Freeze Westhaven sale before asset takeover: Locke

Auckland Green MP Keith Locke yesterday wrote to Local Government Minister Chris Carter asking him to use his influence to stop the sale of the Westhaven Marina before Auckland Regional Holdings takes over the controlling interest in the Ports of Auckland. The argumentation in Keith Locke’s approach to Chris Carter is as follows:

“I asked Mr Carter to express a strong view to the boards of ‘Infrastructure Auckland’ and ‘Ports of Auckland’ that no final commitment be made to sell any significant assets of Infrastructure Auckland or its subsidiaries prior to the transfer of said assets to Auckland Regional Holdings on July 1, 2004.

“I believe that this would be the right thing to do in view of the new and different functions that Auckland Regional Holdings will have compared to Infrastructure Auckland.

“The course of action I am suggesting is particularly important and urgent because Ports of Auckland, an 80-per-cent-owned subsidiary of Infrastructure Auckland, has initiated a sale process for the Westhaven Marina (tenders for which closed yesterday, 31 March).

“In the Local Government (Auckland) Amendment Bill, introduced into the House on 30 March, the first function of Auckland Regional Holdings is to own and manage assets ‘in the long-term interests of the Auckland Region’. This is a broader mandate than that of Infrastructure Auckland, which has been focused on transport and water, particularly storm water, infrastructure.

“This change of function means that Auckland Regional Holdings, together with the Auckland Regional Council (its controlling body), could well have a view that continuation of the essentially public ownership of the Westhaven Marina is indeed ‘in the long-term interests of the Auckland Region’ and that the sale process of the Marina should not continue. Such a judgement by their dominant shareholder could influence Ports of Auckland’s view on continuing with the sale.

“I do not believe that in making such an intervention the Minister would have any significant commercial effect on Ports of Auckland or the assets of Infrastructure Auckland or Auckland Regional Holdings. No one has argued that the proposed sale has come about because the Westhaven Marina is in trouble; just that it is not a core business asset.

“The fact that the marina is defined by Ports of Auckland as a non-core business gives another moral reason for Mr Carter’s intervention. When the assets of the old Auckland Harbour Board were passed over to Ports of Auckland in 1988 it was clear that the various marina assets were not considered ‘port-related commercial undertakings’. Accordingly the Minister at the time, Hon Bill Jeffries, signed off the free transfer to Manukau City of the Half Moon Bay and Bucklands Beach marinas. The only reason the Westhaven Marina was not treated in the same way was because, as Mr Jeffries put it in his affidavit of 12 September 1997, while “recreational assets should generally remain in local body ownership… the circumstances such as those which applied to the Westhaven Marina complex related to the submission that the Port company’s future extension would advance to the west and I did not wish to foreclose this option.”

“Was the port company correct in submitting at that time that there was a possibility the port would be extended to the west? Or was the port company just using that as a reason to hold on to the marina as a performing asset?

“I believe most educated observers would say that there was never actually any possibility that the port would expand well to the west and take over part of Westhaven. In the age of sophisticated containerisation, ship loading and unloading is usually geographically concentrated, in this case some kilometres to the east of Westhaven in a perfectly adequate ‘down-harbour’ location.

“As is clear from the public debate, the citizens of Auckland overwhelmingly wish the Westhaven Marina to continue in public ownership and are particularly fearful of it being taken over by a foreign owner.

“I think there is a strong case for Mr Carter to intervene at this time,” said Mr Locke.