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Bye bye port

Aug 11, 2015 Politics

Now let’s think seriously about what to do with 77 hectares of prime waterfront land.


By Ports of Auckland’s own admission, last month’s High Court decision on its wharf extensions means it is now uneconomic at its current site.

In its full-page newspaper ads, the port insisted the 100-metre wharf extensions were “urgent”. The status quo “just isn’t an option”. Either the extensions went ahead, it said, or “we can begin a journey that will ultimately close down New Zealand’s busiest port”.

Congratulations to the port for finally telling the ratepayers, who own it, the truth about its economics. With its enormous footprint, the company hasn’t made an economic return this century. What book profit it claims is only made respectable by valuing its land as if it were a South Auckland industrial park rather than prime waterfront real estate.

Nor is the port important to the export economy. Major exporters have already abandoned it. Ships come in laden with second-hand cars, Barbie dolls and bananas and leave much lighter. But your San Pellegrino doesn’t come direct from Fergusson Wharf to Prego . The imports go to distribution centres throughout the region before being trucked back into the city and beyond for sale.

You don’t have to be a mercantilist or wild-eyed greenie to think this is nuts. You just need to read the ports company’s own financial statements, which is why so many business leaders — including The Warehouse founder Stephen Tindall and Mainfreight’s Don Braid — have backed the campaign against the extensions.

The politicians know the economics too. When speaking off the record, John Key makes the case for the port’s container operations to move progressively to Marsden Pt and Tauranga. The port’s local MP, Cabinet minister Nikki Kaye, signed the open letter against the extensions. So too did the only credible candidate for Auckland mayor, former trade minister Phil Goff.

Predictably, outgoing mayor Len Brown swallowed the port bosses’ line that Auckland would look ridiculous internationally if he took a stand. Tell that to Sydney, which first moved its port from The Rocks to Darling Harbour and then to Botany Bay in the 1970s. The main cruise-ship terminal, of course, remains at The Rocks across from the Opera House.

It took a Ponsonby music teacher, Michael Goldwater, to stand up against the ports company and achieve the historic court win. It’s likely the firm will appeal. When it ultimately loses later this decade, it is arrogant enough to try for a legislative solution or new resource consent, but public sentiment means both would fail. In any case, these wharf extensions were “urgent”, remember? As the port itself told us in its ads, without immediate expansion there will be a “slow decline of the current traffic as ship owners find other alternatives that welcome them”.

Exactly. The rough outline of what should happen is clear because it is under way anyway and would speed up if Auckland’s port was a commercial rather than political organisation. Given its proximity to the export powerhouses of Waikato and the Bay of Plenty, Tauranga will keep growing. Marsden Pt is already deep enough to accept the larger container vessels Ports of Auckland worries about, and has more than 200 hectares of adjacent land. In a big boost to Northland’s struggling economy, it would expand rapidly, including to become the major centre for car imports. The misnamed “holiday highway” would be completed through to Marsden Pt and faster rail links developed. To help pay for it, the Auckland waterfront land would be progressively sold or developed.

This will all need to happen over 20-odd years, but that gives time for Aucklanders to think about the waterfront we want. Unlike the port, it will have to make economic sense. A genuine world-class cruise-ship terminal is mandatory. There will need to be modern workplaces, hotels, retail outlets, cafés and bars, and $10 million apartments with views down the harbour and gulf. But what a wonderful place for, say, a new university campus. For parks and playgrounds. For music and the arts. It is painful for Aucklanders to admit this, but head to Wellington to see what’s possible.

Aucklanders have a decade to work this out. But let’s start now. And Mr Key and Mr Goff: as our probable prime-minister-for-life and likely new mayor, could you lead the conversation, please?

Disclosure: Matthew Hooton signed the open letter opposing the wharf extensions and his company works for Auckland iwi Ngati Whatua, which also opposed the project.



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