23 Apr 2015

Port stand-off about to intensify

9:09 am on 23 April 2015

The crunch could be coming in the stand-off between Auckland Council and its port company over proposed wharf extensions.

The two sides of the Bledisloe Terminal (foreground) will be built 98 metres further into the harbour, with the port later hoping to reclaim the space between them.

The two sides of the Bledisloe Terminal (foreground) would be built 98 metres further into the harbour. Photo: SUPPLIED / Ports of Auckland

Ports of Auckland will today brief most of the remaining councillors who have not yet heard its argument for extending two arms of Bledisloe Wharf nearly 100 metres into the harbour.

The company is understood to be days rather than weeks away from formally replying to its council owner, which has "strongly suggested" that the $22 million project be halted.

Mayor Len Brown is poised to call an extraordinary meeting of the council's governing body at short notice once that formal response has been received.

Port company to outline need for growth

None of the signals so far suggest Ports of Auckland has any intention other than to complete the wharf extensions which it says it needs but which have sparked public and political protest.

The row erupted when it was revealed in mid-February that the port company had obtained resource consents and signed a construction contract without its political owners being aware of the plan.

The councillors were at the time tightening proposed planning rules around the port company's desire to ultimately reclaim the harbour area between where the two extensions were being built.

The port company is formally accountable to the council's investment agency ACIL but has occasional dealings with the political leadership on significant matters.

Auckland Mayor Len Brown

Auckland Mayor Len Brown is poised to call an extraordinary meeting of the council's governing body to discuss the proposal. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

The port company has outlined to Radio New Zealand the argument it will put to councillors. Much of it centres on the past growth of cargo through the port, and forecasts of higher volume and bigger ships.

However, it was less specific on the exact timing of the need for the longer wharves and quantifying the consequences of not being able to process ships without waiting times.

The port company argued it needed to be able to handle larger cargo and cruise ships or risk losing their business.

It points to the scheduled arrival in December 2016 of the mega-cruise liner Ovation of the Seas, which is three metres longer than any other passenger ship that has visited.

Ports of Auckland could berth it at Jellicoe Wharf, as it had with the Queen Mary, but did not want to block a prime cargo berth for three days.

The company intended to berth it at the yet-to-be built Bledisloe extension.

Another piece of the port congestion jigsaw puzzle is the car carrier business handled on Captain Cook Wharf. The port company could largely solve this by completing demolition of the rundown neighbouring Marsden Wharf.

However it would prefer to do that using the simpler planning rules, not due to be in place before the end of next year, when the city's unitary plan emerges from lengthy deliberation.

It called this work a multi-year project that would not deliver more berth space, which it said it needed next year not next decade.

In papers filed in the High Court, Ports of Auckland said it could not stop construction partly because of the signed construction contract.

There are also no signs that it wants to stop.

The group says this mocked-up image gives an idea of what the harbour would look like after the extension.

The group Stop Stealing Our Harbour says this mocked-up image gives an idea of what the harbour would look like after the extension. Photo: Facebook / Stop Stealing Our Habour

Public feedback sought

The company has been canvassing public opinion to see whether opposition led by a well-funded and supported lobby group, Stop Stealing Our Harbour, represents wider public sentiment.

Its chair, chief executive, and communications manager also put on a briefing on Tuesday night for 15 invited opponents of the extensions - but only one turned up.

Ports of Auckland's formal response to the Auckland Council will be the moment when councillors will have to decide whether to let the company continue on whatever path it proposes, or direct their agency ACIL to tell the port to halt, pending the outcome of a wider study about to start on the port's future.

The port company's decision not to try to convince the politicians before seeking the resource consents has made its job harder.

The failure of the council's own consenting division to give early warning of the wharf extensions has added to the tangle as has ACIL's failure to keep its council master better informed.

Ports of Auckland also faces a High Court challenge in June, from the lobby group Urban Auckland, which argues that the way the resource consents were issued, was invalid.

By next week, perhaps, the issue will be far simpler. Will Ports of Auckland accept the decision of its owner, whatever that might be? If not, will the politicians reach for their ultimate option, which is to remove directors at the port company?

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs