A decision on Fremantle’s outer harbour may be near after nearly a decade of delays.
AFTER almost nine years of proposals, delays, discussion and debate between the state government and stakeholders involved in the future development of a new port at Cockburn Sound, it seems there may be a resolution in sight.
Since 2000, the Len Buckeridge-led private consortium, James Point, has been developing plans to construct a private port in Cockburn Sound.
That same year, James Point signed an operating agreement with the government of Richard Court to build and operate the new private port, but delays in the required approvals pushed back the port's opening, originally planned for 2003.
An amendment to the Metropolitan Region Scheme (MRS) placing the proposed development north of James Point, between the BP Refinery and Alcoa in the outer harbour, was environmentally assessed and advertised for public comment.
While stage one of the James Point port, which provides for the construction of additional land-backed bulk facilities, received environmental approval, the MRS amendment was required for construction to begin.
Under the Carpenter Labor government, the Fremantle Port Authority investigated options including offshore and land-backed facilities, some of which directly affected the James Point port proposal.
The MRS amendment for the James Point proposal did not progress because the FPA's two alternative proposals for new facilities in the outer harbour were being considered.
However, Planning Minister John Day agreed in November last year that the James Point MRS amendment should proceed.
The government will make a decision on the amendment following a review by the Western Australian Planning Commission.
But capacity constraints, which have long plagued Fremantle port, remain a critical issue.
Debate surrounding the issue indicates the port will reach maximum capacity somewhere between 2014 and 2017, and these port projects have a lead-time of about five years.
There have been some indications recently that the James Point proposal will receive final approval from the government for the development of both stages one and two of its port project.
James Point chairman Chris Whitaker told WA Business News momentum was building among stakeholders for a resolution to be reached.
"What I make of it personally is there are a lot ... of interested parties out there who are very keen to see James Point proceed," Dr Whitaker told WA Business News.
"The amount of approaches and discussions I've been having at this point in time has reached quite a hive of activity with calls coming from a number of quarters we anticipated, and some we didn't."
Transport Minister Simon O'Brien announced last week the establishment of a new expert group, the Fremantle Ports Optimum Planning Group, to guide the future expansion of the port.
Rather than being interpreted as another delay, the group, which will develop recommendations for the long-term trade needs of Fremantle Ports, has been welcomed by most parties.
Fremantle Ports chief executive Chris Leatt-Hayter strongly supports the initiative.
"Port planning is complex and it is vitally important that future decisions are based on a thorough understanding of all aspects, including economic, environmental and social considerations," Mr Leatt-Hayter said.
And Dr Whitaker believes the formation of the group is long overdue.
"It's important when your planning any sort of development you see it as part of the bigger, long-term picture," Dr Whitaker said.
"My understanding from the minister is that he is keen to develop the 50-year or even 100-year view."
Fremantle Ports Optimum Planning Group will be chaired by former Main Roads Commissioner Greg Martin, and will include Department of Planning and Infrastructure director general, Eric Lumsden, and WA Port Operations Taskforce chairman, Fred Affleck.
Mr Martin said it would take time to assemble the information and draw some conclusions despite the minister expecting the group's first report in July.
"I wouldn't presume to say the government is necessarily going to accept what we put forward," he said.
"I think the urgency for government is to get some advice about how those various plans relate to one another and I suppose, from both particular proposals' perspectives, what should go ahead and can they compliment one another or where they are potentially in conflict."
Mr O'Brien said the group would consult widely with all interested parties in the examination of Fremantle Ports' Kwinana Quay and James Point proposals and likely timeframes for developments, as well as other specific objectives.
However, the group's formation brought immediate criticism from Labor strategic infrastructure spokesperson Alannah MacTiernan.
Ms MacTiernan said the government was determined to scrap the planned Fremantle Outer Harbour Container Facility and replace it with the privately owned port at James Point.
But Dr Whitaker was quick to defend his company's relationship with the government.
"She puts it as a 'deal', but the arrangements have been made, and there were no concessions of any sort in terms of process of approvals," Dr Whitaker said.