Mark Thomas: Fresh thinking can make port deliver

Technology and productivity gains should mean the port can grow business without physically expanding. Photo / Supplied
Technology and productivity gains should mean the port can grow business without physically expanding. Photo / Supplied

• Mark Thomas is a candidate for Mayor of Auckland He has been a deputy chair of the Orakei Local Board since 2010

The average Auckland motoring commuter could fly to Australia every week with the time they are wasting stuck in traffic. A TomTom global survey says we lose an extra 41 minutes each work day due to congestion. But if we magically fixed this problem tomorrow, that same Aucklander would be unlikely to afford the weekly flights.

Last year's Home Loan Affordability Report estimated a typical family buying their first home would have mortgage repayments taking up more than 60 per cent of their income.

Auckland has an $18 billion infrastructure spending backlog. We should be spending an extra $400 million a year fixing transport and our house prices are the fifth most expensive in the world. This is the context into which we have received the $1 million Future Port Study looking at options to cope with the port and its future growth.

But, despite some breathless headlines, the report doesn't actually say the port has to move. It says both that Auckland's future may unfold in a way which means the port would not have to be moved, and that work should begin to investigate a new location. Effectively, the report takes a bob each way and that is understandable. As the chair of the Port of Tauranga says, any study looking 50 years into the future will find it difficult to assess with any accuracy whether there will be sufficient capacity at the port.

Peter Drucker, the founder of much modern management thinking, once said the only thing we know about the future is that it will be different. Happily, Aucklanders stuck in traffic or struggling to buy a house can breathe a sigh of relief. The report's mid-point for any possible port move is 2055 and it outlines options to cope with short-medium term pressure.

The port says it can triple its container volumes within its existing footprint and that will take us to the 2050s. The port is already working on alternative storage options for cars and if Aucklanders don't want any extension of the existing terminals, we can tender cruise ships in the harbour as happens in a number of ports around the world.

The report talks a lot about the uncertainty of the assumptions in it and with any possible move decades away, the most important step for Auckland's next mayor is to establish the monitoring regime the report recommends. Then to ensure the short-term issues are more effectively dealt with. This will be my approach.

A key issue is whether to provide any additional berth length. The report says this will be needed to cope with growing cruise and multi-cargo needs.

We know the port has historically overestimated the amount of space it needs because it has underestimated the impact of new technology and productivity gains. Productivity gains in recent years mean it can take an additional 250,000 containers, or 30 per cent of its current annual volume, and technology changes in coming years will equate to up to 800,000 containers. All this has meant less physical expansion.

Fan of moving the port talk of copying the likes of Sydney that moved its container port operation. They neglect to tell us it was the New South Wales government (population 5 million at the time) that owns and which moved their port. Vancouver, higher up the world's most liveable city than Auckland, has a working container port right in the heart of its inner-city waterfront.

The issue is not that we can't have a working port in central Auckland, it's that our port has not worked well enough with Aucklanders. The red fence has been a physical and a mental barrier for the company. I will lead an improvement in the way our port interacts with Auckland as we seek to make more of our waterfront available to the public.

Wynyard Precinct developments will make this an even more vibrant part of our waterfront and initial design thinking is under way on a new public space adjacent to the Ferry Building.

The Port of Tauranga has also challenged some of the assumptions in the Port Future Study. That's not unreasonable. Actually resolving the way in which our port grows should involve thoughtful discussions with New Zealand's largest container export port. I don't want to wait for any future government to establish a national plan.

My proposal to "asset swap" the port business could deliver a version of this. Auckland would continue to own the land and regulate the port's activity but, if Aucklanders agreed, we could swap the value of the port business to both provide the urgent funding we need for specific new transport assets and establish a new port business that might include Ports of Tauranga, so we get a better plan for who does what where.

Drucker also said the best way to predict the future is to create it. The immediate future I want to create is one where many more of our immediate transport and housing issues are sorted.

- NZ Herald

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