Groups battling to save the Waitemata Harbour from further port expansion have found a powerful ally in the Auckland Council, the port company's arms-length owner.

Lobby groups Urban Auckland and Heart of the City want eastward views from the end of Queens Wharf given "viewshaft protection" in the city's landmark Unitary Plan.

They will put their case to the independent hearings panel on Wednesday for a rule preventing any further encroachment by the port on the prized eastward view from the end of Queens Wharf - a panorama that extends from Mt Victoria and Rangitoto to Browns Island.

In a turnaround, the Auckland Council has lodged late submissions supporting viewshaft protection. It has added clauses to its draft plan providing for a rule - though it does not go as far as Urban Auckland is seeking.

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The council told the Unitary Plan hearings last week that its proposed protection would not stop the port extending two finger wharves off Bledisloe - but it would prevent permanent buildings on a future planned reclamation. The rule would ensure effects on the view were taken into account in resource consent applications.

Urban Auckland chairwoman Julie Stout says the rule needs to be stronger to prevent any further expansion into the harbour. "We've been pushing for this since public access to Queens Wharf was restored to provide a connecting link between Queen St and the harbour."

The port company opposes such a rule.

Viewshafts have been used for many years to protect sightlines to the city's volcanic cones. But in March, senior council officials told the Herald they were difficult to usher in and the council lacked resources to introduce one for Queens Wharf.

Yet in submissions lodged on April 30, Bridget Gilbert, the council's expert witness on landscape and visual effects, argues strongly in favour of protection. The quality of the view and its importance to the city's "sense of place" justify the measure even if views were blocked when ships were berthed (if wharf extensions and reclamation proceed), she argues.

The view includes outstanding natural features as well as marine activities while the port's visibility does not yet overwhelm the coastal outlook, she says.

It is the second significant about-face by the council since a furore erupted over port expansion plans.

In mediation in February, the port and council drafted rules for future reclamation proposals giving the port the ability to apply to reclaim up to 170m beyond Bledisloe terminal.

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Now the council wants reclamation made "non-complying" beyond the 100m mark, which is the limit of its already approved wharf extensions.

Tomorrow, the port company will present a heavyweight case to amend the draft Unitary Plan to provide for future expansion.

A handful of opposing interest groups appear before the panel on Wednesday.

Major clash of values

The debate over Auckland's main harbour is a clash of values: the pivotal role the port plays in Auckland's economy - easily quantified in dollar terms - against the less tangible recreational, scenic and spiritual benefits the harbour lends to the city.

Expert witnesses say previous reclamations and the port's waterfront dominance leave the balance finely poised between "natural" harbour and too much hardstand. But city workers and visitors can still stand on Queens Wharf and see the harbour entrance and the volcanic cones and islands that are symbolic of Auckland.

Though harbour views are available elsewhere, the eastwards panorama - taking in Mt Victoria, North Head, Rangitoto, Motuihe and Browns Island - is critical to the city's identity, says Ngati Whatua expert witness Gavin Lister, of Isthmus Group. Expansion off Bledisloe would virtually enclose the harbour when a ship was berthed.

"The Waitemata is central Auckland's most significant natural feature," Mr Lister submits. "Celebrating this natural setting is one of the planks to achieving Auckland's vision of the world's most liveable city."

Ngati Whatua o Orakei deputy chair Ngarimu Blair says in evidence that the Waitemata is a "cultural identity marker" to the iwi, which has mana whenua status over the harbour.

Previous reclamations have destroyed fishing villages which once sustained the tribe. It wants a stronger role in future management of the port area.

What the port says

• Ports of Auckland wants the city's new Unitary Plan to safeguard its ability to expand and is pushing for significant changes.

• Among them, it wants the right to apply for reclamation as far as 170m beyond the end of the Bledisloe terminal.

• In submissions before the plan hearings panel it argues there is no alternative to the port's continued growth or Auckland's economy will suffer.

• It already has resource consent to extend two "finger" wharves nearly 100m off the end of Bledisloe.

• But one extension is on hold pending a council study into future port capacity options.