Only a decade ago, all-night bars were touted as an essential part of a vibrant and dynamic Auckland. It was also hoped that being able to socialise in the city at any hour would prompt a civilised and mature environment. How times have changed. The Auckland Council's proposed local alcohol policy, which is set to be approved for public consultation today, represents a further step in the opposite direction. In the main, it is also a reasonable response to the drunken disorder and violence that is making life so difficult for the police and hospital emergency departments.
The council policy, a product of last year's Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act, would see central-city bars, pubs and restaurants closing at 3am, an hour earlier than now, while those in the suburbs, including Newmarket and Parnell, would close at 1am. Sales of liquor at bottle stores and supermarkets would have to stop at 10pm, also an hour earlier than at present. This has been greeted with predictable outrage by the Hospitality Association, which describes the policy as "draconian".
Police and hospital staff will have a very different view. So will those who want to be able to walk the streets of the inner city in the early hours without feeling their safety threatened by those too immature to handle liquor. Such people will not be swayed by claims that this policy flies in the face of council marketing about "the show that never stops", or that it will somehow detract from Auckland's reputation as a tourist destination.
This type of criticism is advanced most vociferously by those who stand to profit from extended opening hours. In fact, it is hard to see how a switch in closing from 4am to 3am will have much impact at all on drinkers. A small relieving of the pressure on the police will be the main outcome.
Indeed, the policy could easily have been more restrictive if the council had heeded what is happening in Australia, which has a similar problem with alcohol-fuelled violence. There, the city of Newcastle has created a widely admired model that has cut the number of assaults near pubs and bars. It includes 3am closing, but with bars not able to admit new patrons after 1am. The Auckland police want the same one-way door policy as a means of keeping people at one premise and having them leave in dribs and drabs, thereby curbing the potential for disturbances. The council policy does not include this sensible provision, however.
What it does do, rather unfairly, is penalise suburban pubs, bars and restaurants. The requirement for them to close at 1am targets small establishments that, by and large, are the source of little trouble. Most of them, perhaps tourist areas like Parnell apart, will not have many patrons by 1am, but people who are there should be able to get a drink if they wish. There is no valid reason to accord inner-city nightlife a greater tolerance than that in the suburbs. Indeed, any difference simply encourages people to drive from suburban bars to the inner city, creating the potential for road accidents and greater disorder.
Critics suggest the council policy will result in Auckland being seen as a nanny city. They note that Wellington has adopted 5am closing. But the whole point of local policies is that they meet local circumstances. Auckland's does that.
The critics ignore the widespread feeling that a culture of liquor excess must be tackled. If that means the pleasure and convenience of the majority must suffer a smidgen because of the lack of self-control of the minority, so be it. Any change ushered in by the council policy will not be dramatic; a vibrant entertainment scene will remain. But it will be a step in the right direction.