1 August 2016
In the February 2013 issue, we featured the story of Russell School in Cannons Creek, Porirua, which became the centre and focus of successful opposition to an off-licence renewal for an outlet across the road. Rob Zorn went back to Cannons Creek to see whether the good results of community action have continued and what has been learned from the experience.
In May 2012, Thirsty Liquor on Fantame Street – across the road from Russell School – had its off-licence renewed but with a number of new conditions handed down by the Alcohol Regulatory and Licensing Authority (ARLA). It now had to close much earlier every day and shut its doors from 2.45–3.15pm on any day Russell School was operating.
The store’s late closing times and aggressive advertising had resulted in regular harms to the community including intimidating drunken behaviour, vandalism and late night noise. The bill for damage to the school came in at around $60,000 annually.
The changes that came from the new conditions were immediate and very much enjoyed by the community. Then school Board Chair Matt Crawshaw said shortly after the decision was announced that the vibe of the whole neighbourhood was much better with a real sense of peace. Vandalism at the school reduced dramatically too.
What the community had done to oppose the renewal included upskilling themselves on the legalities and procedures involved with objecting (resulting in 88 objections to ARLA), organising public meetings and marches, doing letter drops and even knocking on doors.
A wonderful result of the decision for the community was finding that, if they did unite and work together, they really could be listened to.
Russell School Principal Sose Annandale grew up in the area and said it had become very unlike what she remembers but that now the old spirit is starting to return.
“It’s sort of like there’s been a breaking down of the fences – a lot more action and activity. I get a sense that the community has really started to rebuild itself,” she says.
Then suddenly in May 2013, the licensee surrendered his licence to the council, and Thirsty Liquor closed for good – and the neighbourhood situation improved even more.
“There are a lot more people walking on the street who we never used to see,” Annandale says.
“People used to be fearful to go to the shops even during the day because they’d come across intoxicated people. I can’t remember the last time I saw an intoxicated person since the closure.”
She says people aren’t walking through the school drunk or carrying alcohol while students are in the playground at all any more and that there’s been a huge reduction in vandalism.
“Just the other day, there was some graffiti by some kids with a Vivid pen. It cost me $50 to clean up and was quite an isolated event. Before that, the damage was extensive and frequent.”
That Thirsty Liquor has remained closed for more than three years doesn’t mean people haven’t tried to get a licence so they can open up a liquor store there again.
In August 2013, the owners of the building, Nishchay’s Enterprises Limited, applied to do just that. Knowing there would be opposition from Russell School and the surrounding community, the directors of Nishchay’s argued that all the community harms were due to the previous licensee having been a poor operator. Therefore, there was no reason they should be denied a licence – especially as they had operated liquor stores successfully in the past. They also initially suggested that the reduced operating hours placed on the previous licensee shouldn’t apply but later amended this.
People used to be fearful to go to the shops even during the day because they’d come across intoxicated people. I can’t remember the last time I saw an intoxicated person since the closure.
The community responded with similar action and this time with free support from local lawyer Alastair Sherriff who guided the objectors through the legalities and spoke for them at the hearing. Because of the timing of the application, the provisions of the Sale of Liquor Act 1989 applied rather than those of the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act 2012.
Support was also received from the Police who supplied evidence that restricting the store’s operating hours had reduced “incidents or offences” in the area from 1.03 to 0.9 per day. When it shut permanently, that figure fell to 0.71. The Medical Officer of Health’s evidence showed the area had high rates of emergency department admissions.
Altogether, there were 48 objectors to the licence application, and according to the hearing report, they represented a wide spectrum of society.
“Overall, their evidence showed that the various abuses referred to in the 2012 decision continued on a reduced basis after the operating hours had been curtailed. However, when the premises ceased operating ... virtually all the abuses disappeared,” the report says on page 5.
In the end, the application was declined, largely because there was good evidence that “liquor abuse issues” would rise again if it were granted.
The applicant had also failed to establish its suitability, and it is interesting to note that the report says applicant suitability may never be successfully demonstrated at this site because the threshold is so high given the vulnerable location of the premises. Ironically, part of the reason suitability was not established in this case was because the applicant had not engaged with objectors to attempt to allay their fears. In fact, they had not even read the 2012 decision, which the report describes as “unfortunate” in terms of their application.
Thirsty Liquor remains a bright orange scar on Fantame Street because Annandale says people know alcohol is still being stored there for supply to other outlets. She also says she’s really pleased that Cannons Creek cases are now being cited in many other objections and being used potentially to reduce harm in those places as well.
One of them is less than a kilometre away from Russell School.
