Drink Tank

Huntlee Tavern pub proposal

It is disappointing that the first Development Application (DA) for the new Huntlee suburb in the Cessnock Local Government Area (LGA) was a large two-storey late trading (3am) pokie pub incorporating a bottle shop and bistro located in the town centre “segregated” from the residential area.

One would have thought that social infrastructure such as child minding, medical facilities, and supermarkets would be a priority, but we are assured by the unknown owners that the liquor and gambling outlet will be “family friendly”. It is also proposed to include “children’s play rooms”.

Cessnock council refused to identify the proponent of the new public house to protect their “privacy”. The community is subsequently deprived of any knowledge and capacity to make thoughtful submissions of the proponent’s management experience in running large pubs, their track record of compliance with liquor laws, the amount of violence occurring within their other outlets or linked to the same and, whether they have been issued with any “strikes” under the New South Wales Government’s disciplinary scheme.

For all Huntlee’s prospective residents and families may know, this proposed large late trading pokie pub could be owned and managed by any number of well-known Kings Cross nightclub colourful identities.

Another concern is the risk of DA “banking” that occurs where the proponent has no intention of immediately commencing and completing the development. This could unfairly deprive the vast majority of Huntlee residents who settle in the new town after the DA is approved, any legitimate say in the location, size, hours, proximity to schools and other risk conditions of the hotel and bottle shop.

DA banking can also deliver windfall gains to a developer without one spade place in the dirt.

Since when have pokies and keeping pubs open to 3am been “good” for “families”?

It’s possible that the proposed pub could have up to 30 pokies. Poker machine gambling is by far the major and easiest source of income for clubs and pubs.

However, poker machines have been designed to mesmerise and addict players. The Productivity Commission found that up to 60 per cent of players become “problem” gamblers – they spend non-discretionary family income feeding their acquired insatiable gambling addiction.

The Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority (ILGA) revealed poker machine turnover (money in and out) in Cessnock LGA was over $303 million dollars for 2015/16. This is equivalent to $366,000 per machine or $7,233 per person over the age of 17 in the same area. Around 15 per cent of the turnover represents unrecoverable losses to the player.

In a testament to the power of the New South Wales gambling industry including Clubs NSW, local councils are prohibited from considering the negative social impact of poker machines for any DA.

Despite being immediately powerless, Cessnock council should be under no illusion of the magnitude of harm this inflicts upon the most vulnerable members of their city.

Huntlee is surrounded by pockets of significant social disadvantage.

For instance, the rate of domestic assaults in the LGA is 1.7 times the New South Wales average and alcohol is a catalyst for much of this violence. Alcohol misuse increases the severity and frequency of family violence.

The independent research evidence recognised by the NSW Land and Environment Court relating to alcohol harm, including serving alcohol past midnight, is clear but appears to be ignored in the Social Impact Assessment accompanying the DA.

Increasing the number of liquor outlets and trading past midnight, particularly in areas of disadvantage, is likely to have a significant negative social impact. Something that cannot be effectively mitigated by existing sporadic enforcement activities and traditional Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) practices.

The proponent’s assertion that harms will be minimised because of the segregation between the town centre and residences overlooks the obvious that many patrons will drive to their new local pub to play the pokies, get drunk and utilise the “drive through” bottle shop.

This pub proposal includes the trifecta for likely significant negative social impact – size, late trading to 3am and a bottle shop, not to forget pokies.

With a new suburb should come a new approach from Cessnock Council in the way it assesses the social impact of liquor related DAs to ensure a safe and genuinely “family friendly” community for the prospective 22,000 residents of Huntlee.

Councils can no longer simply rely on the predictable hype, alternative facts, and unqualified alleged benefits accompanying these types of DAs.

A recent landmark decision by the NSW Land and Environment Court involving the ultimate rejection of a similar proposed large problematic pub in Casula provides an encouraging pathway for councils, and other government agencies including the police, to work with communities to prevent the scourge of alcohol and gambling-related harms arising through the planning process.

Tony Brown

Tony Brown is a PhD (Law) Scholar, Conjoint Fellow School of Medicine and Public Health, University of Newcastle. He is the Chairperson of the Newcastle and Hunter Region Multicultural Drug Action Teams. He voluntarily led and represented around 150 local residents, small businesses and concerned citizens in the complex legal proceedings initiated by the Police that led to the “Newcastle conditions”.

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