Exclusive: NZ First leader wants shift north done by 2027, and cars gone by 2019

Winston Peters is set to give a "cast-iron commitment" to move container operations from the Ports of Auckland if his party is in a position of influence after the election.

The New Zealand First leader wants the relocation completed by the end of 2027 - opening 77ha of prime waterfront land for public use and the development of a new cruise ship terminal.

His plan would stop vehicle deliveries by the end of 2019 and free up Captain Cook Wharf ahead of the America's Cup.


Peters will outline the commitment in a speech to the Economic Development Agencies Conference in Wellington today.

It is a strong signal that moving the port out of Auckland would be near the top of demands should his party hold the balance of power, as most current polling suggests it will.

Peters wants legislation to move all container operations to Northport at Marsden Pt near Whangarei by the end of 2027.

"The days of the Ports of Auckland as a container port and as a car yard are numbered," the Northland MP said.

"Aucklanders want their harbour back while Northlanders want the jobs and opportunity that would come from Northport's transformation.

"This is a cast-iron commitment from New Zealand First but it needs New Zealand First to be in a pivotal position to demand it," Peters said. "That requires people in Northland and Auckland to seriously adjust how they plan to vote."

Peters said the benefits of opening up waterfront land in Auckland were "incalculable", and expanding the port in Northland would spark an "economic renaissance".

His party's plan would create a "special economic area" near Northport, which would be duty-free, GST-free and tax-free. Peters said another such area could later be established in Southland.

It would require the immediate upgrade of the Auckland-to-Northland rail line, including a new rail spur to Northport. KiwiRail has put the cost of doing so in the billions of dollars - which doesn't include any upgrade of Northport.

Auckland Council owns 100 per cent of Ports of Auckland through Auckland Council Investments Ltd (ACIL), and recently valued the company at $1.1 billion. Last year Ports of Auckland paid $42.2m in dividends and capital returns to ACIL.

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff campaigned on moving the port, and in May confirmed he wanted to progress those plans. But Goff suggested the Firth of Thames could be a new location for port operations. He said the move could take up to 20 years and any decisions would be made by councillors.

Today Goff said he would back a plan to move the city's port, if there was a solid business case.

He said the port was taking up valuable waterfront space.

"I think most Aucklanders would like to see the port moved from the CBD.

"But most Aucklanders probably also feel Auckland will continue to need its own port, rather than relying on a port in another part of the country."

The mayor said Peters would need council support before the move.

"You're talking about an asset that is quite valuable to the ratepayers of Auckland - it returns $60 million a year.

"So no decision's going to be taken unilaterally about what the future of the port might be. It needs to be negotiated."

Auckland councillor Mike Lee has warned against the push to move the port, saying it has paid the region more than $1b in dividends, enabling the development of Britomart, the North Shore busway and other key projects.

Transport Minister Simon Bridges last year said he didn't think moving the port was particularly realistic, given the huge cost and associated environmental and cultural challenges.

Peters said he would stop public money going on efforts for a new port in the Firth of Thames, saying it was expensive and "highly problematic" environmentally.

The legislation NZ First wants to be introduced would put a deadline on transferring vehicle deliveries from Auckland to Northport by the end of 2019, which Peters said would free up Captain Cook Wharf ahead of the next America's Cup. Container operations at the Port of Auckland would be stopped no later than December 31, 2027.

Central Auckland iwi Ngati Whatua Orakei this morning reiterated its support for moving the port. Spokesman Ngarimu Blair said the port was incompatible with a well-functioning and attractive CBD.

"New Zealand First's proposal would be great for Auckland and Northland. Our Te Tai Tokerau relations will relish such a move north and rightly so," Blair said.

Blair said Ngati Whatua had had initial discussions with potential partners to invest in and move the port, such as Waikato-Tainui, since Goff floated the idea of selling in May this year.

"This is the kind of investment that iwi can not only participate in but lead, as we have a clear and vested interest in Aotearoa and our communities. We are prepared to lead such discussions and will wait for the outcome of the election to progress those further."

Blair said Ngati Whatua Orakei remained opposed to any port extension into the harbour, and is "bemused" at the council's proposal to extend Captain Cook Wharf.

Peters has long campaigned for a rail link to Northport and previously indicated it would be one of his top demands, telling The Nation in July, "this is going to happen".

In April last year KiwiRail asset manager Dave Gordon told a Grow Northland Rail public seminar the cost of getting the Northland rail network operating to the same standard as other regions would be up to $1b.

If Northport was to become a major export port it would need to receive products from areas south of Auckland, Gordon told the public meeting, and there was currently no efficient rail link through Auckland. Work to change that would likely cost another $2-3b.

Former Labour MP Shane Jones is standing as a New Zealand First candidate in Whangarei, and today's pledge will aid his campaign there, with one recent poll putting him well behind National's Whangarei MP Shane Reti.

The port debate

Goff in May confirmed he favoured relocating the port and suggested the Firth of Thames could be a new port location. However, he stressed moving the port would be 10 to 20 years away, and any decisions would be made by councillors.

A council-commissioned Port Future Study released last year concluded the port could absorb freight growth for several decades, but in the longer-term would likely need to be relocated. It recommended the Manukau Harbour and Firth of Thames be investigated as relocation sites.