Designed by onlyyouqj / Freepik

Time to take a breath on port decisions

I fail to see why there is the perceived need to rush into moving Ports of Auckland, or the rush to pick a favourite to replace it.

So, I was pleased to see the Government release, this week, a sensible and measured report that stopped the push to develop Northport in its tracks. The promises around Northport were only ever based on New Zealand First’s desire to secure the Northland electorate seat at this year’s election.

RTF has spoken out against the move to Northport on many occasions because of the cost it would add to move freight further away from its end destination. That’s before you even get into logistics and environmental impacts.

As a country facing severe economic hardship in the wake of Covid-19, the Government cannot afford to spend money on poorly thought-out projects that don’t stack up on costs versus benefits.

The government-commissioned report prepared by Sapere Research Group – Analysis of the Upper North Island Supply Chain Strategy Working Group Options for moving freight from the Ports of Auckland – endorses the folly of a rushed move to Northport. The report says that assessment of regional economic development effects suggests that, on its own, a relocation of port activity is unlikely to substantially alter regional economies. It says most of the gains would be felt in regions outside where the rise in activity takes place.

The argument that moving to Northport would benefit the Northland economy is dead in the water.

The report also endorses our point that it is clear that distance to market is critical to the supply chain and that Northport is generally considered too far from main markets to function as a primary import port. It is worth noting that 80 percent of New Zealand’s freight is distributed to points south of the current Ports of Auckland.

What’s at play here? Influential Aucklanders don’t like the look of a working port in their downtown area and, at some point, Ports of Auckland will reach capacity – though Covid-19 might extend that timeframe.

Aside from the optics, the country needs to look at how it can best manage the flow of exports and imports that are the mainstay of our economy. We cannot become so isolationist in our response to Covid-19 we forget that. We are already seeing a worrying trend with global airlines responding to the New Zealand Government’s border policies.

It seems to be a peculiar New Zealand thing to respond to big issues by quickly coming up with options A or B and force a choice, when it need not be a binary choice.

The Sapere report suggests we have a good 30 years to tackle capacity issues for Ports of Auckland. They look at the current options on the table and conclude a new port in Manukau Harbour is the number one contender in a cost-benefit analysis. This has been met with some derision due to the nature of New Zealand’s west coast tidal flows and the suitability for shipping.

Again, this reflects more on New Zealand’s decision-making capability rather than the well-researched report.

Sapere acknowledges that long lead times for planning, consenting and constructing port capacity outside Ports of Auckland mean there is a shorter window of time for a decision about the long-term strategy to future proof port capacity. That window is approximately 10-15 years.

Surely, in that time, there can be a sensible assessment of what the problem we are trying to solve is and how best to solve it, rather than trying to retro-fit a solution to meet the needs of politicians, or other vested interests.

The problem is: How we can increase port capacity, anticipating growth, for exports and imports that flow through the upper North Island supply chain?

We’re supposed to be this innovative little country that punches above our weight. You’d think we could solve that problem over 15 years.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Port move makes no sense

Anyone who has been to Rotterdam in the Netherlands will know it is a port city that embraces both its rich history, and its future as Europe’s largest sea port. Real estate with a view of the port is prized. Government has always considered the enormous economic might of the port in making decisions about Rotterdam’s development.

It would be good to see the New Zealand Government holding such pride in, and support for, the port in our largest city of Auckland, which is a critical part of the country’s infrastructure. Instead, Ports of Auckland has become a political football.

In December, the Cabinet of the New Zealand Government will consider relocating to Northport, in Northland, the movement of goods currently carried out by Ports of Auckland. The economic advice behind that proposal has been called into question by two reviews from economic analysts, released by Ports of Auckland this week.

Castalia’s report says it will cost about $6.7 billion to move the freight activities of the port in Auckland to Northland. That is almost four times higher than EY’s predicted net cost of $1.8 billion that has been used to sell the idea of the move.

As representatives of freight movers, the RTF strongly urges the Government to take a good look at all the facts and figures before making a decision. If the aim is to boost Northland’s economy, does that really stack up against the impacts for Auckland and the rest of New Zealand?

It’s clear that making Northport the main port for Auckland will require massive investment in road and rail, and frankly, it makes little sense from either an economics or a logistics position. Why would you move goods destined for delivery in Auckland and further south away from the closest port, when the road and rail infrastructure required to then get those goods from that far away port back to Auckland and beyond does not even exist?

You can’t just one day close a major port and open another one that same day. There would need to be overlapping operations for years, with costs galore that would have to be passed on down the line to the end consumer. New Zealand’s location at the bottom of the earth already makes it expensive to import and export goods; we can’t really afford to add to that.

Rather bizarrely, those advocating to relocate the port operations are only talking about freight. They want to keep the economic benefits of having cruise ships and their many well-heeled passengers spending their cash in Auckland. The port has to remain in some capacity, which defies logic.

It smacks of a desire to kick out the blue-collar industries because inner-city businesses and residents don’t like the look of them. Reverse sensitivity seems to be a peculiarity of New Zealanders. People move to the inner city and then don’t like the noise, or bars, or trucks, or cars, or people. International city dwellers at least understand where more than a million people gather – and let’s remember Auckland is a very small city in global terms – there is noise and a changing landscape.

Castalia says the freight that currently flows out of Ports of Auckland would have to travel an extra distance to and from Northport of about 200km by rail and 150km by road. The additional freight task (approximately 400,000 twenty-foot container equivalent unit round trips between Auckland and Northport) will require additional transport infrastructure. On the possibly inaccurate assumption that 70 percent of the additional freight task was handled by rail, there would be more than 500 additional truck journeys per day travelling between Auckland and Northport for container traffic only, with more if the car import business uses the road network. This is just not feasible with the current road network between Auckland and Northport.

The freight task is increasing and the upper North Island is expected to account for most of New Zealand’s population and economic growth over the next 30 years. Ports of Auckland has a 30-year plan, which gives it the capacity to handle the expected freight increases.

On one hand you have an established business with a plan to match growth and on the other you have a pipe dream. The Government cannot sink billions of dollars into this without much better analysis than it currently has before it. New Zealand has to remember its place in the world and not price itself off the market on an act of sheer folly.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum