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Auckland votes – finally – to look hard at moving its port

Winston Peters has ideas about what should happen to the Auckland port, but this week the Auckland Council took matters into its own hands. Simon Wilson was there and reports on the latest round in the battle of the Auckland port.

Fifteen months ago the council received a report from a Consensus Working Group that had spent the previous year hearing expert advice and debating the future of the Auckland port. To the dismay of many, the council promptly shelved the report. This week, finally, the council dug out the report and had a debate on it. It was a hell of a debate.

The Auckland port sits on 77 hectares of land, pays no rent and every year it returns a dividend of $50-$60 million to its owners, the Auckland Council. That money helps keep our rates down.

But it’s not a lot of money, not for a site that size in that location. By comparison, the new Datacom building in Wynyard Quarter sits on a mere 0.5ha – a site that’s 1/150th the size of the port land – pays $80,000 a year in rates, and the company has recently posted a $43.7 million annual profit. Datacom is not even on the waterfront: it’s back by the Fanshawe Street edge of the precinct.

It’s pretty obvious that if even a small part of the port land was put to full commercial use, it could provide a much greater return to council than it does currently.

Of course, money is not the only issue – although on both sides in the debate about the future location of the port, they are quick to say the dollars are on their side, whenever they think they might be.

The council debated the future of the port on Tuesday. It was the first time in 15 months they’ve gone near it, and even though people said it was going to be an uneventful meeting, passions flared right up. Strangely, Mayor Phil Goff, who campaigned on a policy of no more reclamation and a desire to explore the options for shifting the port, did not stay for most of it.

Goff believes that settling the future of the port could be a legacy issue for him. He won’t be able to see it through, because it will take decades, but he could guide a policy to the point of becoming a plan, and that plan could involve real changes to the current port operation. Winston Peters’ plans for Northport are sharpening everyone’s minds, and so is the America’s Cup in 2020/21. At the very least dealing with those cars is eminently doable before then.

Winston Peters addressing a public rally on the Auckland waterfront just before the election. (Photos Simon Wilson)

It was a meeting of the council’s Planning Committee, which is a “committee of the whole”: all councillors and also two members of the Independent Māori Statutory Board (IMSB), who have full speaking and voting rights. Cr Chris Darby, the serious policy dude from North Shore, was in the chair.

The motion before the committee didn’t propose shifting the cars or mention the Cup or do anything specific like that. Instead it addressed the Port Future Study, which was commissioned by the council in 2015, produced by a Consensus Working Group (CWG) of stakeholders (business, iwi, citizens’s groups, etc), and submitted in July last year. It was immediately set to one side, on a narrow one-vote decision, on the excuse that council elections were looming.

The motion was that the report finally be accepted and that its recommendations be worked on. Mainly, that meant the council should decide a process for evaluating alternative sites for the port, and a process for knowing when shifting the port might become necessary.

It didn’t propose shifting the port. It didn’t say they would spend a lot of money. It said they would set up some processes.

Jacques Victor, the council’s general manager of Auckland Plan strategy and research, tried to clarify. He advised that the Port Future Study did not recommend whether the port should be shifted. Rather, he said, it concluded that “it is very, very unlikely the port will be able to continue its tasks on the current footprint”.

But the study also noted how hard it is to predict future demand. “What if 3D printing changes the need? What if we start importing fewer cars?” And, he added, the study recognised that “the sentiment of Auckland seems to be there should not be any further increase into the harbour”.

So: in time the port will run out of room; it’s not clear when that will be; the option of more reclamation on the current site has been rejected.

Therefore, said Victor, the working group believed it would be “prudent” to do two things. The first was to find an alternative location for the port, “in case it is needed”. From a long list of options, just two were identified as worth more study: the Manukau harbour and the Firth of Thames. The second prudent thing was to monitor the need over time and establish a set of “triggers” that would prompt a decision to shift the port.

Those triggers, he said, would be economic, social, environmental and cultural. He explained this by saying there are “two types of need”. One is the capacity of the port. The other is the needs of the people of Auckland. We own the land, through the council, so how do we measure its value? Would it be more valuable put to other uses? How do we weigh the impact of freight running on trains through the suburbs (on the eastern line, around to Penrose, Ōtāhuhu and Wiri). Do other things become more important?

The motion before the Planning Committee was for the council CEO, Stephen Town, to propose “a scope for a process to investigate” those things. Good language! This motion had been worked and reworked in the back rooms before making it onto the committee agenda, which probably explains the convoluted language. What it meant was that they weren’t going to decide where the port goes, or when, or even if. Just set out a process for making those decisions.

The motion also said iwi should be fully engaged (as they have been to date) and central government should be lobbied to develop a plan for the upper North Island ports (Auckland, Tauranga and Northport near Whangarei). It left open the chance that other new port sites might be worth looking at too, and asked for indicative costs for this scoping work.

