Editorial: Wharf idea deserves applause

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Auckland's regional council chairman and his deputy deserve two cheers for their proposal to open up the old wharves at the centre of the city waterfront. The need for the city to make more of its harbourside has been known and discussed for as long as any citizen can remember but it was said to be too hard - until Sports Minister Trevor Mallard proved it was not.

His waterfront stadium might have been a frightful prospect to most, but it showed how easily the wharves could be extracted from the port company's grasp by public representatives determined to make better use of them. ARC chairman Mike Lee and deputy chairman Michael Barnett have not forgotten that lesson.

For that they deserve a cheer, and a second one for uniting in the cause. Mr Lee and Mr Barnett are from opposing political camps. Mr Barnett's disinclination to seek Mr Lee's position after the elections last year augured well for co-operation and this scheme is the first fruit of it.

A proposal with support from left and right on the regional council has a greater chance of success no matter what sort of government emerges from the parliamentary election this year, and that is important because the proposal relies on government finance. That is the reason to withhold a third cheer.

Local leaders are clearly hoping that a Government willing to put up hundreds of millions for a waterfront stadium can be persuaded to contribute to a new cruise ship terminal. That may be hopeful; the stadium was for a purpose to which the Government was already committed - providing the capacity required to host the Rugby World Cup in 2011. Another cruise ship terminal may be not less desirable considering the growth in cruise travel at the moment, but it might struggle to claim the same priority for national funds.

In fact the Government might reasonably ask why, given the record number of cruises calling at Auckland this summer, the region's port company does not make the investment itself. If Princes Wharf has become an inadequate terminal, and Queens Wharf is the obvious site for a new one, why would the port company want to continue using that wharf to store imported cars and bananas?

The port company is fully owned by the regional council through its subsidiary, Auckland Regional Holdings. The directors of the holding company should be making sure the port company is making the most economic use of all its assets. Consultants could be engaged for an independent assessment of the economics of cruise services and bulk storage. It may be the port company is disinclined to invest in a better cruise terminal only because public finance might build one.

In fact the chances of Auckland getting access to its central waterfront at last are probably greater if the owners of the port were to take a more critical view of the company's operations. We could be waiting a long while for a government to fund a project, and it would probably require something as grand as the envisaged stadium.

No such compelling public project exists yet. Access to the wharves is the regional council's real desire; a cruise terminal is mere justification. Public access is urgently desirable, but beyond that the city should wait for the right development to present itself. In the meantime, the wharf should be cleared of its sheds and made attractive for people to walk, sit, watch ship movements, have lunch, enjoy the sun. Let people start using the waterfront and let development follow what they want to do there. And let it happen soon.

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