There are social impact issues for local communities – and by local you have to include everyone affected not just by the port but by the connecting freight lines. If the port was to move to the Firth of Thames, a new rail link would be needed through the Hunua Ranges. From Northport, the existing neglected railway to Auckland will need major upgrading and a new route around the west of the city might be required.

Even without a regional strategy, the decision-making is still complex and should be fully consultative.

8: Half of New Zealand’s population lives and works in the golden triangle broadly defined by Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga. Whangarei is not in that catchment. Currently, most of the imports to service this population come through the Auckland port, while Tauranga comes into its own handling exports.

Our major port operations, to be functionally efficient, must connect easily to the industrial heartland of Wiri, between Manukau town centre and the airport. Connecting to the “inland ports” is also vital. These are giant facilities for container storage, sorting and dispatch. Ports of Auckland has one right in Wiri; Tauranga has one near Onehunga (servicing it is the cornerstone reason the government wants to build the $2 billion East-West Link highway). The Tainui iwi is building a massive inland port on 480 hectares of land near Hamilton and POAL is developing another “freight hub”, also near Hamilton.

None of these facilities is predicated on Northport superseding the Waitematā port in any way. But that’s not to say it couldn’t. It’s a matter of having the right rail and road links. But obviously, as a general rule, the further away the port is the more expensive the transport becomes.

Winston Peters says the rail upgrade will cost about $250 million but that’s nonsense. All the tunnels need to be enlarged, much of the track may need to be relaid and there’s double tracking to consider. KiwiRail says it will cost $1 billion in Northland and another $2-3 billion through Auckland.

9: Ports of Auckland already has a plan for the cars to disappear from the wharves. Not to Northport, but into a multi-storey carpark building. If they get that right, it could be a terrific (and extremely cheap) solution to that particular problem.

Photo: Getty Images

What are others saying?

Auckland mayor Phil Goff wants the recommendations of the Port Future Study progressed – he wants the Firth of Thames and Manukau properly investigated. Simon Bridges told RNZ yesterday that he understood Goff no longer thinks the Firth of Thames could be viable, but a spokesperson for the mayor told me: “Don’t know where he’s getting that from at all.”

Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei, which wants the port gone, has supported the Peters proposal. Spokesperson Ngarimu Blair said it “would be great for Auckland and Northland. Our Te Tai Tokerau relations will relish such a move north and rightly so”.

The lobby group Stop Stealing Our Harbour is also on Peters’ side, although not entirely. It called Peters’ announcement “fantastic news”, because it would bring an end to POAL’s “relentless expansion” (which, due to court order, is not actually happening). But SSOH also said, “We are not port experts, so we can’t say whether Whangarei’s Northport is the best option.”

Ports of Auckland CEO Tony Gibson spoke out against Peters. He said 297,383 cars and light commercial vehicles arrived at the Waitematā port in the last year. That’s 814 per day and 19 per cent more than the previous year. Gibson calculated that car transporters carrying that volume from Marsden Point to Auckland would produce 21,500 tonnes of carbon emissions.

It sounds like a lot, but in the lifetime of the cars it’s about 0.16% of what they will produce. However, Gibson did have a point: if those cars are all transported by truck to Auckland, there’ll be another 116 articulated trucks on the road every day, both ways. A car transporter every two-and-a-half minutes, according to David Aitken of the National Road Carriers Association.

The solution, of course, is to carry them by rail – which is one of the reasons the tunnels need to be larger. None of them right now can accommodate two-tier car transporter rolling stock.

Ken Shirley of the Road Transport Forum called the Peters plan “economic vandalism”, because of the (unspecified) costs it would add to freight transported from Northport down to Auckland. Shirley, like Aitken, can be expected to oppose anything that pushes freight onto rail.

Urban Auckland is also opposed to the proposal. Its chair Julie Stout was, like Tony Gibson of POAL, a member of the Consensus Working Group. She said the Peters’ announcement “highlights the need for leadership at government level to facilitate an Upper North Island Port Strategy. The issue of port relocation and a new port for the next century of New Zealand’s trade is too important, too complex and too expensive to expect individual regions to solve it.”

That’s pretty much it. Winston Peters might be right that importing the cars through Northport is a good option, but if he is, it can’t be done until the railway is ready. He might even be right that the container operation should move to Northport too.

But just saying it won’t make it true. The politics are not more important than the underlying values and opportunities at stake. The incoming government needs to support a process of full economic, environmental, cultural and social analysis of the options for the Auckland port, in the context of a regional transport and port strategy. And Winston Peters needs to work out how to engage constructively with that.

simon@thespinoff.co.nz @simonbwilson


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