Winston Peter's election pledge to move Auckland port operations to Whangarei's Northport raises a long list of issues.

He should be commended for wanting to resolve Northland's significant economic and social problems but playing politics with the port is not the best way of going about it.

As a passionate "move the port" supporter, I think any action that raises the profile of this issue is a good thing because it is of national significance.

The potential for finally getting central government to accept that it has a role to play in the decision and a contribution to make to the outcome is also a good thing.


On all other considerations, though, Peters' proposal is bad.

The Auckland port is a business ultimately owned by the Auckland Council. Regardless of views on how well it is operated, its profitability or its long time viability, the concept that a government should appropriate a business for political reasons is appalling.

It is the sort of action supposedly reserved for communist countries and dictatorships and fundamentally in conflict with all our democratic processes and free market concepts that are the foundation of our economic system and way of life.

The key reasons Northport is not the best long term option are:

• Whangarei harbour is not a "naturally deep harbour", as is so often suggested. The harbour is actually very shallow. The area where a port may be built dries to exposed sand banks twice a day. Future container ships will be built with draft designs that accommodate new default international limits of at least 15m chart datum requirements. The area immediately around the current log loading platform is dredged to 14.5m.

• Strong tidal flows would make a dredging solution troublesome and ongoing.

• The probable port position is not fully protected from certain weather. Weather will interrupt port operations at times.

• There is no freight port facility at Northport. The only significant operations there is a log loading platform, so from a freight point of view it is essentially a green field site.

• There are better location options closer to Auckland.

• The likely Northport location is currently constrained by residential developments. There is a fundamental conflict here that may never be resolved.

• The resulting land transport costs between Northport and markets south are substantial and would add measurable additional costs to both export and import activity.

• If Auckland Council is of the view that they may not be able to fund a new port, who will fund a Northland development?

The biggest issue is the suggestion that rail is the answer. Shipping containers don't fit through the rail tunnels. There are 19 rail tunnels between Auckland and Oakleigh. Some of these are restricted to 2.6m clearance and this is not high enough to allow modern high height containers through them.

The line between Auckland and Whangarei has been largely ignored for many years and there is a long list of deferred maintenance items to deal to if it is to be of a standard appropriate for reliable high volume freight traffic. This may include the need to double track all or parts of it.

In the Auckland city environment, there is a fundamental use conflict between passenger services and freight operations. Current and future volumes for both can only be resolved with a "third line" solution from South Auckland to Henderson.

Many of these roadblocks can be solved by spending billions of taxpayers' money, spending it wisely is another thing altogether.

Politicians so often forget that it is not actually their money that they so happily dish out on pet projects. Regular people have worked hard for that money and the politicians have a duty of care when spending it.

Auckland and New Zealand can and should have a new and modern freight port. The Auckland Council's own port study shows that there are a good number of options nearer the city that warrant closer review and may have lower cost, lower operations costs, be closer to markets and have reduced land freight cost components.

Even though a new port may be 20-30 years away, there is some urgency for the need to get a plan in place to preserve the options, including land and transport corridors that would support it.

The best outcome for a new government and a New Zealand First "deal" would be for the Government to agree to immediately set up a properly funded upper North Island freight and transportation study that would include a commitment to implementing the conclusions that are found and recommended.

Such an outcome would carry us all into the future with some certainty, knowing a sound plan is in place that embraces the whole region.

With billions of dollars at stake, there would be comfort in knowing that any investment decisions have been fully thought through and evaluated by independent professionals, not by politicians.

• Bruce Howe is a retired businessman who has made a detailed study of newly constructed container ports around the world.