Mayor Len Brown has placed great emphasis on his hands being tied over the Ports of Auckland's expansion plans because of rules inherited from the old Auckland Regional Council. These, he insists, meant the Auckland Council could neither decline resource consent nor dictate the proposal be publicly notified. That is disputed by former ARC chairman Mike Lee who says the council had the power to demand a public hearing in "special circumstances". Either way, many Aucklanders have become extremely angry over Mr Brown's intimation there is nothing he can now do.

Rightly, they refuse to accept consent to construct two finger wharves 100m out from the end of Bledisloe Wharf cannot be overturned. The council, in fact, has every reason and the means to stop further encroachment into the Waitemata. The reason is provided by the mounting protest against the port company's plan. Any thought objectors numbered a few and could be easily fobbed off was rendered nonsensical by last weekend's protest. The 2000 people and 300 boaties who demanded an immediate halt to the extensions reflected the widespread discontent.

The means available to the council are equally self-evident. For the past decade, it has been the sole owner of Ports of Auckland. In that role, it need not interfere in the day-to-day operations of the port but the company remains answerable to the council, which must also take responsibility for the wider interests of Auckland and Aucklanders. In terms of those interests, the council should provide clear direction. Unfortunately, prevarication has characterised its approach to the port. That must stop, and pressure must be applied to pull the Ports of Auckland board into line.

The directors, for their part, must surely recognise that, overwhelmingly, Aucklanders are opposed to the expansion plans. They cannot be deaf to popular sentiment. Auckland's councillors certainly are not. The public opposition has persuaded a majority of them to now either oppose or want a rethink on port expansion. On that basis, the port company can hardly start construction on the wharves and subsequent reclamation next month as if nothing had happened after approval under the ARC rules.

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Mr Brown says in the long-term, Aucklanders must face a choice of freight being imported either through the downtown port or into another port and taken by truck or train to Auckland. The economic, environmental and social cost of both options needed to be assessed. But on the latter two costs, Aucklanders have already made their opinion clear. And on the economic side, the choice need not be so cut and dried as the mayor suggests.

The port company says the main driver of its expansion is the impending arrival of larger ships. The council should tell it if it wants to accommodate these, it must find room within its present area. That edict should be part and parcel of an unequivocal directive that brooks no further encroachment into the Waitemata. Further on, provisions in the council's Unitary Plan must confirm the harbour will never again be imperilled in this manner.