Simon Wilson: The Auckland port and the pole-dancing hippo


Wayne Brown got up in front of a business lunch in Auckland this week to tell them why the port should be moved. It went well and not well.

Brown said he was rallying support for the cause and he thought the key to that was to win over the mayor, Phil Goff. Who was not in the room.

“It shouldn’t be too hard,” said Brown. “He just has to be persuaded. Mind you, I am told it might be easier to train a hippo to pole dance.”

The audience laughed. Well, some of them. In question time afterwards, Bob Harvey got up. Former mayor of Waitākere City, Sir Bob these days. He said it was an excellent presentation and he loved Wayne dearly, or something like that. Bob has a warm way about him.

“But,” he said, “I have a question. Why haven’t you got this over the line?”

Brown stiffened, just a little.

“In my experience,” said Harvey, “you never get anything done by pissing people off.”

Brown does not have a warm way about him. And he likes making pole-dancing hippo jokes.

But Brown’s failure to persuade the Government and the mayor of the wisdom of his views is not down to his personality. Partly it’s because of the remarkable influence old-business friends of the port, like roads-only freight companies, still wield in this town.

More, though, moving the port is one of those Really Big And Expensive Projects that most politicians quietly back out of the room to avoid confronting. Not so much pole dancing as a soft-shoe exit shuffle.

But it does have to be confronted. Now.

Brown was chairman of the Upper North Island Supply Chain (UNISC) strategy group, set up by the Labour coalition Government to consider the future of the ports and freight handling throughout the region. They produced their report in 2019, only to have it ignored. The Government has never asked Brown to present the findings.

Goff and his council haven’t heard the presentation either. On several occasions, however, Goff has said Brown’s report was “predetermined” and “not based on facts”.

Brown’s group contained experts, and talked to 80 stakeholders, and had professional support from EY. If you’re going to talk about insults, he says, he wants it known he finds Goff’s remarks insulting.

Now Brown is out and about, trying to rally support, especially from the big end of town, trying to get himself in the same room with Grant Robertson, the minister of both infrastructure and finance. Brown’s audience at that lunch was Rotary and the Employers and Manufacturers Association.

He has a good case and it keeps getting stronger. Last year we watched Ports of Auckland (POA) being so unable to handle the pandemic and its crane automation project that ships backed up in the harbour and many retailers never received their Christmas stock.

We saw POA report a zero dividend for its owner, Auckland Council, and that’s expected to continue indefinitely. And there was a tragic workplace death.

And then POA had to suffer the ignominy of being publicly called to account by Goff.

We watched as two container ships were rerouted to Northport, near Whangārei. And then discovered, when the police set up a checkpoint, that some of the trucks bringing containers south were dangerously unfit for purpose.

Those are the same trucks that usually carry containers every day down the Auckland motorway to the inland freight hubs at Southdown and Wiri. It would be nice to think the police set up some checkpoints at those hubs, too.

We also watched as some of the containers from the second ship were carried south by KiwiRail, whose rail line from Whangārei to Swanson reopened in January with enlarged tunnels and bridges, following a $100 million upgrade. This, you may remember, was not supposed to be possible.

Ports of Auckland: fail. Northport and KiwiRail: rose to the occasion.

Then, just before Christmas, the chairwoman of the POA board, Liz Coutts, was named Deloittes “chair of the year”. Shortly afterwards she resigned. I like to think she did that out of sheer embarrassment.

The UNISC report is often thought of as being, simply, a proposal to shift the Auckland port to Northland. That trivialises it.

The core concepts are:

• The upper North Island should have an integrated ports and freight strategy. The competitive model we have now serves the interests of no one except the Maersk shipping company.

• Most freight should be carried by rail and a coastal shipping line should also be re-established. These steps will significantly reduce road congestion and carbon emissions.

• Northport and Tauranga should share the international shipping, with Northport, which has room to expand, eventually becoming the larger port.

• Freight in Auckland needs more than one point of entry, so to complement Southdown and Wiri, a new freight hub should be built in the northwest, near Kumeū.

• Better rail and road links around Auckland’s northwest will take trucks off the harbour bridge, extending its life for probably decades.

• There are much better things to do with the port land in downtown Auckland than fill it with cars and piles of empty containers. Some of that reuse would be commercial and residential, with the capacity to return $200 million a year to its owners. Much would be recreational.

(For more details and analysis, see my series of reports starting here.)

“If you go down Queen St and turn left,” Brown told the lunching businesspeople, “you discover the very essence of a liveable modern city.” He was talking about the Viaduct, North Wharf and the Wynyard Quarter, where businesses and apartment blocks co-exist on streets designed as lovely public spaces, with lots of public access to the water and big recreation areas.

The port land could be like that. With a lagoon and a beach.

Right now, though, Brown said, “If you’re at the bottom of Queen St and turn right, you’re in Gdansk.”

Perhaps a little harsh, but still. As for that lost revenue of $200m a year, that effectively costs us $400 per household.

A new freight hub or inland port in the northwest will have rail access to Northland. There is also a designated rail corridor from Avondale to the Southdown hub: that line can be built easily as a dedicated freight line, to connect the hub to the south.

It’s true moving the port will cost a lot of money. But everyone, including the Government and Goff, agrees it must be done. Even POA itself is on record agreeing.

So why aren’t we talking about it? Brown says the shipping companies told UNISC in 2019 the port had only 10 years left. Given it’s a 10-20 year project, the work has to start now. First up, 21km of rail to connect Northport to the main trunk line.

The Government is currently committing billions to infrastructure and Brown thinks this project should be the number one priority. But it’s not even on the list.

Brown: “I might understand that if they heard what we have to say. Then they can decide. But hear it first.”

The future of the port has enormous implications for commerce, transport, the climate and quality of life. Brown is right: the business end of town should be pushing for a sensible and coherent political approach. It’s disgraceful he hasn’t been invited to present his report to the Government. It’s disgraceful the mayor hasn’t had him in, either.

It can’t all fall apart because of personalities and jokes. They’re all bigger than that, aren’t they? We do need them to be.

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