Not the cost of a shift, or the cost of doing the substantial work: the where, when and if. Just the cost of deciding how to set up that work.

Didn’t matter. Some councillors want the port moved and some will fight them on every barricade to stop that happening. This debate was a proxy for the bigger debates to come.

Imported cars lined up on Captain Cook Wharf, with the car transporter berthed at Bledisloe Wharf just beyond.

Cr Mike Lee, leading the campaign to leave the port alone, went for sarcasm: “We could possibly get more money [from the land] if we had high-rise apartments blocking the view, but I doubt if we’d get much freight into Auckland that way.”

Cr John Watson, supporting him, preferred blunt disbelief. “I don’t know that I want to trust anything Ports of Auckland says. I remember 18 months ago they said nothing could be done about the cars, but now we’re talking about sensitively designed car parks.”

Cr Richard Hills, supporting the mayor’s desire to resolve the future of the port, tried sneering at the sneerers. “I find this discussion annoying because I’m afraid it suggests some councillors have a contempt for staff.”

Deputy mayor Bill Cashmore, also supporting the mayor, had a stab at future-watching: “Container cranes will be robots, we’re already seeing that in Hamburg.”

And Cr Darby, who wants the port moved, also tried the vision thing: “I ask you now, look at the horizon, have some vision, please look out for future generations.”

It began with a delegation from some of the groups that had led the protest over port expansion plans in 2014-2015. The delegation consisted of Shane Vuletich, who works for an economic consulting group called Fresh Info, Julie Stout of Urban Auckland and Michael Goldwater of Stop Stealing Our Harbour.

Vuletich and Stout had both been members of the Consensus Working Group that produced the shelved Port Future Study, and they were there because they wanted things to get moving. Vuletich did the talking. He told the council it was “a myth” that the port was profitable. It was able to pay a dividend only because it paid no rent and “inherited tax losses from other council entities”. He thought the land could be used much better.

But, he added, he did not think anything should be sold unless it was in the context of a “guaranteed relocation process”. That got the a few ears pricking. Why was he talking about “selling” instead of “shifting”? They’re not the same thing, or are they?

He asked the council not to be tempted to make bad decisions for short-term gains. The current government coalition talks dangle that prospect. Winston Peters said before the election, for example, that the car import operation should be shifted to Northport so Captain Cook Wharf can be used for the America’s Cup syndicate berths.

But for that to happen, the government would have to offer Auckland an incentive, because the port belongs to Auckland, not the crown. The cash-strapped Auckland Council could be tempted.

There are arguments for and against the Peters proposal, but Vuletich’s view was that it needs to be sorted in the context of a larger strategy, not for the political convenience of parties in Wellington. “A deal for short-term gain is a terrible way to use the asset,” he said.

The heart of his argument was this: “The decision to shift the port should be based on the best use of land.” Mark that: not the economic life of the port and how the port itself wanted to operate. But what we, the owners, thought was the best use of the asset. The Consensus Working Group had said the same thing.

Mayor Phil Goff was in the meeting at this point and he told the delegation that whatever the council did with the port, it would need a good business case and a good environmental case. The good thing about what Peters had said, he thought, was that “maybe [it] gives us the opportunity to move to the next stage”.

But Goff made it clear he is not in a hurry. “We want the optimum outcome,” he emphasised. “What we don’t want is 77ha of empty land available immediately,” he continued, even more emphatically. “Not when we’re busy doing Wynyard and all the other projects.” Emphasising is his way of speaking in council meetings. And quite a lot of the time when he’s not in meetings.

More prime use of prime waterfront land.

When councillors had finished questioning the delegation, they left and council officials came to the table. They were led by Jim Quinn, chief of strategy, but the report was introduced by its principal author, Toby Shephard, who enjoys the peculiar title of “strategy adviser of strategic planning”. Jacques Victor was with him.

It quickly became clear that one of the advantages of the Consensus Working Group approach, while it was working, had transformed into a monumental disadvantage: they’d had no politicians in the room. So the work went well, but now the politicians wanted to take back control, by any means necessary, with any arguments that popped into their heads.

An agitated Cr Wayne Walker, who back in 2015 attended the Paris climate change conference for the council, demanded to know if rising sea levels had been allowed for. “The Ministry for the Environment now says we should plan for up to 1.9 metres. Has this been factored in?”

Walker is unpredictable even at the best of times, and no one was quite sure what to say. Jim Quinn suggested it was “always intended the science on climate change would be factored in, but it was less relevant at this point”.

“Not good enough,” said Walker crisply.

Cr Chris Darby, in the chair, reminded him the sea was going to rise wherever the port was, although he did allow that storm surges aren’t the same in all locations. That’s true.

Cr Cathy Casey had another issue on her mind. “Where’s the balance?” she asked Darby. “You’ve had people presenting to us who want us to sell the port. Where are the people who want us not to sell the port?”

