Storm in a Port
This column is from the April issue of Metro, on sale March 26.
It’s this simple. If you stand on the end of Queens Wharf and look east, you will no longer be able to look up the harbour. You will not even see all of North Head.
Who would do that? Who would think it’s acceptable to vandalise the beauty of the Waitemata in such a way, and turn the channel between Devonport and downtown into more of a river than it already is, endangering boaties and sealife?
We know the answer. Ports of Auckland Ltd (POAL) would, with their plan to extend Bledisloe Wharf, and later to reclaim more land between Bledisloe and Jellicoe Wharves. And the council is letting them do it.
Mayor Len Brown and his deputy Penny Hulse argue their hands are tied. They say the consent for this work was gained under planning rules established under the old Auckland Regional Council and still in place, because the new Unitary Plan has not yet come into effect. This is true, but it misses the point.
They say the council has no legal power to instruct the board of POAL, despite POAL being wholly owned by the council. This may also be true, but it has not been tested and, besides, it also misses the point.
This is a political dispute, not a legal one, and councillors who fail to grasp that are failing in their duty to provide political leadership.
There are the four things Brown and the council should have done — and should still do.
1. Tell POAL, publicly, frequently and in the strongest language possible that they must not extend into the harbour — at least until the full evaluation of the issues is complete. It is incredible Brown has never said this.
2. Front a public protest campaign, targeting POAL. The rally on Queens Wharf on March 22 attracted 2000 people, a great many boats, and speakers who ranged from Peter Montgomery to MPs Nikki Kaye and Jacinda Ardern. It exemplified the very spirit of Auckland that Len Brown claims to embody; he used to love speaking at events like that. Yet — how extraordinary is this? — on that Sunday he was in hiding.
3. Tell POAL it will seek through every means at its disposal to replace its non-elected board if it ignores the will of Aucklanders as expressed through the democratically elected councillors.
4. Lobby hard in Wellington to have the rules for CCOs clarified, so that CCO boards are answerable to council. Not on every little thing. But the council is supposed to set guidelines and strategic direction — that’s what Wellington promised us when it created the supercity, and Brown himself has often declared it to be true.
POAL argues the proposed extension is minor, and necessary, and if the port doesn’t function efficiently Auckland will suffer. Let’s extrapolate that just a little. Container ships are getting bigger and Auckland wants to attract more of them. Is there any line that will be drawn? Does the board envisage a slow but endless encroachment into the harbour? Or does it believe that at some point, enough will be enough?
If it’s the former, the board is unfit to be placed in charge of a public amenity. If the latter, why not now? In earlier times, the councils and governors of this city had the wisdom and courage to establish the Domain, and Albert and Victoria Parks, and to plant all the pohutukawa and plane trees that help to make this city so beautiful. Now, their successors dishonour that heritage with their desire to create more carparks.
Because that’s what this is about. While, longer term, we have big questions to answer about the future of the container port, right now all that’s at stake is carparks. Why? Because the POAL board lacks the imagination to come up with an alternative plan for parking imported cars. It beggars belief.
Why has Len Brown been so timid on this issue? Because there’s money in it: income from POAL helps keep down rates.
That’s a valuable goal. But if money is the issue, where’s the strategic plan to develop an optimal mix of public amenity, natural beauty and income on the prime waterfront land of the port? Brown says he wants council to create that plan, but this is fatuous. If he’d done it when he first promised it, in 2013, we probably would not be in this position now.
Len Brown will have spent a lot of time over the past 18 months worrying about his legacy. We now know what it is, and sex scandals are not the problem. He’s the mayor who’s big on words, small on action. The mayor who didn’t stand up when it counted.
It’s not just the port. He has not consistently supported “density done well” development proposals, for fear of nimby backlash. He backed the proposal to run an east/west motorway through Mangere, until the public outcry showed him how absurd it was.
It’s probably asking too much to expect Len Brown will climb a container crane and refuse to come down until POAL gives in. But with their refusal to take the lead on this issue, he and Penny Hulse — both of whom have mayoral aspirations next election — are doing the political equivalent of tying themselves to the Bledisloe Wharf pilings. Perhaps they’re hoping the tide won’t come in.
But it will.