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Liquor licences still out of reach for small Sydney bars

Liquor licences still out of reach for small Sydney bars
by Nadia Saccardo

Last June Sydney drinkers were celebrating an impending revolution. The NSW Liquor Act was about to be modified to include City of Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore’s Small Bars Bill. This amendment would reduce the cost of small venue liquor licences from over $15,000 to $500, while streamlining the application process to encourage small business. However, almost a year later, little has changed. Only four new bar applications have been approved and hundreds are waiting.

A combination of processing delays at the City of Sydney council and staffing issues at the state government run Office of Liquor, Gaming and Racing (OLGR) make applying for a small bar licence unaffordable for many entrepreneurs. Changing the law simply wasn’t, and isn’t, enough.

“When I heard the news that licences in Sydney were going to be $500, I moved up here straight away,” says Cameron Reid, who, with business partner Jack Brown, moved from Melbourne to capitalise on the new laws. “We couldn’t find any good sites in Melbourne. Here, opportunity is everywhere.” After six and a half months, Reid is still waiting on a liquor licence. He still hopes to open his Oxford Street bar in late May.

“There are two difficult things,” says Robert Barton, who is struggling to obtain a development approval for a Darlinghurst site. “One is to get your development approval from the City of Sydney, and the other is to get your liquor licence from the OLGR.”

“What’s been frustrating is that council have not processed our DA in the standard 40 days. Then there’s the liquor licence. First you have a 30-day Community Impact Statement (CIS) period, after which the OLGR take your CIS information and post it online for a further 30 days. It’s not until that 60 days is up that they actually start processing your application, which can take up to four months.” The OLGR was not available for comment.

“Changing the laws is only the first small step. The new process is not perfect but it’s a thousand times better than the old one,” argues Jonathan Larkin, a former media officer at City of Sydney and member of grass roots lobby group Raise The Bar which rallied for the changes. “I’ve often said to people that these changes would take a long, long time.”

For start-up businesses however, the delays represent a significant financial hurdle in the form of rent. Each week that passes with applications tied up in council bureaucracy means small businesses burning their capital. “Rent is a real problem,” admits Larkin. "If local governments want to support a new small bar culture, they need to make sure that this wait is minimised as much as possible."

While liquor licences are cheaper, Reid, Barton and Larkin agree that the wait times are too risky for small businesses trying to start something new while paying rent. Changing the law was one thing, changing council and state government processes – that’s another. The latter must now be addressed if Sydney is serious about raising the bar.


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All these paperwork and time

Nadia, this is a very interesting op-piece to discuss how the NSW government has executed its policies and laws to develop small bar business in Sydney. And according to what you've said, I believe that they have not quite done yet.

I see the small bar business is a well-established business here and still has certain potential. And it was a good intention for the local government to lower the application fee and to encourage more people start their own business. But the result so far does not seem so well. Apparently all these paperwork and time are costing too much.

Having said that, I have to admit that I am really "impressed" by the working effectiveness of Australian government. I remember I have been waiting for almost four months after I lodged my visa application to get the visa label attached, with all fees paid and all documents included initially. Finally they appoved me two days before the semester started and I ended up missing the first few days of classes.

I am not criticizing that following the rules and protocols is bad, it somehow reflects that you are treating your work very seriously. However, once there are changes have been made, the work efficiency should also be improved. Like the law changes in small bar business, which for sure will bring up the number of applications. If there is still no improvements in other parts, then the lowered fees will just be an intriguing but useless number.

Small minds blocking small businesses

I believe that Nadia's argument is stated clearly: Sydney needs to streamline its process for approving new bars. However, I think that this is just the tip of the iceberg. The bar industry is only one segment of all small businesses that suffer when government enacts empty reforms.

As Nadia points out, changing the law was one thing. However, Sydney cannot reasonably expect business owners to commit capital when the launch date for a venture can be perpetually unresolved due to paperwork. This is simply not good business practice.

Although the bar industry deals with a sensitive product - the public distribution and consumption of alcohol - this may not be an isolated incident. Thus, Sydney officials must focus on every existing process for fostering the growth of small businesses.

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