The latest of more than 30 reports on the future of Devonport’s naval base has recommended against closing it altogether – but a back-up facility in the north may be on the way 

The Government has opted against moving the country’s main Navy base out of Devonport despite the impact of rising sea levels, citing the high costs and logistical problems of such a shift.

However, officials are now working on a business case for a “supplementary” base in Whangārei to provide training facilities, space for inter-agency work and climate-resilient infrastructure.

The decision has come as part of a ‘first principles’ review of the defence estate, first commissioned by the Government in 2019 to develop a 50-year plan for the future of New Zealand’s military facilities.

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Ron Mark, defence minister at the time, told Newsroom it was possible existing bases could be merged or rationalised as a result, mentioning an Air Force “super-base” at Ohakea as one example of what could be possible.

However, in final decisions made late last year, Cabinet opted against any dramatic shake-up, saying the NZ Defence Force would “maintain a substantial presence in its current locations including existing training areas”.

The Cabinet paper said the status quo should be retained for the NZ Army, while there were “only limited advantages” in making changes to the Air Force set-up.

The most fraught topic of discussion was the Devonport naval base, whose fate has long been a topic of discussion.

The Cabinet paper said there had been 32 reports since 1997 on the base’s future, noting strategic problems with the site.

“Nevertheless they conclude that the drivers have not been strong enough to enact a change of location or for a change of location to be economically feasible.”

An analysis on the merits of relocating the Navy to Whangārei, carried out as part of the first principles review, found that staying in Devonport was the best option over the longer-term due to its “superior deep water channel with greater ease or manoeuvrability for Navy vessels compared to Whangārei Harbour”.

In addition, a move to Whangārei would cost almost $1.8 billion more than staying put (made up of $945 million in extra capital costs and more than $820 million in additional operating costs over a 50-year period).

“A relocation to Whangārei could take up to 20 years and would require a long-term funding commitment to commence the process. NZDF would need to carry out ongoing maintenance and retain functionality and capability at Devonport while the new facility was constructed,” the analysis found.

“A supplementary facility at Whangārei presents the opportunity to take into account the support systems for Navy personnel including improved wellbeing, better work/life balance and improved housing accessibility compared to Auckland.”
– Cabinet paper

However, the analysis said it was questionable whether the Navy could maintain its work over the longer term with a single Devonport base.

Coastal inundation had already been affecting the base’s northern yard, with almost half of that site at risk of increased flooding from 2030 due to rising sea levels.

Whangārei had been identified as the best location for an additional facility if Devonport’s northern yard could no longer be used.

However, rather than developing a split base model with the same functions duplication at both sites, the Cabinet paper said it would be best to build a supplementary facility in the north for training activities.

A Whangārei facility could also provide an opportunity to build energy-efficient buildings and climate-resilient infrastructure, as well as “co-location or support for other security partners and/or inter-agency operations in Northland”.

“For [the] Navy, a supplementary facility at Whangārei presents the opportunity to take into account the support systems for Navy personnel including improved wellbeing, better work/life balance and improved housing accessibility compared to Auckland.”

The Defence Force had been asked to develop a more detailed business case on the costs of remaining at Devonport – estimated in the Cabinet paper as being $7.9b in capital and operational spending over 50 years – as well as the investment required for a Whangārei facility. The Defence Force is currently due to report back by mid-2024.

In a statement, Defence Minister Andrew Little told Newsroom the decision to keep the Navy’s home in Devonport “puts to bed years of debate over and many reports about [its] future location”.

While there would be benefits in having a forward operating base located in Whangarei, Little said significant scoping and investigation into its viability was needed before any investment could be made.

“Any future investigations into land for use as a naval base in the wider Whangārei harbour is taking into careful consideration the cultural, environmental and safety issues of the proposal. Any potential physical relocation of the Navy would be a long-term project.”

* This article has been updated with additional comment from Defence Minister Andrew Little

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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