Project Auckland: Getting Auckland's port area right is vital for new council

By Geoff Cumming

Ports of Auckland longterm development plan. Photo / Supplied
Ports of Auckland longterm development plan. Photo / Supplied

Nowhere better showcases the tangled lines of Auckland's governance than the downtown waterfront where the interests of public and commerce collide.

The vision of Auckland as an international city attracting tourists and conventions is not incompatible with the public's wish to enjoy the water's edge from the heart of the CBD. What we've got is a long way from satisfying either ambition - and well shy of making the most of the city's best asset.

The difficulty has long been the needs of the port and its customers. The wharves are vital to the region's economy, handling $17bn worth of imports and nearly $10bn in exports in the last financial year. The port's claimed economic impact on the Auckland region is $270m and it handles 60 per cent of the upper North Island's container trade.

This economic role combined with divisive local government explains the port's ability to shape, withstand or defy political change - as debacles over Queens Wharf and the proposed waterfront stadium have shown.

While public access has improved steadily in the last 20 years, progress has tended to come at a pace and in places which suit the port. The Auckland City Council's designs on the waterfront have routinely been frustrated by the regional council-controlled port operation.

Suggestions that the tension could be resolved by shifting the port have always foundered on the lack of a realistic alternative.

"With the largest consumer market in New Zealand, it's absolutely required that we have a port here in Auckland," says port company general manager Jens Madsen.

Will the Super City structure fare any better in marrying the sometimes conflicting objectives of port and people?

At first glance, the new structure promises business as usual for Ports of Auckland Ltd which, under the umbrella of the Auckland Council Investments CCO (Council Controlled Organisation), will continue to operate at arm's length from politicians and media scrutiny.

"The most important thing for us is really to be able to run a profitable port," says Madsen.

An incoming mayor may dream of charting waterfront renewal, but the port will be on auto-pilot, responding to statements of intent. Its overriding goal is expected to continue -to maximise profits which then fund public transport and stormwater improvements ($436m over the past 5 years).

Nevertheless, a united council will be better placed to guide and question the port's direction than the existing structure, not least because another CCO - the Waterfront Development Agency - has been set up to make the best of public waterfront spaces. With outgoing Waitakere mayor Bob Harvey at the helm, it will not lack vision.

Harvey has been studying waterfront redevelopment overseas and says what sparks waterfront renewal is "great leadership and big dreams".

He aims to deliver "a waterfront Aucklanders can be proud of for 50 to 100 years" but stresses his board has yet to meet and he has yet to be briefed on the agency's remit.

Madsen, like his predecessor Geoff Vasey, has worked hard on the port's public profile. He sees the agency and the port company as "complementing each other".

"We're very much aware of being a city port and the obligations we have to stakeholders."

There is, however, a pair of elephants in the room. The first is the port development plan, which anticipates trends in container shipping - particularly the advent of much larger ships carrying two or three times the number of containers as now. These will call at major "hub" ports, with smallers ships carrying containers to and from smaller "spoke" ports.

Auckland faces competition from Tauranga to be the hub port for the upper North Island. Its development plan calls for considerable intensification of activity between the Bledisloe and Fergusson container wharves: reclamation to lengthen the wharves, higher container stacks, new technology to improve efficiency and round-the-clock haulage.

At some point, alternative berthage will be available for car carriers, freeing-up Captain Cook Wharf. Conceivably, the new council could push for greater urgency if its vision for Queens Wharf does not include a cruise ship terminal.

As ever, Madsen says the timing of developments will depend on projected trade volumes and these remain deflated by recession. But the plan envisages that Fergusson and Bledisloe will both be lengthened by around 2026 and that, by 2040, the harbour in between will be filled in to form a vast container base - if resource consent is gained for such contentious work. Rangitoto Channel and the wharf seabed would also need to be dredged to accommodate the biggest ships. Madsen stresses the long-term plans are conceptual and little development is expected in the short-term.

Publicly, at least, he is unfazed by a Shippers' Council report which pushes for Tauranga as the first North Island hub port. The group, which represents exporters and importers, says while Auckland is the natural location to be the initial hub port it is not confident it can be ready soon enough. It claims New Zealand needs to be ready within five years or risk being bypassed, with the big ships loading and unloading our goods at an Australian hub port.

Madsen does not buy the shippers' line on the urgency with which decisions, and port expansion, are needed. But the report highlights other concerns including:

The current ownership structure.

Uncertainties about the new political set-up.

Continued debate about the best use of the waterfront.

Incompatibility between increased freight movements and residential growth.

Finally, it believes much less investment is needed to develop Tauranga - $50m to $80m compared to $200m for Auckland.

Certainly, the desirability of Auckland's port becoming a hub port should be publicly debated before decisions are made and should be a top priority for the new council. A brave mayoral candidate would have made it an election issue by now.

But the alternative, of Auckland becoming a spoke to Tauranga's hub, raises regional economic concerns - potential delays for manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers and consumers and the impacts on the many jobs which indirectly flow from the port.

The second elephant is the spectre of privatisation, advocated by business purists who argue this would free-up funds for other investments and promote efficiency gains. None of the mayoral frontrunners is suggesting privatisation in the short term but Northern Employers and Manufacturers' head Alasdair Thompson is one who wants the issue considered. The investment needed if Auckland is to become a hub port - with implications for waterfront redevelopment, neighbours and, potentially, ratepayers - will surely keep privatisation on the agenda.

Ports of Auckland 2009/10

867,368 containers* handled (up 3 per cent)
$17.2b worth of imports
$9.8b worth of exports
38 per cent of NZ's total imports by value
23 per centof NZ's total exports by value
62 cruise ship visits
$165.7mOperations revenue (up 1.2 per cent)
$37.2m Net profit (up $31.8m)
$258mNet debt (down $90m )

*20ft-equivalent container units

- NZ Herald

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