Darby said that wasn’t how it worked. The delegation had taken up the council’s standing invitation to speak to the meeting. At every meeting, there are likely to be two or three individuals or groups who do this and no one ever organises “the other side” to speak as well.

If Darby had been a bit thrown by Walker’s rising sea levels, he appeared completely nonplussed by this turn of events. He responded by doubling down on the seriousness. “The Consensus Working Party report made no assumptions about selling the port,” he said. That wasn’t, and isn’t, the issue. And it was “definitely not something that’s on my personal radar as chair or, from what I’m hearing, for the council as well”.

Casey rolled her eyes and looked around the room with her favourite this-is-too-incredulous-for-words reproachful face. “How can you relocate the port without selling it?” she blurted.

There are many ways. There’s also a view that if the council did want to sell the port, the best way to do it would be to leave it where it is. An existing asset would be far easier to deal with.

The fact is, the issues of location and ownership are separate, but Casey wasn’t appeased and nor was Cr Mike Lee.

“Why,” he demanded, “did the officials’ report not say the port can accommodate three times its present volume on the current footprint? “That’s three million TEUs, indefinitely! You’re not making that clear and I’m finding that increasingly frustrating here.”

A TEU is one of the large containers (TEU means “twenty-foot equivalent unit”).

Jacques Victor said that was “absolutely correct”. The port is handling about one million TEUs now and the study says it will be able to take up to about three million. “But this was a long-term study. What happens when it goes past that?” He also reminded Lee that it wasn’t just about TEUs: all those cars are at capacity already.

The strategic strategy guy Toby Shephard clarified that the report “does say the port won’t be able to continue indefinitely”. At the current rate of growth and activity, he said, it would run out of space around 2039.

Lee, in whom eloquence and grumpiness combine in almost a fever of aggrieved speechmaking, dismissed their responses. “What are the other uses for the site? The report doesn’t say, right? I’m asking why not?”

The reason is that the council hasn’t yet asked about alternative uses for the site. But I’s not hard to say, in general. They include a mix of beaches, parkland and other recreational facilities; commercial opportunities; residential blocks; a major iwi cultural development; public amenities like a new museum or a stadium … There are all sorts of opportunities and we have barely started to talk about them because the prospect of any of them happening is not imminent.

Time for another Wayne Walker special. “We’re probably going to have self-drive cars! Did the Consensus Working Group take them into account?”

Jacques Victor, perhaps struggling to know what he was getting at, said that it was a massive report and he didn’t know all the details, but he was confident all the relevant factors had been taken into account.

“There’s no need to rush!” said Cr John Watson. He was suspicious of the motives of whoever wanted the port to move. “Is this about the value of the land as a place for luxury apartments? That’s not a value to the people of Auckland at all.” He wanted to wait and see what the new government wanted to do.

Bill Cashmore, who is a charming raconteur away from the council table but, in meetings, always manages to project an air of wanting to give up in disgust and go home to the farm, tried to move things along. “It’s easy to get tangled up in details,” he said, “when all we’re doing is taking a precautionary approach.” He talked about Singapore, which he has recently visited, where they are shifting their port for the second time “and taking 20-25 years to do it”.

“In the future,” he said, “we will still need a port but will it be in its current format? The cranes will be robots, so what else will the future bring?

Then Mike Lee made his big speech. Lee played a leading role in the campaign to keep the port in public ownership in the 1990s and he has not wavered in his commitment to the cause. Or in his suspicion that lurking within every proposal to change the port is a desire to privatise it by stealth.

He’s both right and wrong. Right, because the business leaders and others who think the port should be sold do indeed take every opportunity to advance their cause. Wrong, in that it simply doesn’t follow that every change will lead to privatisation or is intended to lead that way. Wrong, because by opposing change, Lee blocks any kind of development.

“The port is owned by the people of Auckland and we represent them,” he said. “It is a strategic asset, paying increasing dividends that provide us with alternative sources of funding.” He’s wrong about that too: the dividend fluctuates but it’s not increasing.

Shane Vuletich, he said, works for a group that had applied for charity status but been turned down because one of its stated purposes is to advance the economic future of the port. There it was, the evidence of a secret purpose. “It’s one thing to argue for efficiency. It’s quite another thing to be getting the port out of its current location so you can put high-rise apartments in its place.”

But was it? Arguing for economic efficiency doesn’t mean you’re a closet neoliberal who wants to ruin every element of public good in the land.

Then Lee said it was immoral to say the port was causing damage in its present location only to propose it be shifted to the Manukau harbour or the Firth of Thames. He called both those options “a complete waste of ratepayers’ money”, because of “the enormous cost of establishing in a pristine environment”.

