Will the outcry over wharf extensions at the Port of Auckland trigger a long-anticipated showdown between the port company and its master, the Auckland Council? Geoff Cumming and Bernard Orsman consider the options.

Seafarers follow an old adage: that a small problem ignored can grow to become almost insoluble. So it is with the future of the port on Auckland's waterfront - debate has ebbed and flowed for decades without ever being resolved.

The latest furore over twin wharf extensions, a further 100m into the harbour, has simply reopened old sores. The Auckland Council is now scoping a definitive review of long-term options - having postponed it two years ago until its new Unitary Plan is in place.

In the vacuum, its arms-length port company has taken quiet advantage of current planning rules to obtain resource consent without public notification to build the extensions off each corner of Bledisloe terminal and is proceeding at pace with the groundwork. It says that to stop would ignite contractual disputes.

Long-term, it plans a 3ha reclamation between the two new wharves to give more cargo storage space. It has even persuaded the Auckland Council to pull back from proposed rules in its Unitary Plan which would have made the reclamation non-complying.

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If feedback to this newspaper and social media blogsites is a reliable guide, most Aucklanders oppose further expansion into the harbour - whether by reclamation or pile wharf extension. It also seems a fair few don't mind paying more for goods to enter and exit the region from another upper North Island port - either existing (Tauranga and Northport, Whangarei) or a mythical new port closer to the city. But are the alternatives too expensive and would they simply shift the environmental and social problems elsewhere?

Even if the port rides out the storm - forcing Aucklanders to swallow yet another loss of open water - the public outcry may lead the council to finally draw a line in the sand, restricting the port to its current confines.

Could this become the port's final frontier - with no further extensions into the harbour?

The port gives assurances. It says its planned reconfiguration (the Bledisloe extensions allow a number of consequential moves) and a planned small reclamation in the inner port will meet growth needs for the forseeable future.

Trouble is, not many people believe it. Past behaviour and the port company's ability to out-manoeuvre politicians has engendered a lack of trust. In August 2013, the port company promised to "consult widely" when the time came to seek consent to extend Bledisloe wharf. A year later it applied for, and was granted, non-notified consent without telling even city councillors - let alone the public.

The other problem is the port's vision of the forseeable future: it extends only as far as 2041. Even within that timeframe there's uncertainty. An NZIER study for the Auckland Council suggests the container port will reach capacity by 2035 under medium-growth projections and as early as 2028 under high-growth.

Auckland's growth beyond 2041 will surely demand a bigger port footprint unless alternatives are found. Critics say now is the time to plan to accommodate freight elsewhere. The port says allowing its current expansion will buy time to decide.

Why are the wharf extensions needed now, ahead of the long-promised review?
The port says longer ships will soon be coming, both cargo (including car carriers) and cruise ships, and if we can't accommodate them they will bypass Auckland. While the Queen Mary has berthed at Jellicoe Wharf (in the inner port basin) for some years, this causes considerable delays for bulk cargo operations.

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Why can't Auckland Council stop the wharf extensions?
The consents were approved under rules that did not require notification unless "special circumstances" were found to exist by planning commissioners. Council planning manager Penny Pirrit says what constitutes a "special circumstance" is defined by case law; just because people won't like it isn't enough.

The council has asked the port company to halt the extensions until a wide-ranging study of the port's impact on the city is done. The company is giving every indication it will defy the council, which meets on Tuesday to consider further options.

Len Brown.
Len Brown.

What happens if the port company proceeds and ignores the wishes of the council?

Work is proceeding on enabling works at the end of Bledisloe Wharf. Work has not started on the main wharf extensions. The first signs of piles being driven into the seabed will ratchet up the stakes. Mayor Len Brown has shown little enthusiasm for what deputy mayor Penny Hulse has called the "thermonuclear" option, which is interpreted as giving the port's board its marching orders.

Can the council sack the ports board?
The council says no. Others say yes. Ports of Auckland is operated at arm's length from the council through a council body, Auckland Council Investments Ltd (ACIL). This governance arrangement is designed to limit political interference in the running of the ports company, which must operate as a successful business under the Ports Companies Act. The council is limited to appointing the directors of ACIL, who in turn appoint the port board directors.

