“Get the balance right”: council urges government changes before it ends 1am licence “freeze”
The City of Melbourne has urged the state government to make key policy changes before it ends a 13-year freeze on new late-night venues in Docklands.
Councillors urged the government to discard the policy that allowed most new Docklands bars to operate “as of right” without a permit, and to clarify its definition of “noise sensitive areas” before it follows through with a pre-election promise that would likely pave the way for more local venues remaining open until 3am.
From July 1, a policy that prevents new liquor licences in Docklands and the CBD from serving alcohol beyond 1am will be lifted.
Since 2010, bars and other late-night venues wishing to trade beyond this time have required a special ministerial exemption.
The move was implemented by the former Brumby government as a way to tackle alcohol-related harm and crime in inner-Melbourne.
However, from July 1 no such exemption will be required after Premier Daniel Andrews vowed to “supercharge the creation of new venues” prior to re-election in November, part of which included a removal of the current freeze in a move it is understood surprised the council.
At the March 21 Future Melbourne Committee meeting, councillors urged the government to implement two key changes to the planning policy before the looming deadline.
The first was to ensure all new late-night venues in Docklands required a planning permit — as they do in the CBD — and weren’t granted one “as of right”.
“There is no strong rationale as to why bars and nightclubs require a planning permit in the Capital City Zone but not in most precincts in the Docklands Zone,” an earlier motion by Cr Rohan Leppert had read.
This motion also stated that, “The ‘as of right’ uses in most precincts in the Docklands Zone limit the ability of council to apply the local planning policy.”
The second move was to provide a concrete definition of “noise sensitive areas”, something that the current policy does not feature, which had “given rise to frequent dispute”.
The council recommended that the definition reflected EPA regulations which defined noise sensitive areas as “within 10 metres of a wall of an accommodation use”.
Deputy Lord Mayor and planning chair Nicholas Reece said he was wary of the government’s impending move.
“I do want to assert, in the clearest possible terms, that there are risks associated with lifting liquor licences to 3am in the city,” he said.
“The difference between 1am and 3am may only be two hours on the clock, but it can be a lifetime of difference when you’re having a night out on the town.”
In the 10 years to 2021, the residential population of Docklands and the CBD more than doubled from 28,011 to an estimated 59,765.
“There’s been huge change in the complexion of the central city over the last decade, so we need to respond to that. The state government cannot be blind to that in setting the regulatory terms,” Cr Reece said.
Since Docklands’ floating nightclub ATET opened in October 2022, the council had been inundated with complaints from some residents about the impact of noise emanating from the venue.
Likely keen to not subject the council to more criticism about late-night venues, Cr Reece emphasised that the impending move was a decision made in Spring St, not Town Hall.
“There’s been a lot of discussion today in the media and elsewhere about the City of Melbourne’s role in all of this, but in the end it’s a state government decision that is being made here to change from 1am to 3am, and it’s Liquor Control Victoria — a state agency — who will be principally responsible for regulation in this area. So, for the City’s part, we do have a role to play but we’ll be very much a partner of the state government.”
Cr Leppert said the changes would make things “clearer for all parties”, including residents.
“This isn’t an exercise to greatly loosen or greatly tighten the rigour around late-night licence permits,” he said.
“It’s about making sure the policy is as clear and as understandable as it can be so that we can balance those two really important competing interests; one, the right to a good night’s sleep for a residential population that has grown by an extraordinary amount over the life of this policy.”
“And two, the need to continue to retain that special mix of uses; of entertainment and economic uses that we expect in a central city, and those licensed venues can continue to operate with reasonable conditions being applied to them.”
Cr Reece said the proposed changes were about protecting the needs of residents, but emphasised that Melbourne’s post-pandemic economic recovery was strongly reliant on a bustling nightlife.
“It’s all about getting the balance right; recognising the needs of residents and our community, while also maintaining a healthy and busy night-time economy,” he said.
“We do know that the night-time economy is going to be even more important for Melbourne going forward as people’s work patterns, transport patterns have changed as a result of COVID, so that hospitality, events and night-time economy is going to be a bigger share of the overall economy of Melbourne going forward.”
“Having said that, residents and our community are absolutely entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of their homes.”
It is expected that the number of applications for late-night venues — those operating beyond 1am — would increase when the freeze lifts. •