It is not difficult to feel averse to plans for a 15-level structure that will house a brothel opposite the Sky Tower. The sequence of events that led to the demolition of the historic Palace Hotel, on which site this building will stand, has left a bad taste in the mouth. The Chow brothers' marketing of their proposed high-rise will also have won them few friends. They have brazenly highlighted the brothel's presence, rather than discreetly promoting a building in which this would be merely one of a wide range of activities. Put all that aside, however, and it becomes difficult to object to the project.
A report by Auckland Council officials says that commercial sex premises fall within the range of commercial and entertainment facilities permitted under the district plan. Indeed, in some ways, the proposed high-rise seems an appropriate neighbour for Sky City. But the latter's reservations, and those of others, including Auckland's Catholic leader, have given the Auckland Council second thoughts about leaving decisions on the project's resource consent to officials. Guidance on whether the Chow brothers' application should be notified, allowing the public to have a say, has, therefore, been sought.
This points, again, to inconsistencies in council planning processes. According to regional and local planning manager Penny Pirrit, council policy allocates decision-making responsibility among elected members, independent commissioners and staff. This may seem a way to react to specific circumstances, such as when a proposal attracts controversy. But it is also apt to create confusion in the public mind. There are echoes here of the recent to-ing and fro-ing over consent for the demolition of a historic Freemans Bay cottage. The upshot is a dwindling of people's confidence in the council's planning procedures.
The dilly-dallying over the Chow brothers' proposal also highlights the difficulty involved in virtually any issue raised by prostitution. The 2003 Prostitution Reform Act decriminalised the sex industry in an attempt to make it safer for participants, while also awarding greater control of the trade to local councils. They, in the interests of the community, can regulate the location of brothels, restricting them to areas least likely to give offence. But the same law also decreed that street workers could no longer be arrested for soliciting. They could ply their trade anywhere, no matter the amount of offence.
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The consequences of this first surfaced in a 2005 bill relating to the Manukau City Council, which sought to address street prostitution near residential areas. It did not gain sufficient parliamentary support. Further, an Auckland City Council bylaw effectively banning brothels from residential areas and within 250m of schools and churches was torpedoed by a High Court judgment. It was found to undermine the intentions of the 2003 act. Now, the Auckland Council is trying again through a bill that would allow it to ban street prostitution in specific places.
This will see familiar arguments recycled. It will also confirm there are no easy answers. The intent of the Prostitution Reform Act must be acknowledged. The legal controls and security benefits must not be undone through resort to a past approach which forced the oldest profession underground and placed workers and the community at greater risk. Any new laws need to be enforceable, a probable impediment for councils wishing to drive all brothels out of residential areas.
It is important that any new approaches do not simply move a problem elsewhere, potentially creating risks for other communities. Outlawing soliciting in certain public places need not be so all-encompassing as to cause that. In that context, the Auckland Council's latest quest for parliamentary approval to control some streets does not seem unreasonable.