Shareholders Association chairman John Hawkins says even with an intermediary organisation between council and port, ultimately the council has the final say. One scenario would see the council replacing the ACIL board with directors willing to change the port's board.

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Why is the port determined to press ahead?
Chairman Graeme Hawkins says its decision-making is based around making the best return on its assets, as it is legally required to do. The port faces competition for trade from Tauranga which has an inland port (linked by rail) at Southdown.

Both ports are responding to international shipping trends towards larger ships visiting fewer ports - requiring countries to develop major "hub" ports, with coastal ships ferrying goods to and from smaller "spoke" or feeder ports.

Graeme Hawkins.
Graeme Hawkins.

If the council can't stop it, who can?

Urban Auckland, a society of architects and planning professionals, is seeking a judicial review of the consents. It believes there has been a miscarriage of justice, claiming the consents were granted unlawfully.

The case will be heard on June 2. If Urban Auckland wins, work will stop on the extensions while the port company appeals or new consents are sought. If it loses, work will proceed and the issue will return to the political arena.

What are the main arguments against the extensions?
Urban Auckland cites the loss of views from Queens Wharf (which the council fought so hard to prise from the port company for public use) down harbour to North Head, Rangitoto and the inner gulf islands. These are "outstanding natural features" in planning terms.

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The tourism sector shares concern that the port detracts from the harbour's scenic value and opportunities to enhance the connection between city and harbour.

Boaties complain that the ever-narrowing harbour and increasing activity from shipping, ferries and commercial fishing boats mean the harbour is congested at times.

Commercial hard-heads argue that the land the port occupies would earn a much greater return if converted to a mix of residential, commercial and public open spaces. There's also widespread belief that Auckland's continued growth will mean the port keeps coming back for more: an alternative to further expansion must be found.

What's known about the port's future growth needs?
The port says container growth is future-proofed for at least 20 years, with the Fergusson terminal's previously approved extensions. The immediate problem is accommodating longer "break bulk" cargo ships including cement and car carriers and longer cruise ships. Giving up Queens Wharf (except for cruise ships) has put pressure on both berthage and storage space for cars; Auckland has also become a transit port for container traffic to the Pacific islands. While there are plans for car stacking and parking buildings, more berthage and storage space is needed.

Where else could Auckland's freight growth go?
Consultancy studies have looked at options such as diverting shipping to Tauranga or Northport, or both, and moving freight by road and rail; or building a new port closer to the city with new road and rail connections. Proponents say these alternatives would allow part or all of the downtown port to be freed for alternative uses to offset the costs. The port says none of the alternatives are viable.

What do the studies tell us?
Studies by PWC in 2012 for the Auckland Council and by Deloittes in 2013 for the Ministry of Transport suggest the costs of diverting all of Auckland's freight growth to Tauranga or Northport would exceed the benefits. PWC concluded all three ports should be allowed to expand. Deloittes suggests both Auckland and Tauranga should become hub ports.

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But both studies were medium-term (30 years) and focused on port capacities and freight movement for the upper North Island arising from the trend towards hubbing.

Another study, by Covec for the Committee for Auckland in 2013, extended the horizon to 2055 and weighed up the economic, environmental and social costs and benefits of an expanded Auckland port versus diverting trade elsewhere.

The Covec study estimated the additional cost of moving freight between Tauranga and Auckland at $480 million to $540 million a year by rail and $590 million a year by road. But it noted expanding Auckland to cope with growth would require $1 billion for a motorway extension and $500 million for a new rail line.

Covec valued the port land under current use at around $380/sq m; under alternative use it rose to around $1250/sq m. The port company says the study was deeply flawed.

What's the problem with Tauranga?
While Tauranga has resource consent to extend some wharves and could get permission to go further, the PWC study concludes it could not absorb Auckland's freight growth without jeopardising future capacity for its own region. Tauranga and South Auckland residents would object to increased freight movement by road and rail and the rail link between Tauranga and Auckland would need double-tracking.

What about Northport?
There's insufficient room in Whangarei Harbour for larger ships to turn around and, the Auckland port claims, berthage could not be extended sufficiently without unacceptable environmental and social impacts.