In early 2012, Challenge Enterprises Limited applied for a tavern style on-licence for a bar to be named The Mix. The premises are situated in the Cannons Creek Shopping Centre, which is also the location of the Porirua Whānau Centre and several other social service agencies including schools, an early childhood centre, health centres and a community centre running personal development programmes for children and young people.
“When we got word of this, we rallied the community to mobilise,” said Whānau Centre Manager and former Porirua Deputy Mayor Liz Kelly.
“This is now a very active community, and we got an awesome response. About 400 people turned up at a community meeting, which is unheard of. Normally, you’d be happy if you got 30, and that just told me how seriously everybody took it.”
“We did a couple of marches, and we put together a submission with the help of our lawyer Alan Knowsley from Rainey Collins, which the Whānau Centre paid for, because we didn’t want them to succeed through some sort of loophole.”
On 22 November 2012, the licence application was declined by ARLA without the objectors having to give any evidence at all. The adjudicator made this landmark decision because the evidence from the Police, the Medical Officer of Health and the Licensing Inspector were overwhelmingly against the granting of the licence.
However, Challenge Enterprises appealed the decision to the High Court, and it was a costly process for the Whānau Centre to fight this over the next two and a half years, but it was victorious again because the appeal was withdrawn in early 2016. The Whānau Centre has been awarded costs.
“Our success with not having another tavern in the area also means there will be no more pokie machines. That’s another big issue for our community. It was a real win-win.”
“I say big ups to the community because the Whānau Centre couldn’t have done this on its own. We have to acknowledge the work that all the people before us did. Russell School was a big one, and their success has really helped.”
Kelly says something she learned from sitting through the Russell School proceedings was that it’s a good idea to get lots of community organisations involved so you don’t come across as just a bunch of ordinary people overreacting.
But she says what’s even more important is that you really need legal support.
“We the people can mobilise and jump up and down all we like, but without that expertise, it’s hard to navigate through the system.”
There has been a pub there before and the Whānau Centre experienced smashed windows and vandalism. During the eight years it was closed, she says there has been nothing of the sort.
“This whole area has just gone from strength to strength. The kids are now playing in a park in the area, whereas before, parents wouldn’t let them because it was too dangerous.”
Best news of all, perhaps, is that the Whānau Centre made a submission towards the Porirua City Council’s Local Alcohol Plan (LAP) that Cannons Creek be declared a sensitive site, which has been accepted (with some reluctance and a lot of negotiation).
That means when the LAP finally comes into force (it’s currently at provisional stage and still being negotiated), it will be impossible to get a new liquor licence in Cannons Creek, except via a supermarket. Because there is no site in the suburb suitable for this, communities there should never need to mobilise again. Kelly also says the climate is starting to change for the better. “There is definitely a bigger emphasis on the applicant having to prove their liquor outlet will be a good thing rather than the people having to demonstrate why it’s not.”
So it just shows you the strength of people power. Initially, there was no official resistance, but the Police and Council came on board because they saw just how united the community was in resisting it.
This may be more good news, but another thing that’s changing is that, as more licences are being refused, applicants are increasingly hiring more and specialised lawyers.
That’s according to Andrea Boston who is the Public Health Advisor: Tobacco, Alcohol and Other Drugs Team, Regional Public Health. She has worked in Porirua for many years and was active in both the Russell School and Whānau Centre objections.
Boston also advises getting legal help because, while the new Act does give communities a wider range of criteria on which objections can be made, the system is no easier to navigate for those who are unfamiliar with the Act.
“First you need to know about the application, and the public notification required legally is limited. I hear frequently from the public that they are unaware of applications unless they are specifically searching for them or have been directly notified by someone who has seen it."
“Then to put your best case forward, from objection to hearing, you need to be able to interpret the legislation and then connect where your concerns lie to construct your legal argument. This, for many, is not an easy task."
“Hearing practices differ around the country as to how a public objector should best present their evidence, but it will require either a written document to work from and/or good public speaking skills. But the written objection is just the start of the process, and to be given any consideration, the objector must appear at the hearing.”
Legal processes are generally not specifically designed with the convenience of the average person in mind, so all of this can be problematic for some because it can mean unpaid time off work, making arrangements for the care of children etc. In many places, an objector will not be consulted on their preferred day or time for the hearing or be allowed to appear just in a single part of it.
Additionally, the objector will be subjected to cross-examination. This can be uncomfortable for those experienced with it let alone for those who are not.
“I have seen store applicants reconsider their licence applications and withdraw them when faced with overwhelming community objection. That’s hugely positive.”
However, Boston says she has still seen a lot of good results for objectors.
“I have also found that the public grows in confidence and is most likely to achieve their best result when they can support one another and/or have additional support to help them frame the legal matters and when they have a good understanding of the process they face.”
And that certainly seems to be what’s happened in Cannons Creek, Porirua.
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