Tony Gibson's opinion piece | The problems with Northport
Should Auckland's port move to Northland? Let me say up front I don't mind if the port is moved. That's a matter for Auckland Council (the owner) and Government (who will pay). But I do care where it goes, and that decision should be made on facts. That's only fair to New Zealand taxpayers and the thousands of people who work at Ports of Auckland and at other businesses associated with the port and the wider supply chain.
What none of us need is the latest jumble of made-up 'facts' put out by Wayne Brown, Chair of the Upper North Island Supply Chain Study. This is the fifth port study in my eight years as CEO of Ports of Auckland, and, well, let's say it's not the best.
In their 2016 study, consultants EY said that Northport in Whangarei was almost the last place they'd move Auckland's port to, yet in this recent study they say it's the best. Why the change of heart? In 2016 EY highlighted the negative economic, environmental and social costs of moving Auckland's freight through Northport, nearly 200 kilometres away. In 2019 this isn't mentioned, but the problem hasn't gone away.
It's quite simple. The further you carry a container the more it costs. If you move it by land instead of by sea it costs even more. Someone must pay those costs and who will pay? Aucklanders. This plan is a tax on every single Aucklander.
Wayne Brown has said that's not true because goods come via Tauranga right now and don't cost more. Wayne, that's because Ports of Auckland is still here. If Port of Tauranga charged more than us, they wouldn't have a business. Close Auckland's port and watch prices rise.
Wayne Brown has also claimed that Ports of Auckland is not "viable economically and environmentally". That's not true. Over the last five years we've earned a quarter of a billion dollars for the city. No, we won't earn so much for the next two years, but that's because we're investing in technology to increase capacity and reduce our environmental impact.
Here's another inconvenient truth: the Northport option isn't environmentally friendly. The further you carry a container the more emissions you produce. If you move it by land instead of sea you produce even more emissions. Auckland freight moved through Northport will produce 700% more emissions than freight if it was sent through Auckland's port.
Wayne Brown claims the port land is worth $6 billion dollars. That's an appealing notion, but wrong. We're required by the Auditor General to value the port land as if it was in its 'highest and best use'. Every time, skilled and experienced valuers say the land is worth less than a billion dollars.
There's a good reason why. It costs an awful lot to develop 80 hectares of industrial land (decontamination, roads and other infrastructure, public spaces etc) and it will take decades to fully build out. Wynyard Quarter is taking around 30 years to fully develop, and the port land is over twice the size. Sorry, but there's no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow.
Here are some more problems.
Northport's wharf is 570 metres long. Auckland's wharves are THREE KILOMETRES LONG. A three-kilometre-long wharf at Northport will stretch all the way to the settlement of One Tree Point, half of which will have to be bulldozed.
Wayne Brown says he'll make sure 70% of freight from Northport to Auckland will be carried by rail, but how? Right now, rail carries less than 6% of New Zealand's freight.
Wayne Brown says Northport is a deep-water port that doesn't need dredging. So why does Refining NZ need to deepen the channel for larger ships? In reality lots of dredging will be needed.
Wayne Brown says the port must move but cruise ships can stay. Cruise ships need tugs and marine pilots and dredging which the port provides. If you move the port, cruise must go too.
If you talk to shipping lines and cargo owners, they will tell you that the most efficient way to move freight is to ship it as close as possible to its destination and keep the land-leg as short as possible. That's because shipping is much cheaper and has much lower emissions than land transport.
As a 2010 report commissioned by Whangarei District Council said:
"The use of Marsden Point [Northport] for large volumes of general cargo traffic to or from areas further south in New Zealand would in effect replace a very efficient and sustainable form of movement in large container vessels by a much less efficient and sustainable movement by rail or by road."
Look, move the port. Fine, no problem. But can we at least move it somewhere sensible?