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One year ago Parliament ushered in a new era of alcohol harm reduction law with the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act, which promised communities greater say in liquor licensing decisions. It seems the law has over promised and under delivered, with commercial interests now actively undermining its purpose.
The fundamental principle of the law is to reduce alcohol related harm by setting constraints on liquor licenses based on the wishes of local communities. Parliament passed it after considering the powerful voices of many leaders who expressed great frustration at their lack of say in decisions that directly affect their communities.
Fast forward a few months and we see those same frustrations begin to appear.
Our last issue featured Mangere’s Southern Cross Campus in its fight against the expansion of a liquor outlet directly across the road. This liquor application, which had been notified in small print at the back of a newspaper during school holidays, was actively opposed by the school, the local board and public health officials, but was still granted by the District Licensing Committee. We all wondered why the voice of the community was ignored, why the spirit of the law was breached.
After facing strong community opposition another applicant in the same area voluntarily withdrew their licence application. That’s a great outcome but, once again, local communities were forced to express their views in a piecemeal way. A Local Alcohol Plan would have reflected what people think best for their neighbourhoods from the outset.
It’s clear the law has had a troubled implementation. All Local Alcohol Plans drafted by councils are being appealed. Lawyers are getting rich fighting provisions designed to protect communities. Look at what’s happening here in Wellington.
No less than eight lawyers represent different parties appealing Wellington Council’s policy. The sides in this fight are many and include Police, public health, supermarket giants, and hospitality and wider alcohol industry interests. Media reports show the council had negotiated special deals with the hospitality industry behind closed doors – even before public consultation began – to extend opening hours for on-licenses beyond the new national maximum.
Quite how the council can reconcile that proposal with the intention of the law is anyone’s guess. Extended hours won’t reduce alcohol harm, and prioritising commercial over community interests is bad form. It’s a sad state of affairs that this law, so full of potential, has begun to unravel so quickly. Communities fought hard to have a voice and thought they had been listened to. Now it seems they’re once again being ignored.