Bernard Orsman is Super City reporter for the NZ Herald.

Reclaiming our harbour: The People v The Port

• A Herald campaign, launched in 2012, to stop Ports of Auckland shrinking the Waitemata Harbour for commercial purposes has had its share of twists and turns.

• The company's plan to extend Bledisloe Wharf 250m into the harbour was sunk after a huge public backlash. This was followed by a revised plan to extend the wharf about 100m into the harbour, primarily to park cars.

• Auckland Council is divided on rules for port use in the new Unitary Plan and has embarked on a study into the wider effects of the port on city life. Super City reporter Bernard Orsman recaps the present issues and players in the harbour debate.

The issues

The wharf extensions

In October and December, Ports of Auckland obtained consent from Auckland Council to build two large extensions at the end of Bledisloe Wharf, about 100m long and 33m wide, to accommodate larger ships and create more space, mostly to park cars.

The extensions were approved under rules that did not require notification unless there were "special circumstances", which were not found to exist by planning commissioners. Ports of Auckland kept councillors and the public in the dark until February.

When the news became public, the port company said it planned to reclaim 3ha of seabed between the extensions over time. Enabling work has begun, with main work to start this month.

The looming construction led to the formation of protest group Stop Stealing Our Harbour to halt work pending a council study on the wider effects of the port on the city.

Mayor Len Brown argued he was powerless to stop the extensions and direct the port company to desist. He was widely condemned at a protest attended by about 300 boats and 2000 people who called for the extensions to be halted at once.

Since then, Mr Brown and the entire council have changed tack and "encouraged" the port company, via a letter to the council body overseeing it, to stop until the study is done.

That body, Auckland Council Investments Ltd (ACIL), met on Thursday to consider the letter. In turn, it has written a letter to the ports board, which is meeting this week to discuss a response.

On Thursday, Urban Auckland, a society set up to protect the city's built environment and waterfront, lodged papers with the High Court at Auckland seeking a judicial review of the consents.

Photo / Google Earth
Photo / Google Earth


Reclamation rules

The Unitary Plan, the new planning rulebook for the Super City, must provide rules for reclamation in the port precinct.

The old rules let Ports of Auckland reclaim more seabed beyond the planned extensions.

In August, the council tightened the rules from "discretionary activity" status to a much tougher "non-complying activity" status heading into notification of the new plan.

In February, councillors narrowly voted twice behind closed doors to ease the rules to fully notified "discretionary" status for mediation on the issue in the current hearings on the Unitary Plan.

Mr Brown and Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse voted to ease the August 2013 rules, arguing the latest rules were tougher than what was in place before.

Mediation is ended and the Unitary Plan hearings panel will make recommendations to the council to make the final call.

Port study

Port opponents have long argued for a study into the wider impact of the ports on the city. To date, there have been two: a technical study by PricewaterhouseCoopers that found Auckland, Tauranga and Northland ports faced strong growth, with Auckland the first to face capacity constraints, and a study by the NZ Institute of Economic Research this year that focused on economic issues. It said Ports of Auckland had container space for 20 years but pressure was coming on bulk cargo, of which vehicles account for 45 per cent.

In 2012, the council decided to take a long-term view of the port and its wider impact on city life.

In August 2013, Mr Brown said that before any decisions on expansion, "we need an informed discussion with Aucklanders, underpinned by a robust study that includes consideration of economic, social and environmental factors". The mayoral office said to expect details of the scope and aims of the study in the "coming weeks".

Nearly two years later, councillors voted last week to start work on the scope of the study.

A media release said the council was bringing forward work on the study, which was not meant to take place until after the Unitary Plan became operational in mid-2016.

The study is expected to take about 12 months. The public will have the opportunity to comment on the findings.


The Players

Auckland Council

Owns 100 per cent of Ports of Auckland and receives a healthy dividend ($66 million in the latest year) to offset rates. Divided on the issues of wharf extensions and further reclamation. Kept in the dark about consents late last year for wharf extensions. Narrowly voted twice to ease rules introduced in August 2013 for further reclamation in the Unitary Plan. Starting work on a study into the economic, environmental and social impacts of the port on wider Auckland.

