This week, the Government starts to decide what will happen to the future of the Auckland port.
A working group has reported on the shipping, freight and transport needs of the whole upper North Island. It says the port should be moved to Northland, starting now and finishing within the next 10-15 years. But others say it should stay where it is for at least the next 20 years.
The Herald has a leaked copy of the new report, prepared for the Government by the Upper North Island Supply Chain Strategy working group. It says:
•New Zealand's imports and exports will grow by 55 per cent to 2042.
• The cost of leaving the port where it is will be about $8 billion.
• That cost includes $4b invested in the port over the next 30 years, $1.2b for the Port of Tauranga and $2.8b for roads and railways.
• Moving the port will cost about $10b.
• If the port moves, Auckland Council will be $6b better off.
But is that true?
This is a decision with enormous implications for Auckland, the upper North Island region, and the entire country.
Today. we begin a major, week-long series examining the whole issue.
Part 1: The Big Idea
It's 2029 and somewhere in the plains and rolling hills of northwest Auckland, an enormous new freight hub has been established. Thousands of containers, their movements controlled by world-leading supply-chain technology. Arrivals and departures are electrified and carbon neutral, on rail and on road. And other industries have clustered nearby: freight depots, rail maintenance, freight refrigeration services.
Perhaps the site is near Albany, or further west, in the Riverhead region. The most obvious choice might have been somewhere near Kumeu, where the railway and highway were ripe for upgrading.
It's just 10 years away. The inspiration, says the lobby group Waterfront 2029, comes from John F Kennedy's famous 1962 speech about putting a man on the moon inside 10 years.
"We choose [these things] not because they are easy, but because they are hard," said an American president who understood the meaning and purpose of aspiration, "because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills." It took them just seven more years.
Is it a cliche, to quote that speech? Perhaps. But the thing about Auckland, about New Zealand, is that we've fallen out of the habit of aspiring. If that big new freight hub gets built, it will mean we've got the habit back.
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So let's assume: looking from 2029 back to 2020, when Auckland and the Government, along with Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei, Ngāpuhi, Waikato-Tainui and many other iwi, and the construction, transport and freight sectors, all accepted the challenge. They got to work. By 2029 the new hub – an inland port – has become the busily beating heart of the entire upper North Island's bold new approach to managing freight.
It's supported by new double-tracked railway lines, snaking north to Marsden Point, near Whangārei, where the vastly expanded Northport has become a significant port for exports and the main point of entry for our imports. And the railway continues further north, connecting the Northport to the fastest-growing horticulture and forestry region in the country. The North of Plenty, some call it.
Those rail lines also snake into Auckland city, and head south: on a new line from Avondale to Southdown, east of Onehunga, were KiwiRail has a depot and the Port of Tauranga maintains another inland port, called Metroport. The lines continue on to the Waikato, Bay of Plenty and beyond.
The road connection between Whangārei and Auckland has been upgraded too, but this new setup marks a vast change for freight transport: 70 per cent of the country's goods, by weight, are now carried around the country by rail. Back in 2019, it was only 12 per cent.
The Auckland waterfront is no longer the country's largest car park. The containers and their cranes have gone. In their place: new beaches, for the enjoyment of the hundreds of thousands of residents, workers and students of the central city. Parklands thick with new pōhutukawa and other coastal trees, boardwalks, outdoor entertainment areas and community markets.
There's major new construction underway here too: a big new museum, cultural centres, a stadium, all paid for by the judicious leasing of parts of the old port land for residential and commercial developments. Big parts of the reclaimed land have gone, creating sheltered spaces throughout the precinct.
It is, after all, the most valuable land in the country. The local iwi Ngāti Whātua Orākei has been instrumental in its development, transforming the whole area including the land all round Spark Arena, which it already owned. Citizens are now, finally, starting to enjoy this great stretch of waterfront.
Auckland roads, especially the southern motorway from the port to Manukau, no longer carry phalanxes of container trucks. That single change to the city's traffic has made the roads safer, less congested and, simply, more pleasant to be on.
And up north? The new Northport is booming, nearby Whangārei is booming, there's a bold new industrial park near the port, the towns and holiday destinations along the way are booming. North of Whangārei, the towns of Kerikeri and Kaitaia are leading a massive export boom and previously destitute centres like Kaikohe are well on the way back to a vibrant health. Northland has become hot, hot, hot.
All in just 10 years? We haven't even been able to put a cycleway over the harbour bridge in that time. Is Auckland capable of doing anything in 10 years?
To be fair, the Upper North Island Supply Chain Strategy (UNISCS) group, which has proposed most of this, has set a target of 2034: 15 years. But 2029 is its "stretch target": the date by which it says the job could be done, if there's the political, commercial and public will to make it happen.
UNISCS also stresses it won't all happen at once. The port should be "progressively" closed, it says, and the new facilities "progressively" developed. The Whangārei-to-Auckland line won't be double-tracked straight away and it might not be electric, either, at least not to start with. The freight hub will grow for a hundred years.
This hasn't stopped Auckland mayor Phil Goff complaining that implementing the plan all at once will be calamitous for downtown property values, but to be fair he may not have read the report yet.
Ten years, 15 years, there's hardly any difference for projects on this scale. Either way, says UNISCS, we have to start now. We've had 20 reports in the past 10 years on the future of the port, each one of them pulling us towards the view of whichever outfit commissioned it. Now it's time to act.
The problem of the port isn't easy to solve, but nor is it absurdly difficult. And this isn't just about the Auckland port, or what we do with freight, or what happens to Northland.
