Wellington City Council lays down the law to police over Courtenay Place bars
Wellington City Council has given a stern warning to police about their attempts to change bar hours, reminding them that 4am closing means just that.
Councillors made the public declaration on Wednesday, against a backdrop of rising tensions between the police and bar owners in the Courtenay Place party zone.
Wellington adheres to the national "default" trading hours for on-licence premises set by the Government, which allow bars and restaurants to sell alcohol until 4am.
But some bars owners believe the police are trying to set new rules by opposing CBD liquor licences unless bars agree to more restricted trading hours.
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Councillor Paul Eagle, who chairs the community, sport and recreation committee, said there was a feeling the District Licensing Committee was being "pressured" by police and health officials, who were not "acting in the spirit" of the laws as they were currently written.
"We needed to send a signal to all of our stakeholders that this is our policy," he said.
The council has left the door open to revisiting drinking hours later in the year, after it has collected more data on alcohol harm.
But the decision to wait has disappointed police.
Wellington area commander Inspector Chris Bensemann said there was little point in the council "sitting on its hands", as it was plain to see there was a problem with drunk and disorderly people in Courtenay Place in the early hours.
"There needs to be an acceptance that there is alcohol harm in our community," he said. "We have to move forward with this, and we have to be courageous. If we just throw our hands up in the air and say it's too hard, that would be sad."
Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown asked Bensemann to back up his claim with statistics, saying the council preferred to base its decisions on good data.
But Bensemann said statistics tended to be overanalysed. His officers were on the ground in Courtenay Place, and did not need stats to tell them that too many people were getting drunk and "looking for trouble".
"Believe me, it is real," he said. "Alcohol harm in Courtenay Place is real. I regularly experience it, and my staff experience it, every weekend."
Wade-Brown replied that the council preferred to base its decisions on solid data.
NEW POLICY POSSIBLE
The council tried to introduce a Local Alcohol Policy in 2013 that would have allowed 5am closing for CBD bars. But the Alcohol Regulatory and Licensing Authority rejected the plan in 2015 after police and health officials opposed it.
Councillors were told on Wednesday that a report on alcohol harm would be completed in November, at which point a discussion could be had about whether a new Local Alcohol Policy was needed.
Robert Brewer, chief executive of Spirits New Zealand, said the default hours of 4am were working well.
Research showed Kiwis were drinking less pure alcohol these days, suggesting talk of a booze problem in central Wellington was overblown.
Hospitality Association Wellington branch president Jeremy Smith pointed to statistics that showed Wellington Hospital ED admissions "dropped off significantly" after 3am.
Councillor Jo Coughlan, who is in charge of economic development, agreed it was the council's role to determine trading hours, and those decisions should be based on solid data that showed whether current hours were a problem.
Wellington's "late-night economy" was a significant contributor to the city's coffers, and the council needed to make sure it thrived, she said.
The council agreed on Wednesday to renew an initiative of hosting regular quarterly meetings between the police and hospitality stakeholders to discuss how best to tackle alcohol issues.