The Debate Around Moving Auckland Port
9-minute read (18-minute listen)
While many Aucklanders would love to see the cars and containers go, the scale of moving the Ports of Auckland has made for a contentious debate.
So what would be involved in moving the port? Should it happen? And how long until Aucklanders get a waterfront with a view?
Listen to the Front Page podcast here or read the highlights below:
Damien Venuto: Today I’m joined by economist and advocate for moving the port, Shane Vuletich, to hear why he believes it’s time to change the look of Auckland.
Shane, explain why there is such a strong desire among some to move the port from the Auckland waterfront.
Shane Vuletich: It’s not a new issue. I’ve been involved in two recent reports on port relocation, which were the 20th and 22nd reports on this issue.
It’s an issue that’s been kicked around for probably 30 years now. There’s been a sense that we need to do something, and the reason we need to do something is two-fold.
The first is that there is a growing capacity issue at the port. The port is constrained on all sides.
On the oceanside, it doesn’t really have anywhere to go. And on the city side, it definitely doesn’t have anywhere to go.
It’s becoming increasingly landlocked and surrounded by lots of activity that is not consistent with the efficient movement of freight.
So there’s certainly a capacity and efficiency issue, but actually, the emerging issue and probably the most important one, is optimal land use.
Cities need to continually look at how they’re using their land and ensure that they’re using their land in the right way. The more valuable the land, the more often you have to look at it and ensure that you’re doing the best you can with that scarce land resource.
There are 77 hectares of prime waterfront land sitting under the port currently being used for a really low-value industrial use. That’s about twice the size of the Wynyard Quarter and about a fifth of the CBD area, so you get a sense of the scale of that land.
This is about ensuring that the port is in the right place to serve Auckland for the next 100 years. The port was in the right place for a long period of time. It is no longer in the right place to serve Auckland the way it needs to be served.
There’s a general consensus that the port needs to move. Lots of other cities have done this. The challenge is getting it done.
Damien Venuto: The main alternative often raised is for the port to be moved to Northland. Logistically, what would it take to move this operation from Auckland to Northland?
Shane Vuletich: It’s a good question. Northland was one of the options that had been put forward. It’s not the only option that’s being considered.
The other two main candidates are the Manukau Harbour and the Firth of Thames, down southeast of Auckland.
The Manukau Harbour, despite many people thinking it’s a great idea, in my view and in many experts’ views, is a terrible idea.
You’re fighting nature. It’s not insurmountable, but generally, you don’t want to be fighting nature when you put a long-lived piece of infrastructure somewhere.
It’s on the wrong side of the country in terms of shipping routes, which creates massive issues.
My biggest concern is that even if it was technically feasible and made sense, perpetuating the use of land in south Auckland for that sort of low productivity isn’t a good long-term decision for Auckland.
South Auckland has massive potential, and if we keep putting containers on it and low productivity stuff in that area, we don’t achieve this potential.
So, there are many reasons why Manukau is a silly idea.
The Firth of Thames is not a silly idea. Technically it’s very feasible, but it is a greenfield site that would require lots of work and lots of connection.
And most importantly, it’s south of Auckland, which is an issue because the Port of Tauranga is south of Auckland as well and that services a lot of Auckland’s freight.
Much of our freight goes through the Port of Tauranga, which is 160 kilometres away. Having both ports south of Auckland would create massive demand for the rail and road corridors to the south of Auckland, which commuters want to use.
Having all of our freight being dragged up through those already congested corridors doesn’t make sense.
What Northport has going for it is that it doesn’t have that south of Auckland problem where it’s going to be competing with those congested corridors. That’s north of Auckland which creates a degree of resilience because you can attack Auckland from the North and the South.
With the right infrastructure in place, you end up with a nice north and south port access model with a bunch of inland ports sitting between those two gateway ports connected by rail that allows freight to move efficiently.
Northport is an operating port that’s consented. It’s already built. It needs to be scaled out, but it’s got lots of landside capacity. It’s a natural deep-water port. It’s already being used, so Northport may not tick every box, but it will be better than any other port solution.
Damien Venuto: Shane, you have long been an advocate for moving the port, but there are also opponents to this plan.
Can you look at the other side of the table and explain why some people think the port shouldn’t be moved at all?
Shane Vuletich: The port likes being where it is even though it acknowledges and accepts all of the studies that say it needs to move, and it needs to move relatively soon.
It’s employed many stalling tactics to acknowledge it wants to move but never actually doing anything about it, which means it will never move.
They do have resources at their disposal to make it difficult to move. You have politicians that are overwhelmed by the scale of the issue.
When you’re confronted with a really big issue that will take many years to resolve, that’s not a particularly attractive political proposition because you generally end up writing the checks but not cutting the ribbons.
That’s possibly being unkind of politicians, but that long-lived stuff is really challenging to get into. As a result, it’s generally easier to do nothing than it is to do something.
You have a freight industry that built its business models around the status quo.
