Mayor must show leadership and not let Ports of Auckland call all the shots over waterfront development.

Aucklanders would prefer a comprehensive long-term study before any port expansion occurs.

The attempted Waitemata grab by Ports of Auckland (POAL) may well prove to be the biggest challenge of Mayor Len Brown's second term. Extending Bledisloe Wharf will create more space for cars but will also block harbour views and irrevocably damage the full potential of the city centre waterfront and Waitemata.

POAL disingenuously defends its position by claiming we will be able to see underneath its piled extensions. A view under a wharf is not the same as a view without a wharf.

In any case, this is a classic bait-and-switch move given POAL intends to reclaim between the two extensions.

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Resource consents were issued without public or councillors' knowledge and without full regard to effects. The council's chief planning officer says the applications were not for reclamation. This sidesteps debate on expansion in any form. Given the public interest the council had the power under the Resource Management Act ("special circumstances") to notify the applications. The council knows this.

News about the Bledisloe extensions broke in the Herald on February 12. The manager of the council's powerful City Centre Integration Group told councillors that he had heard about the plans only the night before. This is the group that convenes to co-ordinate "council family" activities, and POAL is in that inner sanctum. Clearly, not all major development plans are shared.

We own the port and officers should be giving councillors better and timely open advice about it.

Auckland needs longer-term plans for the central waterfront and port development before any further extensions for containers, cars and other multicargo are undertaken.

In the shorter term the council must adopt a principled position on waterfront development.

The recent New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER) report study brief excluded key matters. Forming a long-term view and undertaking an analysis of economic, social and environmental aspects of the port's activities versus alternatives were outside the brief. The report does not provide a strong analysis of current effects, and is light on quantitative berth and area analysis for various multi-cargo types.

Princes, Queens and Captain Cook wharves can provide for people spaces, ferries, and the cruise industry, and the full demolition of Marsden Wharf would provide extra effective berth length on Bledisloe.

The NZIER report says vehicle storage capacity issues could mean that ships may go to Tauranga and infers Auckland jobs and port dividends are at risk.

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That has not been the case for containers. The added value for Auckland is the containers, regardless of which port they arrive from. Container competition from Tauranga has not prevented POAL's revenue and dividend generation. Quite the opposite. Competition has driven POAL to improve operations and dividends have recently grown.

It wasn't until POAL management was forced to rethink that it found that it has enough space to grow its container business largely on Fergusson terminal in the east, freeing up Bledisloe. It now needs to have a rethink about multicargo.

The community at every occasion has said the port company should stop reclaiming and live within its current footprint. The caveat could be while the longer-term study is completed.

For now a precautionary approach must be taken. In legal terms there is nothing to prevent the council supporting a non-complying status for expansion in the port precinct.

The council owns POAL and can direct it as the shareholder. Auckland's key resource management strategy (the Unitary Plan) includes identifying "Auckland's many unique and highly valued features, and the actions required to protect and enhance them" and "looking after the things that we as Aucklanders value - there is a significant 'stepping-up' from current practice".

The mayor and councillors can step up today. As owner they should announce a hold on POAL plans to extend Bledisloe, and as regulators they should retain the non-complying status for port precinct reclamation.

This could be Mr Brown's finest hour. Failure to act means the public interest in the Waitemata is compromised by poorly thought-out management directives from the ports. Who leads strategy on our harbour, POAL's board or the mayor and councillors?

Greg McKeown is a former Auckland City councillor.