Calder At Large

Peter Calder on life in New Zealand

Peter Calder: Bakery bunfight over street seats

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Shopowner wants to provide a place to rest and hopefully lure customers, but council insists it has to charge.

Philippa Stephenson says the council fees are "just about the money". Photo / Richard Robinson
Philippa Stephenson says the council fees are "just about the money". Photo / Richard Robinson

So far - but who knows for how much longer? - the creeping hand of gentrification has not throttled the life out of the Surrey Cres shops.

This small bit of Great North Rd at the top of Chinaman's Hill recalls old Grey Lynn. The dairy sells a lot of taro and the junk shop is new-born but old-school.

Philippa Stephenson had old-school ideas when she opened Tart, which is what we used to call a home cookery. Instead of Grey Lynn standards like double-decaf sourdough with shaved fennel, she does pigs in a blanket and caramel squares and those colourful cupcakes that kids love.

Stephenson, who greets you in a cheerful piping soprano, cares about her customers, and not just because it makes good business sense.

When she plonked a $20 plastic table and a couple of chairs outside the door, she had in mind someone who might have just bought a bun. But she didn't care if anyone else sat there.

She was mindful that there is no streetside seating anywhere near her shop, which is midway between two blocks of pensioner flats and two schools and only a few doors from a busy medical practice.

"If you were waiting for your prescription at the chemist or you were lost and you just wanted to catch your breath, it didn't matter to me," she says. "I'm a nice person. I just want you to be happy."

The table and chairs did not make the council happy, however. A few weeks later, she was approached by a council street trading officer, who required her to remove them or complete the necessary paperwork.

"Of course, I promptly ignored him," says Stephenson, "because I thought no one is going to be bothered. But he came back with a piece of paper and he made it plain that if I didn't get rid of it right then and there, he'd take away the table or fine me or both."

She removed the table forthwith - as did the folks at the fish and chip shop down the way who "got pinged at the same time".

What happened next is a matter of some dispute. Stephenson says that she was told by another council officer, whose business card she gives me, that she would have to pay $4000 to make the table legal: it would be $2000 for a building consent to ensure that the awning would not collapse on the hapless seated bun-eater and another $2000 for a resource consent to prove that the table would not "impinge on the street environment".

"It's maddening," she says. "It's nothing to do with safety; it's just about the money."

The business card Stephenson gave me belongs to one of the environmental health officers - those are the people who sniff out cockroaches in eating houses and slap D grades on them (Philippa has an A). As far as I can deduce, something may have got lost in translation (the officer's native language is not English).

Adrian Wilson, the council's team leader for bylaws and compliance in the central area, says no one intended to convey the impression that all that extensive and expensive paperwork was required.

"The street trading officer told her that if she wanted the table and chairs, she needed to get a street trading permit. She would put them away and he would come back the following week and she had put them out again. So he obviously escalated it a little bit and gave her a written warning."

Wilson says that street trading permits are "not generally" given to takeaway businesses but the council is flexible and the fee would be $179 to lodge an application and $70 per square metre per year - which would mean less than $5 a week for Tart.

He says the council has to control the use of public land and keep pavements clear, which sounds fair enough. But you can't help wondering how consistent this all is.

Shop pavement displays, which are permitted without charge, regularly exceed the permitted 600mm. Dairies commonly have half a dozen standing signs advertising they are open, each bearing the logo of a major company whose products are on sale within. None of these is paying for the use of public space.

Stephenson admits she set up the table "so you will come along and eat one of my buns". But when she gets her permit she'll be paying to provide a public amenity too. I'm not sure that's entirely fair.

- NZ Herald

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