A group pushing for change to sale-of-liquor laws in West Auckland is now on the verge of gaining enough signatures to force a referendum. As things stand, the community-owned Portage and Waitakere Licensing Trusts (commonly known as "The Trusts") have a lock on bar and bottle-store sales in most of West Auckland - meaning no beer or wine in supermarkets or independent liquor chains, and few pubs not controlled by The Trusts. Should Westies vote to end the Trusts' monopoly? The Herald asked The Trusts CEO Allan Pollard (below) and Trusts Action spokesman Nick Smale to put their respective cases. Read Smale's pitch here.
West Auckland is in a privileged position by being asked to think about possible change.
In weighing up the decision to vote to remove the monopoly rights or not, the West Auckland community needs to understand what happens now and what a change would lead to.
Under the current settings, we have a community-controlled model for the responsible sale and supply of alcohol in off-licence retail outlets and under tavern licences. A wide range of other providers can sell alcohol as well, including online retailers, breweries, cellar doors, bar restaurants, clubs and cafes.
We have the flexibility to introduce more choice in the current model. We recently announced a partnership with Liquorland that will see four Liquorland outlets open and operate with Liquorland's national promotional pricing and its core product range. This will give our customers even greater choice and introduce New Zealand's number one Flybuys and Airpoints loyalty programmes to the stores.
We can also upgrade, change and improve hospitality offerings that we operate under tavern licences. In the next 12 months we will significantly upgrade three venues, and there is a longer-term refurbishment plan in place for the rest of the hospitality portfolio. We are also actively pursuing new opportunities to increase our hospitality portfolio with modern pubs that are firmly focused on the future.
We can work to control our operating costs to increase the profit we use to support community initiatives, which we are also doing.
It is easy to claim this debate is just about changing what happens. But it is really about choosing the kind of community we want to live in, and whether or not we want to create wider social benefits from our local businesses.
In the current model, what we are striving to deliver is a community where people can access alcohol for their enjoyment, but with some safeguards in place so that we don't create, or exacerbate, alcohol-related problems. And we also share the surplus profits generated in our businesses back to the community. Since 2019 we have distributed over $6 million back to our communities from our West Auckland Trusts, there would be many regions in New Zealand very grateful for this kind of ongoing support.
So, what would change look like?
You would be likely to see alcohol in supermarkets, and maybe some hospitality operators would explore the viability of new tavern-licensed venues in the community.
What you would also see is an explosion in standalone bottle stores.
A recent Radio New Zealand interview with Alcohol Health Watch noted that over 80 per cent of alcohol in New Zealand is purchased from off-licences. License data shows that just under half of the 965 off-licences in the Auckland district licensing region are bottle stores.
In my previous role at Masterton Licensing Trust, I was informed by the then long-standing CEO and President of the impact from the loss of the region's monopoly rights. Practically overnight, there was a significant increase in bottle stores and all supermarkets in the area applied for liquor licences which were approved by council.
The profit from the new venues that opened went straight back to the large companies and owner/operators (some from overseas). Masterton outlets experienced a significant decline in sales and in the value that it could deliver back to the community.
There is nothing in the current debate and nothing about West Auckland that suggests we would experience a different outcome.
In a climate where more questions are being asked than they ever have before about whether New Zealand's alcohol sales regulatory settings are fit for purpose – to the point where the Minister of Justice himself has indicated the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act 2012 needs review – it certainly seems out of step to be calling for a more relaxed approach in West Auckland.
Removing the licensing trust model is an irreversible choice with long term consequences around access to alcohol and community benefits.
It is a big decision, and one that we encourage the citizens of West Auckland to consider carefully, by listening to all sides of the arguments.
The current model is not perfect, but we are working hard to improve, and we remain steadfastly committed to our reason for being, which is to ensure the responsible sale and supply of alcohol in West Auckland on behalf of the community and the return of surplus profit back into the community.
- Allan Pollard is chief executive of West Auckland Trust Services.