Expansion plan will be a tough sell, with so many players wanting their say on Auckland port’s future.

Expansion plan will be a tough sell, with so many players wanting their say on Auckland port's future

Will port expansion opponents be won over by the new plan, including a hotel (left) and rooftop park? Picture (above) / Jason Dorday Picture / Jason DordayPersonalities matter in business. Particularly when it comes to the leadership at Ports of Auckland, which is now operating in an environment where major players - from the Prime Minister down - want their wishes to have precedence when it comes to decisions on whether the company should be allowed to expand its footprint further into the harbour.

Ports of Auckland chair Liz Coutts is proving adept at reading the political currents, as was demonstrated by the way in which the company has gone out to seek public responses to its redrafted plans.

Coutts became a director on the ports company board in 2010. She served under four chairmen before becoming chair herself in December 2015.

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But while the Coutts-led board is now more politically attuned than its predecessors, it will face a difficult time in nailing its preferred expansion plan, given the coalition Government's own priorities.

Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters committed to a feasibility study into moving Ports of Auckland, as part of the Labour-New Zealand First coalition agreement. Peters' preferred option of moving Auckland's port operations to Northport, near Whangarei, is just one of the choices the study will canvass.

But having a feasibility study - which could yet find the best and most economical option is to leave most of the port's operations where they are - is no reason to resile from the port's own draft plan.

There is a body of opinion which tends to regard the port as a commercial predator intent on ruining the harbour environs in the interests of making a buck.

But the plan unveiled this week - which includes a 1ha rooftop park on top of a carparking building, a hotel and a wharf extension - does combine aesthetics with practicality.

The issue is whether the wharf extension will pass muster with the public. Coutts has publicly said it is no longer acceptable for the ports company to reclaim more land.

But will the public also oppose expanding a wharf by building it out on piles, rather than reclaimed land, if the net result is more encroachment into the harbour? The company's answer is that there will be less visual intrusion.

Coutts is not the type to publicly tell Ardern to "butt out" of the port's business. But even Auckland Mayor Phil Goff must have done a double take when the Prime Minister offered her opinion on the proposal for a 13m extension to Bledisloe Wharf.

Will port expansion opponents be won over by the new plan, including a hotel and rooftop park?
Will port expansion opponents be won over by the new plan, including a hotel and rooftop park?

"What I'm happy to say is that I have always opposed port expansion at its current site," Ardern said following her meeting with Goff.

Ports of Auckland is seeking a meeting with Ardern to explain its proposal.

If Coutts fronts - as she must - Ardern will find her a quiet, but focused and determined achiever. She is made of different stuff to previous chairs, particularly Richard Pearson, the chair during the company's standoff with militant unionists.

The critical issue is that Auckland's population growth is now on a much steeper curve than when the port expansion plans were first contemplated. In fact, it is expected to double within 30 years.

Ardern and Peters will dispute the company's contention that it would take a similar time for an alternative port to be built, in the Firth of Thames, the Manukau Harbour, or for that matter at Northport. What is indisputable is that the port must get on with its expansion now so it can accommodate growth meantime.

My expectation is that Treasury will balk at the taxpayer underwriting a new think big project of such a scale at Marsden Point.

The Auckland Council, which owns the shares in Ports of Auckland on ratepayers' behalf, must be careful not to be either persuaded or bullied to abandon common sense.

If the choice is between shifting the port to Northport as a regional development project, or servicing Auckland and its needs, its current site is the right one.