27 May 2021

Supermarkets' fight against alcohol limits costing ratepayers

From Checkpoint, 5:37 pm on 27 May 2021

Ratepayers are on the hook for legal bills totalling $1 million and counting as Auckland Council fights for a temporary ban on downtown bottle stores.

Council and court papers obtained by Checkpoint shed light on the stoush between Auckland Council and the country's big two supermarket chains.

Countdown's owners Woolworths and rivals Foodstuffs are unhappy with proposals in the Provisional Local Alcohol Policy, such as reduced hours and a freeze on new off-licences.

But a senior police officer says he has seen enough, and something must be done to curb the fight club mentality on Auckland's streets.

Inspector Gary Davey, area commander for central Auckland, told Checkpoint his colleagues working the beat were dealing with at least one coward punch every weekend.

"[That's] where people have been knocked out and then ended up hitting their head on concrete, those sorts of things," he said.

"And causing significant injury, or concussion, or even brain damage."

Drunken violence in central Auckland is booming, according to Inspector Davey. Post-lockdown, the number of assaults in the CBD is higher than it was before the Covid-19 pandemic.

"Defined as a coward's punch is where someone's stepped in and just unexpectedly just hit somebody," he said.

"But there's also an increase in serious assaults, where they're just generally fighting and assaulting people."

Inspector Davey said he was dealing with serious assaults on central Auckland police officers on a weekly basis.

He supported earlier closing times in the CBD, as well as the proposed 24-month CBD off-licence ban.

"We just see far too much violence," Davey said.

"Far too many people either lose their lives or are seriously injured in alcohol-related harm and very often it's unprovoked gratuitous violence."

And for nearly a decade, Auckland Council has been trying to do just that.

But getting its Provisional Local Alcohol Policy across the line has turned into a legal nightmare.

Its latest stoush with supermarket giants Foodstuffs and Woolworths is heading for the Court of Appeal in the coming months.

And information obtained by Checkpoint shows ratepayers are paying the price - legal fees have reached $1 million and counting. 

That is just the external cost - Auckland Council says it does not have data or estimates of the cost in money or labour to develop the Local Alcohol Plan.

Retail NZ chief executive Greg Harford heads an organisation that lobbied for the likes of Foodstuffs and Woolworths.

"The whole alcohol policy process really has been a total shambles from the beginning," he said.

Court documents supplied to Checkpoint show the supermarket giants have a problem with specific elements of Auckland's Local Alcohol policy, like maximum trading hours, including 9pm for off-licences and a temporary, 24-month freeze on new off-licenses.

The High Court has sided with the supermarket chains. It found largely against the Alcohol and Regulatory Licensing Authority's process and failure to provide reasons for measures like restricted hours.

Harford suggested the local alcohol policy should be chucked out.

"We need to have that conversation nationally and consistently and it should be led by central government," he said.

But what about Inspector Davey's reports of alcohol-fuelled violence in downtown Auckland?

This week, Checkpoint also reported the experiences of central Auckland Māori warden patrols, who says alcohol-fuelled fights and a turf war mentality are becoming more and more prevalent on Auckland's streets late at night.

Harford said those issues were down to personal behaviour.

"Controlling the supply side of alcohol is one part of the equation, but it's also really important to look at the other side of it and that is the way people behave when they consume alcohol," he said.

"And fundamentally you've kind of got to ask the question if it's no longer an offence to be drunk and disorderly in a public place, why not?"

Woolworths refused to comment when contacted.

In a statement, Foodstuffs said it was willing to sit down and negotiate a middle ground with Auckland Council, adding it would be amenable to considering the restriction of alcohol sales after 10pm.