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An elegant solution to the port dilemma?

Doug Owens, son of the founder of freight transport company Owens Group and a long-time industry participant, believes that Ports of Auckland should move to Northport and run its own operations there.

Ports of Auckland's operations should be shifted to Northport, but Auckland must be properly compensated for what it has put into the port.

Meanwhile the Port of Tauranga needs to sell out of Northport and sort out its own expansion issues locally, and the Government must step in to counter the parochial interests that are dominating the debate and take a strong leadership role.

Cabinet Ministers are considering another report commissioned as part of the coalition deal between Labour and New Zealand First, but last week’s leaked report also appears to be full of holes.

And Finance Minister Grant Robertson needs to give his backing to the Northport project.

"We certainly haven't said 'yes' to it, we've got to make sure we get all the information that we need,” Robertson said last week.

Ports of Auckland is challenging many of the conclusions of the report but is this merely the company mounting a defence that may not be sustainable in view of the real facts?

Meanwhile, National's Simon Bridges acknowledged the need to do something with Auckland's port operations but said he wasn't yet convinced about Northport - and one wonders what this will take?

Auckland City is suffering from daily gridlock and the port cannot be expanded without reclaiming the harbour, which does not wash with anyone. The Southdown road/rail interchange has been overwhelmed with the rapid of the Port of Taurange/KiwiRail Metroport operation. And operational space in the central Auckland area has been critically squeezed.

The elephant in the boardroom for Port of Tauranga is the Kaimai Tunnel, which is no longer fit for purpose, which limits the growth of rail traffic. At the same time, the state highway network cannot be relied upon to pick up the increasing container truck volumes.

For both ports there is no easy fix for these issues and the risk of infrastructure failure looms large and is real.”

Northport is an existing alternative that offers ready relief for an infrastructure hole.

Fixing the existing 88 bridges and 13 tunnels on the rail line between West Auckland and Marsden Point is a no-brainer and will start to address the problem of a port system which is poorly integrated into the overall rail network.

You can’t take someone’s business off them and move it to Whangarei and not expect compensation for it, this is naïve.

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff is right when he characterises last week’s widely leaked Upper North Island Supply Chain Strategy working group report as parochial and lacking in evidence-based detail.

“Half-baked” was how Goff described it on RNZ’s Nine to Noon programme this week.

It’s delusional to think that Auckland will simply hand the ratepayer-owned port over to Northland. You can’t take someone’s business off them and move it to Whangarei and not expect compensation for it, this is naïve.

Why should Auckland give it away? That’s not going to happen. It doesn’t make any sense. If Ports of Auckland was a public company, would Government legislate to give it away? The Port of Auckland is owned by the public and the same rule applies.

Meanwhile, Ports of Auckland needs to control and run its port operations, if it moves to Northport, just as it does now in Auckland.

Not the land, necessarily, but the operations.

And Port of Tauranga, which owns 50 percent of Northport, needs to “drop out” as it is conflicted and muddies the local waters.

Tauranga needs to go back to Tauranga to sort out infrastructure issues there - like the Kaimai Tunnel. It could perhaps combine its interests in a Waikato Hub with Ports of Auckland? There may be other tradeoffs for Tauranga to consolidate its position in Auckland.

The next step is crucial.

If Ports of Auckland were given the lead in this project and the process then the rhetoric would change radically.

Meanwhile the Government must be prepared to override parochial interests, controlling the dialogue at the moment to provide an end game for KiwiRail to work with, which is the key to a future fully integrated transport network in NZ.

Ports are strategic. The Government needs to be cautious and do they have the right people involved with the reporting as from all accounts it is biased, narrow and not looking at the issues from a national perspective.

There is a solution here, it’s an elegant one and it will work.

Parochialism is the enemy of regional and national growth in New Zealand today and some have not woken up to this. The issue of ownership of Northport has made it to centre stage and it is beginning to fuel a backroom political struggle and a derailment.

The only people making sense in this debate right now are KiwiRail CEO Greg Miller and Auckland Mayor Phil Goff. Ports of Auckland are rolling their eyes.

There is a solution here, it’s an elegant one and it will work. It’s worth looking at the Tauranga investment model. Port of Tauranga is majority owned by Quayside Holdings, the investment arm of the Bay of Plenty Regional Council. It is listed on the NZX.

At the centre of this debate is the principle of strategic port ownership and the great success of the Port of Tauranga supports this principle. The Government is well positioned to facilitate and finance the Northport development, as it has done with every other port in New Zealand, over the past 150 years.

Doug Owens is son of Bob Owens - later Sir Bob - a stevedore, who founded one of New Zealand’s biggest freight businesses. Doug Owens was a shareholder in the Owens Group when it was acquired by Mainfreight in 2003. He still runs a storage business at Mt Maunganui and has been part of the operations at both the Auckland and Tauranga Ports, as well as being on the former Auckland Harbour Board and a Bay of Plenty Regional Councillor.

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