Lee’s position is that the port is fine where it is, and if one day that becomes untrue, the solution will not be to move the whole port but to send some of its functions somewhere else. It would be “much more sensible to scope the removal of surplus freight, and the cars”.

The thing is, all of that makes a good argument for getting the scoping work done, so they can move towards making an informed decision. Just dropping it all leaves them bickering, not in possession of reliable information and unable to make informed decisions. But Lee doesn’t see it that way.

David Taipari, representing the Independent Māori Statutory Board (IMSB), made exactly that point. “This is the third term of this council where this matter has been in front of us,” he said. “We seem to continue to delay the inevitable. Why delay, it’s just going to be like this every term.”

He also said there were issues that Māori will want to address, but he did not want that to be used as an excuse to do nothing. “To delay the inevitable is crazy. There is a whole process. This is not a fait accompli.”

Taipari often speaks in this way. He acknowledges there are issues for Māori and makes it clear they will be fully debated, but he doesn’t present them as obstacles. He wants to keep things moving. He’s doing his best to invite councillors to think about things in a similar way: engage with the process and sort out the problems through that engagement, rather than just throwing up your hands because you’re suspicious of someone’s motives.

Cr Greg Sayers didn’t agree. “I think Aucklanders are more concerned about our wage bill and affordable housing than they are about the port. Why are we spending time on this?” He suggested they just leave it to central government.

Cr Darby was getting a bit agitated. From the chair he decided to do a bit of pleading: “I am asking you, as Member Taipari did, to keep this moving.” He said the reasons given for shelving the report 15 months ago were “quite different from the reasons I’m hearing now”.

Darby likes to press the significance of the moment. “Councillors,” he said in his most serious voice, “it is very clear the writing is on the wall for port relocation. The report is very clear. There is work to do.” He said the working group represented all the stakeholders and the council had signed off on its scope. “Not once, but twice! What faith are we going to show in them now? Are we going to dismiss them outright? We have to address this part of Auckland’s future.”

He agreed, “completely”, that the purpose of shifting the port could not be “to fill the site with luxury apartments”. He said “we need to work on ways to make that clearer”. He agreed it was the government’s job to set up a strategic ports study; that’s why the motion said the council should lobby it to make that happen.

“I ask you now, look at the horizon, have some vision, please look out for future generations. The lead time is absolutely enormous and that is a view supported by a well-founded consensus. I’m asking you now to back the recommendations and take them to the next stage. Just the next stage.”

Cr Christine Fletcher took the call. “It’s really good to hear the passion from everyone,” she said, and then did her best to extinguish that passion. She had an amendment: to not do anything until they knew who the new government was.

There was a subtext to this. Fletcher used to be the mayor but now, by her choice, has no senior role on council. Her contributions are often couched as “advice” on a better way to approach whatever issue is on the table. She may not be aware she does it, but it’s a passive-aggressive way of telling the mayor and his committee chairs that she could run things better than them.

Cr Wayne Walker, also susceptible to the idea that things are never done the right way, was quick to second. “It would be immensely prudent to wait,” he said. “It’s not urgent and there are substantial sums involved.” He thought that not making a decision would “put leverage on the government”.

Cr Linda Cooper thought that was nonsense. “It doesn’t matter what government we get, we need to be setting the agenda.”

The person whose view on this might have been critical was the mayor, but Goff had left the room ages ago. He was flying to France that afternoon and it seemed no one had predicted there would be this big argument.

Cr Desley Simpson entered the debate for the first time. She’s the queen of matter-of-factness, and she likes to do big picture stuff too. It was Fletcher she was calling out. “We need to be leaders not followers,” said Simpson. “This is our port. I agree with Member Taipiri, we should keep things moving forward. Whatever the government, we should be the leader, we should say what our view is.” She noted that what they were debating today would have “no direct cost”.

Walker: “It has a huge cost!”

Simpson continued: “There is really nothing to be gained by not taking the next step, working with staff and consulting government all the way. Let’s get on with it.”

Shortly after that, they voted. Cr Fletcher’s amendment to delay was lost, 8-9. The substantial vote was won, 10-7. The council will now begin to “scope a process to investigate” shifting the port. It means they’re going to work out how they can work out whether to shift the port, and where to.

It’s a start.

Those wanting to progress the possibility of shifting the port were: Bill Cashmore, Ross Clow, Linda Cooper, Chris Darby, Richard Hills, Penny Hulse, Liane Ngamane (IMSB), Grey Sayers, Desley Simpson, David Taipiri (IMSB).

Those opposed were Cathy Casey, Efeso Collins, Christine Fletcher, Mike Lee, Sharon Stewart, Wayne Walker, John Watson.

Those absent were Phil Goff, Alf Filipaina, Daniel Newman, Dick Quax and John Walker. Councillor Denise Lee has become an MP and withdrawn from council activities.

simon@thespinoff.co.nz @simonbwilson

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