Countdown heavies small towns

Last updated 05:00 01/03/2014

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A giant supermarket chain is allegedly pressuring small Kiwi towns to extend booze stores' trading hours against the communities' wishes.

One Waikato mayor says Progressive Enterprises' approach is "aggressive" and "extremely arrogant." He said his council was being bulldozed by the threat of expensive legal action which could see stores selling alcohol from 7am till 11pm.

Progressive has confirmed it is taking a national approach to enforcing 7am to 11pm opening hour, saying there isn't enough evidence of alcohol-related harm to reduce hours.

Several councils around the country are being taken to the Alcohol Regulatory and Licensing Authority by Progressive over the opening hours stipulated in their provisional local alcohol policies, many of which were adopted last year.

At the time, the medical officer of health for the Waikato District Health Board, Dr Richard Wall, put out a press release warning about the supermarkets "threatening expensive legal action," saying "it was never the intention of Parliament that big businesses call the shots."

Waipa, Thames-Coromandel, Waimakariri and Tasman District Councils are among the group while tiny Hauraki District Council is also in the sights.

Hauraki Mayor John Tregidga says the supermarket chain made it clear from the start that legal action would result if the off-licence hours were not what it wanted. This was despite the fact that Hauraki's two stores closed at 9pm anyway.

The council had proposed 9am to 9pm based on the feedback from extensive community consultation.

He says the supermarket's representative, lawyer Phillippa Clifford, left no doubt in their minds as to what the supermarket expected.

"Rather than come in with some really good information and statistics it was aggressive eyeballing and it didn't go down well with my councillors," he said.

"But quite clearly the message was ‘well look, you've just got to change it otherwise we'll see you in court."'

He said his council had worked hard to ensure its alcohol policy reflected what the community wanted. It surveyed residents while police, Population Health, Grey Power, Paeroa Community Support Trust, and Hauraki Family Violence Intervention Network all supported its subsequent draft hours (9am to 9pm). Mr Tregidga said the treatment the council had received from Progressive Enterprises was "extreme arrogance".

"Why can't they understand that the new Act specifically allowed for local times for local policies for local communities?

"They haven't even considered this community. It's not on their radar. This is about the big picture of making money."

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Mr Tregidga, who has been mayor for 9 years, says it will cost at least $20,000 just to get a lawyer onto the case, and with only 18,000 residents, and even fewer ratepayers, the community simply can't afford to get caught up in an expensive battle because the supermarket wants to sell liquor from 7am.

"Why should my 18,000 population pay $20,000 or $30,000 to defend something that I think is grossly unfair?"

The Waikato Times was not able to put the allegations to Ms Clifford because Progressive said she was not authorised to speak to media.

Minutes from the draft hearing of oral submissions show that Ms Clifford stated that "until the council provides evidence of harm related to the inappropriate or excessive use of alcohol in Hauraki between the hours of 7am to 9am, and 9pm to 11pm." Progressive Enterprises would "appeal the council's policy."

The Regulatory and Licensing Authority has confirmed that about 55 appeals have been lodged, although it cannot reveal who lodged them, and how many councils are involved.

Foodstuffs supermarket chain and various liquor chains also appear to be appealing many councils' plans around the country.

Progressive Enterprises spokeswoman Kate Porter said the company was taking a national approach to the local alcohol policies, saying that "the fundamental principle from 7 till 11 is right".

When asked why Progressives would want to appeal against what a community wanted, she replied: "You're kind of asking a difficult question, because we disagree with them, and that's kind of how it works, everybody has their view."

She said the process was a legal one, and was about evidence.

"If you position this as a them and us thing I think you're being unfair. This is a process, that is a legal process," she said.

"We believe that there isn't enough evidence that points to needing to reduce hours."

She said if Ms Clifford had come across as aggressive and arrogant to Hauraki District Council "I'd be very upset."

"We would be absolutely not happy if that was how it came across. If that's how it came across then I would be very apologetic."

She said Ms Clifford had a different recollection of the meeting, and believed it had been quite cordial.

Foodstuffs also opposed Hauraki District Councils' draft alcohol policy, wanting 7am to 9pm, and liquor chains wanted hours of 9am to 10pm. However Mr Tregidga's council was not being taken to the Authority by Foodstuffs, and he said the company had been good to deal with.

"The others were very polite, came across well, put their point across and that's what you would expect," he said.

Both Liquorland and Superliquor will appeal density provisions in Hauraki, with Superliquor wanting hours of 9am until 10pm.

Countdown, which is owned by Progressive Enterprises has 166 stores nationwide, with FreshChoice and SuperValue adding another 55.

TIMELINE

December 2012: Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act comes into effect allowing councils to set their own laws for alcohol. January 2013: Hauraki District Council resolves to develop its local alcohol policy.

May 2013: Progressive Enterprises declines to attend a stakeholder meeting with Hauraki District Council. However, two regional Countdown representatives are present. February - June 2013: Hauraki District Council consults with community.

September 2013: Progressive Enterprises opposes proposed off-licence hours, saying it will appeal unless evidence is presented showing harm from longer opening hours. September 2013: Hauraki District Council extends morning hours, hoping to avoid a legal battle, but retains original evening hours. October 2013: The Waikato District Health Board puts out a press release warning that supermarket lobbyists are pressuring local councils to be treated as a special case, saying they can be persuasive "especially when they start threatening expensive legal action." December 2013: Hauraki District Council adopts the draft policy. January 2014: Thirty day appeal process opens. February 2014: Progressive Enterprises, along with two alcohol outlets, lodges an appeal against Hauraki District's policy to the Alcohol Regulatory and Licensing Authority. Yesterday: Local Government New Zealand sends out an email to councils informing them that supermarkets and liquor chain stores are the main appellants to policies. It informs them that rural and provincial councils are receiving appeals for off-licence hours beyond current operation hours.

- Waikato Times

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