Auckland Mayor Phil Goff says any decision on the future of Port of Auckland is for Auckland Council to make but he favoured a relocation and believed splitting the port company from the land made sense.
Goff told RNZ's Checkpoint he had long advocated for the port to move to free up the 77ha inner city area and the Firth of Thames was the most realistic option.
However, any relocation would likely be at least 20 years away.
Asked about the possibility of selling off the land or the company, he said it was up to the whole Council to make such decisions and he would seek a confidential briefing for Council from the Ports of Auckland.
"Where we reach agreement is that they see value in separating the port into an operating company and a land company."
He said that would make sense if the port did relocate.
"If the Ports decide to relocate out of Auckland, I'm not going to have the Ports sell off the land to the highest commercial bidder in order to relocate, because that won't guarantee the cultural, environmental or social outcomes I want for Auckland."
He said there would be a better return for Aucklanders in using the land for something else.
Prime Minister Bill English said he was pleased to see Auckland Council was looking seriously at what it had to do to fund its share of the infrastructure for the city.
"We are yet to see just what the Council is going to do, but I think people now are much more interested in getting some real solutions and are less interested in political arguments about how they might happen. We need the houses built and we need the infrastructure for it."
He effectively ruled out any further Government assistance, such as more funding or a loan for Auckland Council, saying the Government was already paying billions of dollars and the Council had to fund its share itself.
Labour's Auckland spokesman Phil Twyford said Labour would "strongly oppose" any attempt to sell of the port, saying the short-term gain was outweighed by the longer term interest in retaining the port and developing a strategy for the upper North Island ports.
"National has blocked every request Auckland Council has made for new sources of revenue to invest in desperately needed infrastructure, including road pricing and a regional fuel tax. And now the usual cheerleaders for privatisation are telling the Council to flog off the port company to fund the infrastructure deficit."
However, English was unapologetic about it, saying the Government was negotiating about how to fund the City Rail Link, water, roads and new houses.
"The taxpayer is making some quite big contributions into Auckland, and I think the rest of New Zealand wants to see Auckland being positive about the growth and finding its fair share of the rest of the cost of the infrastructure. Auckland benefits from its growth. We are helping right now, but in the long run they are going to need to be able to fund it."
The Ports of Auckland this afternoon confirmed its management met with Goff yesterday to discuss the future of the port, including possible relocation and splitting the port land from the operating company.
Confirmation of the meeting comes as reports emerged that Goff was considering selling the port - although he has refused to provide any details including whether he was considering selling the Ports of Auckland business or the land as well.
A spokesman for the port said the meeting included discussion of what would happen after a study on the future of the port was concluded, options for interim development of the port and considerations for the relocation of the port.
"We also discussed work that was started under the previous council to evaluate the potential to split the port land from the operating company. This is the first time these matters have been discussed with the current Mayor."
Earlier opponents of any more reclamation of Waitemata Harbour said that a sale of Ports of Auckland should be used to relocate the operation within 15 years.
Stop Stealing Our Harbour was responding to revelations that high-level discussions are under way over the future of the ports company as Goff wrestles with how to fund the city's ballooning infrastructure costs.
Goff earlier refused to be drawn on whether he plans to sell the council's ownership stake, saying only he wants to address the port's long-term future this term.
The main risk of privatisation is that the terms of the deal would delay the transformation of our waterfront.
The Herald understands an initial public offering (IPO) is being discussed in merchant banking circles. Either a sale of the operating company or a part sale of the entire entity is understood to be under discussion.
Goff would only say he has had wide-ranging discussions on the port but no specific proposal has been presented to him.
Shane Vuletich, of Stop Stealing Our Harbour, said the group would not support selling port land under any circumstances but was open-minded on the sale of the operating company.
But he said the group would only support the sale of the company if the right to occupy the waterfront was less than 15 years.
An unscientific Herald questionnaire found 57 per cent support for selling the ports business and keeping the land. A further 29 per cent want to keep the port business and land, and 14 per cent favour selling both.
"The main risk of privatisation is that the terms of the deal would delay the transformation of our waterfront.
"If council grants an operator a 30-year lease then Auckland could not relocate the port and transform the waterfront for at least 30 years," Vuletich said.
Such an outcome would be unacceptable given the tensions between the port and surrounding land and sea, Vuletich said.
He called on the council to follow up one of the key findings of last year's Port Future Study and commission a study to determine the location of a new port.
"No decisions about the port should be made until this study has been completed and we have certainty around what the long-term solution looks like," said Vuletich.
Committee for Auckland executive director Heather Shotter said the lobby group concurred with the concept of putting a timeframe around the relocation, with a 15 to 20-year horizon. Any sale of the operating company would need to take this into account, she said.
Goff has told the Herald he has made no decisions about the port's long-term future as yet, but intends to make progress on this matter over the course of this term.
Stop Stealing Our Harbour has put a conservative commercial value of $2 billion on the 77-hectare port land, excluding the social, cultural, environmental and economic value created by developing the prime waterfront site.
The council owns 100 per cent of Ports of Auckland through Auckland Council Investments Ltd (ACIL). It most recently valued the company at $1.1 billion.
Ports of Auckland has paid $201.9m in dividends and capital returns to ACIL since 2011, including $42.2m last year.
Councillor Mike Lee, who secured the final 20 per cent of shares in Ports of Auckland in 2005 as chairman of the former Auckland Regional Council, said he was giving Goff the benefit of the doubt.
"But if the rumours are true I think it would be an appalling betrayal and not what Aucklanders voted for," Lee said.
City Vision councillor Cathy Casey said there would be no ports sale "on my watch".
Right-wing councillor Dick Quax said he would be comfortable retaining the port land and selling the business, saying it was a palatable option that would still bring income to the council from leasing the land.
"It makes sense. It removes the conflict of the council being both the regulator and owner. It releases a lot of capital and we are in a capital-constrained situation at the moment.
"We don't have any money for anything," Quax said.
Auckland Chamber of Commerce chief executive Michael Barnett and Infrastructure New Zealand chief executive Stephen Selwood supported selling the business and retaining the land.
On the election hustings last year, Goff said the 77ha of prime waterfront port land should be owned permanently by the people of Auckland and the port business should continue in council ownership, pending long-term decisions on the future of the port.
Any sale of port shares would require public consultation, and could be part of next year's long-term budget.
- New Zealand Herald deputy political editor Claire Trevett contributed to this report.