While Winston Peters was dreaming up another quixotic policy - to forcibly move Auckland's port to Marsden Pt - the port company was conceding at last that it cannot intrude further into the Waitemata Harbour. In Ports of Auckland Ltd's annual report released on Thursday, chairwoman Liz Coutts wrote, "It is no longer acceptable for a port to reclaim more land every time it needs (additional) capacity. That approach was literally unsustainable."

Her concession is a considerable victory for the citizens who went to court to stop a planned extension to the container wharf that juts furthest in the channel between the city and Devonport and for this newspaper's efforts over the past five years to publicise the intrusion the extension would be.

As a result of the resistance to this sort of port expansion, Auckland's previous mayor and council commissioned a study of alternative ports in its region and the current mayor, Phil Goff, advocates one of the suggested options, a site in the Firth of Thames. Now Peters, MP for Northland and leader of a party that he hopes will hold the balance of power after this election, proposes to have Parliament pass legislation to move the entire port to his patch.

Less parochial voices would say the last thing New Zealand's economy needs is a new port, the country already has too many. And the second last thing it needs is for the country's largest import gateway to be moved to Marsden Pt, from where just about everything would have to be railed south. About 75 per cent of the cargo crossing the Auckland wharves is consumed in the region.

Advertisement

The remaining 25 per cent possibly allows the load on Ports of Auckland to be spread to ports in other regions, including Marsden Pt or Tauranga, the country's second largest port which already has a freight terminal in Auckland and part owns Northport at Marsden Pt. The obvious solution is for the boards of the three ports to get together and work out the most efficient use of all of them, taking into account Auckland's capacity constraint.

That is certainly what would happen if they were all listed companies with a cross shareholding. But Ports of Auckland is wholly owned by the Auckland Council and the idea of floating even a portion of it on the sharemarket has been politically unacceptable.

So Ports of Auckland's chairwoman declared, "we are mindful the port may one day move". Really? "Shifting a port is a slow and expensive process that could take decades," she said. Shifting the entire port would be a needless and expensive waste of national resources and surely no government would allow it.

Auckland is slowly making more public use of its downtown waterfront. The council's latest proposal is to move the harbour ferries' terminal further along Queens Wharf and reclaim more space in front of the old Ferry Building. It would also like to extend the adjacent wharf for cruise ships. Neither development would narrow the harbour the way the Bledisloe extensions threatened to do.

Meanwhile, Queens Wharf still awaits a public development that would do justice to its size and central location, and the tank farm reclamation will become open space in due course. There is plenty of room for public amenities and a port making better use of its position on a fine harbour.