27 February 2013
Alex's contribution to the debate on Liquor Amendment (Small Bars) Bill 2013 - Legislative Assembly
The Liquor Amendment (Small Bars) Bill 2013 creates a new type of liquor licence specifically for small bars with 60 patrons or less. Like the existing general bar hotel licence, small bars will not be able to sell takeaway liquor and, importantly, will not have gaming machines.
Small bars first began appearing in Sydney in 2008 after widespread community campaigns—championed by my independent predecessor Clover Moore—for a more civilised kind of drinking culture through smaller venues. Prior to that Sydney's late-night scene was dominated by beer barns and large nightclubs. Since then around 70 new small bars have opened in the inner city. During this time we have also seen the inner city's night-time economy diversify with late night entertainment provided in our museums, galleries and libraries. Successful night-time cities offer a variety of entertainment catering for different tastes. They are also places where people feel safe. Without a diverse mix and with a reputation for drunken violence, an area will struggle to change as the two feed off each other.
I support the creation of a new licence category specifically for small bars. There has been concern that without a patron limit the hotel general bar and on-premise licences could allow venues to morph into different, particularly larger businesses without scrutiny. The fear is that what starts as a small restaurant that allows wine service without meals later becomes a nightclub, bringing new impacts. Providing a patron limit within the licence category reduces this risk. However, a small bar category will only woo new bar entrepreneurs away from existing licence categories if it is economically viable. I am not sure how the patron limit in the bill was determined as I understand there has not been consultation with the Small Bars Association on this matter.
The City of Sydney's Late Night Economy Development Control Plan includes a patron limit of 120 for small bars. This is considered small enough to limit the impacts but large enough to be economically viable. The business model is working and the new small bars have not been venues of drunken violence that police have had to attend. Time will tell if the new small bar licence category under this bill provides a new and successful business model. Small bar operators tell me that it will be difficult to attract investors to venues of only 60 patrons. If the new category does attract different venues, it will be a good thing. The bill exempts small bars from the liquor freeze, and this could enable an alternative to existing venues that are causing problems, providing opportunity for culture change.
The liquor freeze was initially introduced to curb the unsustainable growth in licensed premises that was having damaging impacts on residential amenity and putting an unreasonable burden on police and health resources. The aim was to provide respite from expanding late night alcohol-related activities and to prevent the proliferation of liquor venues to unsustainable levels. Last year the Government extended the freeze on Darlinghurst Road until 24 December 2015, and I pushed for an extension also on Oxford Street, Darlinghurst, to prevent rapid liquor outlet expansion there while restrictions were in place in Kings Cross. I welcome extension of the freeze on Oxford Street until 24 December this year in response to my concerns.
The major problem remains larger venues: the beer barns and nightclubs, not intimate small bars where responsible service of alcohol is more likely. I am concerned, however, that the bill does not require a community impact statement for small bars, which I believe it would be more useful to enable a higher patron limit while retaining this requirement. Instead of a community impact statement, small bars will be required to notify local police and the Director General of the Department of Trade and Investment of an application. The theory is that consultation and assessment already occurs when a development application is made, and because a small venue has less impact there is no need to double up on this process. While I support removing duplication, I do not believe that one process can completely replace the other.
The development assessment process is very different to the community impact assessment, with both being designed to capture information and limit impacts under different Acts. Development applications are assessed under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act and councils will not be able to consider all issues relevant to the Liquor Act. Also, notifications vary from council to council, and the bill fails to require notification of all development applications with respect to small bars. In some council areas notification may not occur. I have been contacted by some inner-city residents who are concerned that without a community impact assessment small bars could accumulate in some areas with no powers to limit impacts. The Bureau of Crime Statistics data shows a strong link between alcohol outlet density and assaults. At present nothing has been published on concentrations of venues such as small bars.
One can conceive of a group of small bars purposely locating themselves in a particular area to create a precinct that has a competitive advantage over other areas. While councils are currently limited in their powers to control cumulative impacts, I understand that the Government is working on its cumulative impact study to identify the level and mix of venues that an area can safely sustain and to develop tools to prevent saturation. It is unclear how the environmental assessment tool, which is currently being trialled in the central business district, will apply to small bars, if at all. There is no question that licensed premises have the potential to create impacts.
Some people who are intoxicated create noise and engage in antisocial behaviour and sometimes violence. If venues are clustered together this can create a recipe for disaster. Anyone who watched Four Corners on Monday saw how damaging the impacts can be. While some venues such as small bars pose lower risks than others, all warrant public notification and assessment via a community impact statement to limit potential impacts. I hope the bill provides opportunities for a new drinking culture, particularly in the inner city, which continues to be plagued by drunken violence. What we need now are powers to limit saturation of venues in areas and a renewable permit system for liquor licences to encourage good management.