While the state government says the changes to WA’s liquor laws are working, others claim local councils are proving to be a big stumbling block.
More than six months after Western Australia’s liquor licensing system was overhauled there are signs of change taking place, with Perth’s third small bar expected to open this week.
A further six small bar applications for the metropolitan region are currently before the director of liquor licensing.
The biggest influx in applications has come from bars wanting to open in the City of Perth; understandable given it is the heart of the city.
But those close to the sector point to a supportive council as a major factor in the larger number of applications being lodged, and say other local government authorities are stymieing the intent of the laws that came in to effect in May.
Those laws were supposedly bringing a “change of scene” to WA, and were designed to make Perth a little bit more like Melbourne, which has a diverse range of small, intimate drinking venues.
But Ljiljanna Ravlich, the minister in charge of liquor licensing, is happy with the process thus far.
Ms Ravlich is confident the government’s target of having five to eight bars operating in WA by Christmas will be met.
She said just eight applications were received when Victoria focused on increasing smaller on-premise venues in 1994. That increased to 40 the following year and reached 152 in 1997.
The number of small bars in Victoria has jumped significantly in the past five years, with the number of licences, excluding pubs, climbing from about 2,000 to 5,000.
“I am very happy that we are comfortably meeting our balanced objectives,” Ms Ravlich said.
“By nature, the business set-up and licensing process for a small bar takes time to complete and it was always expected that it would take some time for small bar licence applications to materialise.”
Yet several liquor industry players think changes to the local government town planning process are needed to achieve the change of scene WA was promised.
In particular, the City of Subiaco has been criticised for its policy of rejecting new licences within 100 metres of the bustling Hay Street and Rokeby Road intersections.
“Are the objectives of the laws being damaged by the town planning system? Absolutely,” Freehills partner Tony van Merwyk said.
Jackson McDonald partner Julius Skinner said while it used to be impossible to get a liquor licence for a bar, now it was relatively easy. But getting planning approval, he said, was difficult.
Ms Ravlich was positive that, over time, some local authorities would become less cautious.
‘‘In this regard it is worth noting that there has not been an instance where an application for a small bar licence has been refused at local government level,” she said.
Several lawyers argue that problems emerge because small bars are not incorporated into town planning schemes and are viewed as a type of hotel licence.
Part of the thinking behind the changes to WA’s liquor licensing laws was to create a distinct category for small bars because it had become difficult for operators to get tavern approvals for small operations.
Lawyers add that many of the assessments done by town planners are also done by the liquor licensing department, which unnecessarily increases the time it takes to get the green light to open a bar.
A range of other conditions imposed by local government bodies has been blamed for curtailing the process.
In particular is the requirement to provide car parking bays, or cash in lieu of bays, which means a small bar licensed for the maximum 120 people could end up paying between $70,000 and $100,000 before the fit-out even starts.
The battle with local authorities even has one prominent hospitality operator, Murray Kimber, considering opening his next venue in Sydney, rather than Perth.
Sydney recently overhauled its liquor laws, some say in response to the vibrancy created by Melbourne’s bar and cafe scene.
Mr Kimber battled for a number of years with the City of Subiaco to gain approval to develop his Little Chutneys tapas-style wine bar.
But he has not been comforted by the changed liquor licensing laws, which should make the process easier for a new venture. That’s because the issue he has is not with liquor licensing but with town planning.
“It’s just too hard here with all the requirements that the councils have,” Mr Kimber said.
Mr Kimber also operates Chutney Mary’s restaurant in Subiaco, Cinnamon Club in Leederville and Nine Mary’s in the city.
He said the City of Subiaco was moving to change its car parking laws, which in theory would make it easier for operators in existing venues to redevelop their businesses into small bars.
But that is inconsequential for operators wanting to operate in the main entertainment precinct, with the council saying it will oppose new applications there.
However, a small bar licence has been approved in Subiaco, albeit located away from the main entertainment area on the city end of Hay Street and with an 80-patron maximum.
The operator of the bar declined to comment on the licensing process.
And while the first small bar licence approved in WA was granted in Fremantle, that council has been heavily criticised by Sheryl Small, the operator of Essex Street Organic Wine Bar, for making the process extremely difficult.