Every year leading alcohol and other drug researchers and healthcare professionals from Australia and around the world gather for the Australasian Professional Society on Alcohol and other Drugs (APSAD) Conference.
The Centre for Alcohol Policy Research (CAPR) – a joint initiative of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE), the Victorian Department of Health, Turning Point, and the University of Melbourne – once again showcased its valuable contributions to alcohol policy research at this years APSAD Conference in Adelaide.
CAPR PhD candidate Ms Claire Wilkinson presented on a new study which has found the majority of local governments do not have a local planning policy for licensed premises. Here she shares her preliminary findings with Drink Tank.
My research interests include the role that local governments play in regulating alcohol-related harm, with my latest project revealing that Victorian local government alcohol plans are weak, vague and largely non-existent.
In 2012, the Victorian Auditor General recommended that ‘The Department of Planning and Community Development should create a model local planning policy for licensed premises; and require councils to adopt a local planning policy for licensed premises where there is a particular need or concern.’
Two years on, I decided to undertake an analysis of the 79 local governments in Victoria to determine the extent to which they had a policy for licensed alcohol premises.
Despite greater attention to the potential of planning policies to reduce alcohol-related harms, two years after the Auditor General’s recommendation I observed that the vast majority (64%) of Victorian local governments did not have a local policy regarding licensed premises in their planning scheme.
The study found that of the 79 local government planning policies examined, only five of them have an alcohol outlet planning policy: Bendigo, Yarra, Melbourne, Moonee Valley and Stonington. These policies were still of a very narrow focus, predominantly addressing only noise, patron safety inside venues and opening hours.
Very few Victorian councils actually have an alcohol outlet planning policy, and of the five that do, they don’t take into account the density of liquor licencing in their local area or consider the alcohol harms that are being experienced on their streets, suburbs and presenting in their hospitals.
In addition to revealing the low adoption of local policies for regulating licensed venues seen across Victoria, my research also demonstrated that planning policies are very limited as a regulatory tool in comparison to liquor licensing legislation.
The current nature of the planning policies themselves means they are highly subjective and carry no statutory weight. For instance, the absence of absolute thresholds describing what constitutes a ‘significant’ or ‘unreasonable’ impact means the policies are largely left open to interpretation. Furthermore while they offer a guide for decision making, the planning policies do not actually provide local councils with the power to absolutely refuse a liquor permit for a licensed premise in a specific place.
I found that the emphasis on planning seen in recent years in Victoria is consistent with what has been argued elsewhere: municipalities use the planning system when they have very little power to influence the state-based licensing system.
Disappointingly, planning policies are only being seen as a ‘last resort’ or ‘way around the system’ for municipalities to have input into liquor licensing decisions, and very few Victorian local governments have enacted alcohol outlet planning policies.
Local governments should play an important role in approving both off and on premise liquor licenses, and therefore regulating alcohol-related harms in their jurisdiction.
In light of these research findings, there is evidently substantial room for improvements within the current Victorian state-based liquor licensing system and the local planning policy models available to municipalities.
Ms Claire Wilkinson presented the preliminary findings of ‘Planning policies to prevent problems related to alcohol outlets: Experience in Victorian municipalities’, the full paper of which is forthcoming, at the 2014 APSAD Conference held in Adelaide on Tuesday 11 November.