15 Apr 2015

Collision course in Auckland port battle

5:43 am on 15 April 2015

The Auckland Council-owned Ports of Auckland seems on a collision course with its political masters as plans to extend Bledisloe Wharf pit corporate pride against political credibility.

Ports of Auckland

Ports of Auckland Photo: RNZ

The council holds the upper hand. The port company has yet to blink.

Ports of Auckland's attempt to get started on the 92- and 98-metre extensions, without intervention by the politicians, has gone spectacularly wrong.

It now faces court action taken by the lobby group Urban Auckland that could run for months. The group is challenging the legality of resource consents for the extensions.

More troubling for the company is that councillors, surprised to hear the work was imminent and stung by the level of public protest, are reaching deeper into their arsenal of weapons to halt it.

Technically, Ports of Auckland's conduct has been hard to fault. But politics is not technical.

The port says it needs longer wharves, and more space to handle bigger ships. However, its longer term hope of reclaiming part of the Waitemata Harbour has been in trouble for a while.

The council is advocating tougher rules under the incoming regional planning blueprint, the Unitary Plan, which would make Ports of Auckland jump over a far higher bar to get approval for reclamation.

The prospect of reclamation had already provoked public anger, and sparked debate over the right of a commercial port to encroach into the city's iconic Waitemata Harbour.

In the meantime, the port company pushed on with plans for the two extensions, costing about $22 million, which would form bookends for any future reclamation.

It applied for consents late last year, successfully submitting that the work was of a nature not requiring public notification.

The plans were aided by two "fails" within the council family. Officials failed to flag to councillors that politically sensitive applications were in the pipeline. The investment agency, Auckland Council Investments Limited (ACIL), which manages the council's port ownership at arm's length from the politicians, knew, but also failed to warn them. Hell hath no fury like a politician surprised.

The surprise of the imminent wharf extensions was revealed in news reports in mid-February, three weeks after the port company signed construction contracts.

The council leadership and majority appeared powerless in the face of assurances from officials that the process had been correct, and the work was beyond their control.

Public outrage soon changed that. A well-funded campaign, managed by a leading public relations agency, signed up famous Aucklanders opposing port expansion. A Sunday protest which drew - according to differing reports - from 800 to 2000 demonstrators, sent councillors diving back into the political arsenal.

Protesters on Queen's Wharf.

Protesters on Queen's Wharf. Photo: RNZ / Murielle Baker

The council quickly deployed a new weapon. This is its ability to require its agency ACIL to demand a better-argued case from Ports of Auckland for changes of a significant nature.

The council is starting a wide-ranging review of the port's future, taking into account not only economic, but also social and environmental, factors and until that is done, it wants no expansion of the port's footprint.

A chain of letters from the council to ACIL, from ACIL to the ports board, and a meeting of two boards appear to have had no impact on the standoff.

ACIL wrote: "We strongly suggest that no further physical works be undertaken." In papers filed in the High Court last Friday, Ports of Auckland (POAL) wrote in response to a similar demand from Urban Auckland: "POAL has considered this request and concluded that it cannot (stop work)".

So what is the "thermonuclear option", as deputy mayor Penny Hulse describes it, which the council has been reluctant to reach for?

A paper to councillors this week, explaining the council's relationship through ACIL to POAL, notes that one of the "main levers" which the council has with both is the appointment of directors.

The possibility of Auckland Council asking ACIL to replace directors deemed unresponsive to its wishes would be an extreme and unprecedented measure, and a month ago unthinkable.

However, each day that passes without any sign of compromise between POAL's insistence on remaining the master of its commercial destiny, and the opposition from its owner representing wider public sentiment, makes it less "unthinkable".

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