Key players

• Mayor Len Brown:

Misread the public mood on port expansion, and only in the past week started to flex his vocal cords. Supports the economic importance of the port for Auckland (and growing dividends) and argued his hands were tied by legal process on the wharf extensions. Recognises the port is a huge political issue that will define the city for generations to come. Moved on a port study and "bilateral discussions".

Auckland City Mayor Len Brown. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Auckland City Mayor Len Brown. Photo / Brett Phibbs


• Councillor Chris Darby:

Methodically and forcefully led opposition on the council to port expansion. Juggled council sensitivities and public anger, accusing the port company of cunning behaviour and inflicting environmental vandalism.

• Councillor Mike Lee:

Ex-maritime worker and chairman of Auckland Regional Council (ARC) when it "nationalised" the port in 2005. Had no truck with Brown blaming the current situation on planning rules put in place by the ARC. Accused him of passing the buck for poor leadership and told him to "man up".

• Councillor Linda Cooper:

Right-leaning councillor. Stood her ground for port expansion on economic grounds. Concerned issue is being determined by celebrities, mob hysteria and Facebook.

• Chief executive Stephen Town:

Reserved and thoughtful chief executive pulled in to broker a solution. Wrote carefully crafted letter asking the council body overseeing Ports of Auckland to "encourage" port bosses to halt the extensions until a wide-ranging port study is completed.

Ports of Auckland

Council-owned freight and cruise ship company required by law to act as a successful business.

Plans to build two large wharf extensions of nearly 100m at the end of Bledisloe Wharf to accommodate larger ships and create more space, primarily to park cars. Plans to fill in 3ha of seabed between the wharf extensions.

Key players

• Chief executive Tony Gibson:

Likeable, but hard-nosed company boss who pulled back earlier plans for bigger port expansion. Trying to to ease rules in the Unitary Plan for future reclamations.

Ports of Auckland CEO Tony Gibson. Photo / Michael Bradley
Ports of Auckland CEO Tony Gibson. Photo / Michael Bradley


• Communications manager Matt Ball:

Public face of the port company throughout the debate. Followed a consistent but mostly defensive line.

• Board chairman Graeme Hawkins:

Former chairman of council-owned Watercare who finds himself at the centre of a storm over the future of the city's harbour. Caught between corporate responsibilities, public opinion and slow-to-react political masters, he and the board are sticking to their guns - for now.

• Other board members: Deputy chairwoman Liz Coutts, Andrew Bonner, Wayne Walden, Pat Snedden, Rodger Fisher, Jonathan Mayson.

Auckland Council Investments Ltd (ACIL)

Council-controlled organisation which oversees Ports of Auckland at arm's length from Auckland Council. Strong commercial focus. Monitors proposed plans, investments and financial performance of the port company. Meant to ensure the port has regard for the council's wider objectives. Under fire for not keeping the council properly informed. Given the job of telling the port company to halt the wharf extensions.

Key player

• Chairman Simon Allen:

Former investment banker and head of the New Zealand Stock Exchange. Handed a red-hot potato. Publicity shy.

The opponents

• Stop Stealing Our Harbour:

Protest group of concerned Aucklanders set up in early March to halt wharf extensions until a wider port study is completed. Fronted by music teacher Michael Goldwater. Deborah Pead of Pead PR and former Auckland City councillor Greg McKeown are helping the group. Pead PR has been working with Heart of the City since 2010 to oppose further port expansion. Organised protest on March 22 that attracted about 2000 people and 300 boats.

• Sir Stephen Tindall:

Founder of The Warehouse and philanthropist who has fronted a group of business leaders, boaties and celebrities who signed an open letter demanding the port company "stop stealing our harbour" until a wider study is done. Other well-known names to sign the letter include Rob Fyfe, Barbara Kendall, Lady Pippa Blake, Sir Graham Henry, Chris Dickson, Neil Finn and Peter Montgomery.

Sailing commentator Peter Montgomery. Photo / Jason Dorday
Sailing commentator Peter Montgomery. Photo / Jason Dorday


• Urban Auckland:

Group of architects, urban designers and planners set up to protect the city's built environment and waterfront. Lodged papers with the High Court at Auckland last week challenging the lawfulness of the consents for wharf extensions. Prominent architect Julie Stout fronts the group.

- NZ Herald

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