Published Wednesday 22 May 2019

RPH recently joined locals to block another liquor outlet opening in Wellington’s Aro Valley.

RPH sat down with RPH Medical Officer of Health, Stephen Palmer (Ngāi Tahu, Moriori) and Public Health Advisor, Andrea Boston, to discuss why they believe a recent Alcohol and Regulatory Licensing Authority (ARLA) decision dismissing a central Wellington off licence application was a game changer.

Why was RPH involved in this process?

Since 2012 the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act has required the Medical Officer of Health to assess all liquor licence applications and renewals, making New Zealand one of the few countries where the health sector plays a role in alcohol legislation.

The Act has two key objectives: that alcohol should be sold, supplied and consumed safely and responsibly, and that harm from excessive, or inappropriate, consumption should be minimised.

Harm is broadly defined and covers crime, health and social harm to individuals, communities and society. It also includes indirect harm from someone else’s use of alcohol.

How did this all begin?

It started back in May 2017 when a grocer in Wellington’s Aro St applied to the District Licensing Committee (DLC) to set up a liquor outlet next to their store.

Headed by former Minister Hon Sir Douglas Kidd, the DLC held a public hearing later that year and refused the application following testimony from local objectors, Police, the Licensing Inspector, and RPH.

The store owner appealed to ARLA, and a public hearing took place in early April this year. ARLA upheld the DLC decision.

Part of RPH objections centred on Aro St and the surrounding valley as being a ‘vulnerable’ area. But it’s trendy these days, isn’t it?

Being close to both Massey and Victoria Universities, it’s a popular place for students and other young adults to rent accommodation.

It’s also an area that provides social housing. Aro Valley has a high deprivation score, meaning residents have lower incomes and less disposable incomes than others.

Age profile-wise in the Aro St, Nairn St area 68.11% of the population is aged between 15-39 years, and 35.57% between 15-24.

Research puts hazardous consumption of alcohol within the Capital & Coast DHB area for those aged 15-24 at 32.5%, far above the national average of 25.6%.

In short, there are not simply more people in that age group in Wellington, there’s a significant population of young people and they have higher rates of hazardous consumption of alcohol than New Zealanders of the same group generally.

Why is this decision significant?

The intention of the 2012 Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act was to give more power to communities to influence decisions on the number, and type, of liquor outlets in their neighbourhoods. That was supposed to be a real legislative change.

But in the intervening six years, it’s been a big challenge for community objectors to be listened to by DLCs.

We don’t think that was Parliament’s intention, or that high powered lawyers should dominate DLC hearings the way they do.

Unfortunately, often no-one from a community objects, as it’s easy to miss the statutory notification in the newspaper, and timeframes to respond are often very short.

There are also times where communities do wish to object, but they just do not have the knowledge or wherewithal.

Lawyers bring with them a very prescriptive discipline characterised by the adversarial process. This tends to put off people and communities becoming involved.

So the process has worked against communities?

We believe so. Around New Zealand, community input varies depending on people’s legal skills, speaking skills, confidence, literacy, and availability.

They come up against a DLC system dominated by lawyers, and a legal process that pits one side against another.

Most people aren’t familiar with legal processes usually, and are forced into a legal framework which is foreign to them.

But, in our view, the Aro St result was different because of a number of factors, including the community being well prepared.

They’d already been successful before the DLC, so this in some ways the ARLA hearing was phase two of a two and a half year process?

Yes, and much credit should be given to Hon Sir Douglas Kidd, who chaired the DLC that produced the original decision.

For what reasons?

His approach made a great deal of difference. For example, he was flexible in allowing DLC schedules to be juggled to allow opponents to speak.

That might not sound like a big deal, but assigning people designated timeslots meant people knew the times they had to speak and did not need to take too much time off work.

Before that people had to take leave from work, arrange baby sitters and so on, and then sit around to be called. Not many are able to afford that.

So just by making some small adjustments to scheduling, you got a wide range of views and more community input.

Also, the more of an overall welcoming environment the DLC made efforts to provide, the more community objectors were able to represent themselves.

We were struck during the hearing that some submitters felt confident enough to cross-examine the applicant. In our experience that’s not common.

Did many of the same objectors reappear at the ARLA hearing?

Yes, but again the appeal process is very legalistic with submissions from lawyers and a focus on legal arguments.

A lawyer at the Appeal represented many of the community objectors.

Still, ARLA reviewed the previous DLC proceedings in detail, and described community input as compelling and graphic.

ARLA also noted that: ‘This is not just the case of those that gave evidence to the DLC, but is a feature of all 55 written objections which corroborate each other’s experiences’.

It is unusual for written objections where the objector does not appear at hearing to be given much weight, if any, and here ARLA clearly gave considerable weight to written objections.

Another unusual aspect was that Aro Valley’s unique ‘funnel’ shape made for a compact community area where collateral damage caused by alcohol, like drinking in Aro Park despite it being under a liquor ban, scratched cars, litter, and so on was in everybody’s faces.

What would you say were the reasons this was a successful outcome?

It was a convergence of real concern of community and agencies.

It was a case of the community, Police, RPH, the Licensing Inspector and reporting agencies combining to show the harm caused in what is already a vulnerable community, and clearly demonstrate the harm a further outlet would have.