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Freight movement would increase pressure on the roading network. Extending the North Auckland rail line to the port is estimated to cost $100 million and the line to Auckland would need double-tracking.

Why not build a new port closer to town?
The question has always been: where? The port has solid grounds for arguing that it's better to stick with an already compromised site than inflict environmental and social consequences on a greenfields site. To counter Unitary Plan submissions pushing for the downtown port to be moved, it commissioned Beca to look at four alternatives: two in the Manukau Harbour; one off Kawakawa Bay near Ponui island; and one near Kaiaua in the Firth of Thames. All would have damaging impacts on relatively unspoilt areas; all would require huge investment in new infrastructure including roading, rail and accommodation. The port company estimates the cost of developing a new port at $4.4 billion to $5.5 billion and says it is unaffordable.

So that's the end of it then?
Far from it. The Tauranga and Northport capacity studies were medium-term in focus and didn't consider the wider costs and benefits. For instance, double-tracking the North Auckland line would improve passenger as well as freight capacities - helping Kumeu and Helensville to grow as satellite towns. Nor did the previous studies fully explore halfway-house options, such as diverting car carriers from Auckland to one port or another. Again, the port company claims there would be too many downsides - it has a "no alternative" answer to everything.

The Committee for Auckland argues that if Sydney can relocate its port (in the 1970s, to Botany Bay), as did London, so can we.

Mayor Brown says the council's Port Future study will fully canvass the options for freight movement, including "alternative port locations or configurations".

Council misses boat on port, claim critics

Auckland Council largely missed a rare chance to shape future development of the downtown port using its new unitary plan, critics say.

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Mayor Len Brown has blamed the 2004 regional coastal plan for the council's inability to refuse the Bledisloe wharf extensions, or at least subject the port's application to public scrutiny. Reforms to the Resource Management Act make it clear that if councils want to protect or prohibit things, they must explicitly say so in planning documents.

But under Brown, the council has fallen short in introducing better rules to the unitary plan to reflect public sentiment towards the harbour and waterfront. It had a clear mandate to do so — rejection of the 2006 waterfront stadium proposal and the outcry against previous port reclamation proposals highlighted the public's desire for improved connection between city and harbour. While most Aucklanders don't mind a working port on the waterfront, they want access increased, views maintained — and no more expansion into the harbour.

Credit where it's due: the draft unitary plan proposed making reclamation in the port precinct a non-complying activity, making it very difficult for the port to win permission, until a study was undertaken into the port's expansion needs. But in February it backed down, after planners found it conflicted with the New Zealand coastal policy statement. That advice contradicted an earlier legal opinion.

The compromise solution eases the path for further reclamation within the port precinct but makes it very difficult around the perimeter (see map). While small reclamations can be carried out in the inner port, those around the Bledisloe and Fergusson terminals would be subjected to public comment.

As for pile wharf extensions within the precinct, the draft unitary plan makes it even easier. Under the operative 2004 plan, pile wharf extensions are a controlled activity — meaning they must be allowed if they broadly meet development criteria, though the council can impose controls. The draft unitary plan makes such extensions a permitted activity — meaning the port won't need resource consent if they broadly fit development criteria.

Council planning manager Penny Pirrit says: "There's very little difference between controlled and permitted activities except we can put conditions around controlled activities. So technically the change is that we give up our ability to put conditions [on wharf extensions]."

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There's a lot more the council could have done: specifying objectives and policies backed by specific rules to shape the port's direction in planning terms. But the plan pays scant regard to the harbour's significance to yachties, nor its scenic and recreational value to locals, visitors and tourists. There's nothing to protect views down the harbour from Queens Wharf, which the council and the Government jointly purchased for $40 million to improve public access.

While there's plenty on the economic importance of the port, there's little recognition of competing users of the harbour or the cumulative impacts of past reclamation.

Urban Auckland chairwoman Julie Stout says the plan includes little to reflect the importance of the Waitemata Harbour or the port's relationship to harbour and city.

In a submission on the draft plan, Urban Auckland is pressing for viewshaft protection for views from Queens Wharf to North Head, Rangitoto and Brown's Island. The hearing is set down for May 13.
Geoff Cumming