The freight industry is generally economically rational, and when confronted with the status quo versus a change scenario, the status quo is always more comfortable and safer.
I don’t think you can have the freight industry crying out for radical change. They’ll generally want incremental change, which is just tweaking what we’ve got because that’s safe. I can completely understand that from a business perspective.
Damien Venuto: In an NZ Herald panel on this topic back in 2021, former Auckland mayor Phil Goff was quite critical of a report that you co-authored:
“Look, it may be that the Manukau doesn’t work. I don’t know, I’m not the expert in this, but I would have at least expected, before you talk about spending 10 or $12 billion, that you look at all of the options so that you make sure that the option that you finally land on is the right option. The supply chain study failed to look at that.”
He suggested that there wasn’t sufficient consideration given to other areas. He was a particular proponent of Manukau.
Do you think that since that panel discussion and since that initial report, the question of Manukau has been answered properly?
Shane Vuletich: I believe there’s a piece of work, probably the 24th study, looking more closely at the Manukau to assess whether it is actually remotely feasible to either leave it on the table or take it off the table.
It’s the piece of work that needs to be done to ideally put a stake in the heart of the Manukau because no one in the shipping industry believes this remotely feasible or remotely sensible.
I think if there’s a study to be done that rules it out once and for all, it’s probably a good use of resources.
I would like to see it ruled out so we don’t waste any more time on it.
Damien Venuto: One issue that does come up quite a lot is the issue of jobs. How would moving the port impact the hundreds of employees who currently work at the port site in Auckland?
Shane Vuletich: The impact would be quite significant, but not in the way you’d expect. The impact on port-related jobs would be minimal because there are only a few hundred jobs on the port itself.
I would say there are probably between 300 to 400 jobs on the 77 hectares of prime waterfront land.
The reason for this is that there’s very little economic value in the port itself as a business. Many think port as a business is valuable and creates lots of employment and value directly.
That value is created in the freight that goes through the port. The value isn’t embedded in the port itself. The port is just a gateway for things to come and go.
As long as imports and exports continue to move efficiently and as long as there is a port somewhere and that freight continues to move efficiently, almost all of the employment except for the direct jobs on the port itself will continue to exist.
The net impact of moving the port would actually be significantly positive.
Because if you take 77 hectares of prime waterfront land that currently supports a few hundred jobs and turn it into an area that supports tens of thousands of jobs, housing for people, green spaces, and schools, as well as social amenities.
We only have to look across the harbour to Wynyard Quarter, which was port land and an industrial wasteland employing very few people.
In 10 years, it’s supporting billions of dollars worth of businesses, thousands of employees, and thousands of residents. It creates great social value for the people of Auckland because it’s a public space, and you can walk around.
That transition is really easy to see. What we’re proposing for the port is a very similar process of turning it from a place that people can’t be and can’t go and has low productivity and turning into a place that people can be. It’s highly socially and economically productive.
Damien Venuto: Last year North Shore councillor Chris Darby was on the Front Page, and he ran us through the complexities of big infrastructure projects and why they often take so long to get across the line:
“We have taken our eye off the future, not just of Auckland, but the nation, particularly in infrastructure. And we’re always looking at what we should have been doing years ago, and the city rail link is a classic example of that. It was first suggested in 1924, and it’s going to be 100 years between first thinking about it to actually opening it and riding it.”
How confident are you that this project will ever get off the ground?
Shane Vuletich: It will at some point because it has to. The port will get less and less efficient as urban encroachment grows.
Those corridors that it is dependent on are not going to get less congested over time.
People don’t realise that with the existing port and where it currently is, there will have to be significant amounts of investment in just keeping it at the current level of efficiency.
On the port site itself, there is already a lot of capital investment earmarked by the Ports of Auckland for the existing site to build new buildings and infrastructure. We’re not talking tens of millions here. We’re talking hundreds of millions, probably over 10 or 20 years, being invested in a site that we all know doesn’t have a long-term future.
That’s ratepayer money being invested in an asset that we all know is going to be shut down at some point in the medium term at the latest.
That’s economic madness in itself.
What we’ve also got is the port and the freight industry asking for major upgrades to rail and road into the existing port up Grafton gully to decongest those corridors.
That comes at the cost of billions of dollars, once again, into an existing site that we know is not the long-term solution.
The opponents to relocation have been successfully blocking relocation for at least 30 years, so I wouldn’t bet against them continuing to do that.
I think we’re in a position where there will still be resistance to change and challenges. We have an owner of the port, the council, that is, for the first time, supportive of relocation, largely thanks to Chris Darby, who has done great work in that space.
Wayne Brown has really tipped the balance there. And the government is now at the table, so we’re in the best position we’ve ever been in, and we have the highest chance of getting urgency around this.
Now is the time that, hopefully, the stars are aligned, and we can create urgency and a level of commitment to relocation that can’t be undone in future political cycles.
Source: iHeartRADIO, The Front Page Podcast. The podcast transcript was edited for clarity.
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