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Licensing court between business and residents

LIQUOR licensing is becoming an increasingly contentious issue for Perth’s inner-city areas.

Proprietors of licensed premises say they are finding it difficult to maintain viable trading hours and provide entertainment to patrons.

Among their gripes are the ongoing battles with residents, local authorities, the police and even the health department.

Complaints lodged by residents against existing premises have risen three-fold in the past four years, according to a leading liquor licence lawyer.

And while most complaints do not result in any curtailment of the liquor licence, proprietors often face thousands of dollars in legal fees just to maintain the status quo.

The complaints are usually lodged when a proprietor applies for a renewal of their extended trading permit (ETP). For a majority of operators, this takes place every one or two years.

Recent objections to ETPs include The Hyde Park Hotel, Cheviot Hotel in Fremantle, Franklins Tavern in East Victoria Park, and the Office Nightclub in Northbridge.

Noise complaints are also common.

A series of noise complaints have been lodged since the completion of the Old Swan Brewery complex – a successful development where the licensed traders were part of the lifestyle pitch to prospective high net worth residents.

The battle to get a new licence appears even tougher and can cost up to $250,000, a figure largely spent on legal fees as the proprietor mounts his or her case for the new venture.

It is believed a recent liquor licensing court hearing into the Bailey At Centro tavern licence application cost the potential tavern developer up to $100,000.

The application was denied based on noise evidence, even though residents who purchased apartments adjacent to the tavern did so with the knowledge and support of the tavern’s operation.

Some in the industry point to the 1998 changes to WA’s liquor licence laws, whereby a single resident could bring a complaint against a licensed premise rather than a previous requirement of 10 residents.

A recent complaint lodged against the Hyde Park Hotel, its first complaint in the Higgins family’s 25-year ownership, cost proprietor Paul Higgins thousands.

“It is a bit ridiculous because all you need is one person to object,” Mr Higgins said.

“Look what happened to the Grosvenor (located four blocks from Perth Town Hall). They had one person complain all the time and that’s killed that business.

“We’ve never had a problem. This is the first complaint we have had and we might have had to go to [liquor licensing] court, all because of one person.”

The complainant, it seems, was concerned about changes in the hotel’s operation over the past decade and that in particular the front bar had become much nosier.

“If the application was uncontested I accept that it is likely a new permit would have been determined on the papers, that is, without a hearing,” WA director of liquor licensing Hugh Highman said at the hearing.

Mr Highman concluded that the disturbance to the residents was infrequent and were on the “lower end of the disturbance scale”. He granted the ETP.

The ETP was subsequently granted, but the process cost Mr Higgins $7,000.

Hospitality proprietor Kate Lamont, who among other ventures operates Lamont’s East Perth, has been forced to modify her restaurant operation to appease neighbours in an area that has been touted as a model for inner-city living.

Ms Lamont believes many residents moving into inner-city areas do not appreciate the fact that such areas are inherently nosier than the suburbs.

“There are trade offs and people need to expect certain things when they move into inner city,” Ms Lamont said.

“I think we’re going through a bit of a period at the moment where perhaps some residents don’t understand what happens in the inner-city area. Ultimately there is going to be noise.

“I am optimistic, though. I think that at the end of the day different kinds of people will move in and increased awareness of inner-city living will result.

“The pendulum has swung to residents and that is problematic because commercial operators will move out or change their operation and the level of activity in the area will decrease. Ultimately the sense of why people wanted to live there in the first place will change.”

Compounding the issue is the ease with which residents can voice complaints to the liquor licensing authority, with little cost and no independent evaluations of the concerns.

According to liquor licensing lawyers interviewed by WA Business News, a large number of complaints take place when hotel and tavern operators, with year or two-year-long ETPs, apply for a new permit.

Several of those lawyers, and the Australian Hotels Association, believe ETPs should be granted to a licence holder indefinitely unless there are noticeable problems with the operator or premise.

They believe it would free-up the liquor licensing system and reduce costs to proprietors.

Freehills partner Tony van Merwyk said even though a licensee had proved a public interest argument to secure extended trading hours, they were required to fight that case almost on a yearly basis.

“It gives people a forum to come and complain whereas in a lot of other areas you get your licence and unless there are any problems it continues on,” Mr van Merwyk said.

“I’m firmly of the view that if you put up the case to open until 1am because of the public need then you should be able to continue to operate those hours for five or 10 years, or why not indefinitely?”

Australian Hotels Association executive director Bradley Woods said ETPs were becoming harder to obtain and should be granted on an indefinite basis.

“ETPs should be permanent or at least have a minimum period of five years. It shouldn’t be reviewed annually. If there is a problem with the licensee then there can be a hearing,” Mr Woods said.

“The issue is the annual application process costs the government money in time and resources, it costs the court in time and resources and it costs the licensee in time, resources and money.

“This is an individual approach by the director who will issue them for one year only when there is nothing in the policy to grant it for five years.”

Problems between residents and licensees are likely to increase, according to the lawyers, proprietors and even the director of liquor licensing.

“There is a potential for greater conflict to occur,” Mr Highman said.  “The licensing authority, however, is working with local government authorities in developing strategies to reduce the level of noise emanating from licensed premises.”

The Old Swan Brewery has installed a sound monitor costing approximately $6,000 to try and alleviate tension between its restaurant and bar operations and residents in the apartments above.

What then does the future hold for WA’s hospitality industry? Will operating a tavern, late night bar, or inner-city restaurant only be available to those backed with decent capital, or will our inner city drinking holes begin to disappear, forcing more people to entertain at home?

The latter is starting to occur, according to the Western Australian Music Industry Association, which wants to create better planning guidelines to help revitalise the fledging entertainment industry in WA.

WAM executive director Paul Bodlovich said the State Government’s promotion of culture and the arts was at odds with the liquor licensing laws.

“The Government is talking about cultural tourism as a priority and having a State that encourages cultural activity and vibrancy. In terms of arts, contemporary music stands out as something we do really well but there is none of that spirit in the legislation,” he said.

Mr Bodlovich said the association would like to see entertainment precincts where operators had stronger protection in legislation.

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