Overlooked in the debates about cars and containers and the capacity of the Northland railway, there is a fundamental premise to the UNISCS proposals: that we must transform the way we plan and build and live.
To start with, we need a profoundly new approach to environmental planning, with climate change requirements at its heart.
But there's more. UNISCS has challenged our decision-making skills and institutions. Our comfort zones. Our very ability to prepare for the future efficiently, boldly and democratically.
And we're not very good at meeting these challenges.
The single most important idea in the reports of that working group is that because of technology, the environment and population growth, we're going to do things differently now. The 21st century is not a repeat of the 20th with smart phones and more weather.
But even if that's true, does it mean this big bold plan work? Or is it all just wishful thinking and pork-barrel politics?
UNISCS has delivered three reports to the Government this year. The third has not been publicly released but the Herald has obtained a leaked copy.
It's not a blockbuster with big appendices full of economic workings. Instead, it's a 50-page document designed as an easy and, the working party hopes, compelling read: a summary of their analysis, with lots of highlighted bits of data and a very punchy set of recommendations.
This report will go to the Cabinet development committee on Wednesday and from there to the full Cabinet for a decision. An announcement is expected before Christmas.
There are 10 recommendations. The core proposals are:
• Shift "much or all" of Auckland's existing and future freight business to Northport.
• Encourage the Port of Tauranga to proceed with its own expansion plans.
• Keep and "modernise" the Auckland cruise ship terminal, and "transform" the Waitematā into "a harbour for commuters, tourism and recreation".
• Rejuvenate the main trunk line north, add a spur line to Northport and probably that new line connecting Avondale with Southdown.
• Build the new inland freight hub.
• Start now.
The very first recommendation is to declare the Auckland port is "no longer economically or environmentally viable". Not that it's going to become unviable in 20 years, or whenever: the port, says the report, is past its use-by date already.
Among all the arguments for closing the port, three are key.
The first is the site's limitations. Freight is expected to grow by 55 per cent to 2042/43, but everyone agrees the port can't reclaim more of the harbour. If the port stays, the report says it will need $4b spent on it just to try to maintain efficiency.
The second and bigger problem is with "landside infrastructure failure". Landside means transport – road and rail – from the port. Freight carriers complain the roads are so clogged each truck leaving the port for a depot in south Auckland can do only two trips a day. So they have to use more trucks, so the roads get even more clogged.
The third big reason for closure is the lost opportunity cost: what Auckland doesn't benefit from, because the port is on that land. That's about what the report calls "higher and better uses" (see above) and also money.
Auckland Council, it bluntly declares, would be $6b better off if the port was gone.
Critics of the earlier UNISCS reports have suggested more work is needed. "Where's the economic analysis?" they ask. In other words, get another report.
But UNISCS says no, what we need now is certainty. It says there is already enough analysis available and the call for a "detailed business case" is a smokescreen to hide behind while nothing gets done.
It reminds the Government that many major infrastructure projects proceed without a strong business case, because their value is judged to transcend the numbers.
Is that a reckless proposition? Remember, it was true for most of the National-led Government's "roads of national significance". Social good, however you define it, is hard to measure with a cost-benefit mindset.
UNISCS bluntly recommends: "The Government should adopt our strategy as policy immediately and announce a clear timetable for the government infrastructure projects necessary to support it."
Governments aren't used to being talked to like that.
UNISCS also says "the ports and their owners" – in particular, that means Auckland Council and the board of Ports of Auckland – be given a year to agree on a plan to make it all happen. Or else, as a "backstop", they would be subject to legislation.
The council isn't used to being talked to like that, either.
For its final recommendation, UNISCS says the whole process should be taken away from politicians at the national and local levels. Make the key decisions, set the strategy, and then set up a "project implementation capacity to facilitate commercial negotiations and deliver the strategy".
That new body would be based in Auckland and "led and staffed by people with extensive experience in difficult multi-billion-dollar commercial operations and managing major engineering and infrastructure projects, and with proven track records in meeting deadlines and budgets".
Ka-boom. If we leave it to the politicians we'll never get it done.
There's some good evidence for that. But is political caution a bad thing?
Will this thing happen? Those who say no have the biggest weapon in politics on their side: inertia. It's always easier to do nothing.
The tug of inertia was detectable last week in statements from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Minister of Economic Development and Transport Phil Twyford and Minister of Finance Grant Robertson.
Over the weekend, though, Robertson made a major speech committing the Government to big spending on much-needed infrastructure. It's not clear yet if he is thinking of the Auckland port.
As for Phil Goff, he says he thinks the port should move but he's presented no vision or concept for what he thinks should happen. Instead, he complains about the proposal and the process. Is that the leadership we need?
Remarkably, it's even worse up north. Northland has a regional council and three district councils and not one leader from any of them has yet raised their head above the parapet to express any view at all. In response, Regional Development Minister Shane Jones has warned Northland's leaders that it won't happen unless they fight for it.
If it does happen, it will be because its supporters win a brutal war. In Auckland, big guns are lined up on both sides and they've already started firing. Both sides say the facts are with them. Both say they want what's best for the city and the country. Both seem to have very little patience or respect for anything the other side says. They've dug their trenches deep.
PORT IN A STORM: THE SERIES
Moving the port is the biggest infrastructure project Auckland has faced. This week we're examining the proposal in detail, and looking ahead to ask: what does the future hold for the city?
Monday: The Big Idea.
Tuesday: For and against: Why move the Auckland port?
Wednesday: The lure of the Waikato: Why not go south?
Thursday: "The North of Plenty": Why Northport?
Friday: Crunching the numbers: Is this good economics?
Saturday: Auckland 2050: Our city in 30 years.