Small Bars in Perth

small barsTo use an old cliché – size doesn’t matter – or at least that’s what the Perthons will tell you. The small bar scene in Perth has taken off and it’s a welcome event. And the implications are anything but small.

With the advent of new small bar licences being introduced in 2007, Perth and its surrounding areas have been energised. Coupled with the increased liveability of the city centre, Perth has experienced a rapidly changing nightlife, with over 78 small bars being opened in 7 years. What was once a city dominated by pubs and taverns is being geared toward micro-hospitality and agglomeration; creating a network of businesses fuelled by each other’s growth. It’s the Perth-fect mix of developer interest and bottled-up demand. Equally as important is the Perth City Link development that connects the city centre to Northbridge, which will promote walkability and encourage a symbiotic relationship between bars in these precincts.

However, due to a somewhat convoluted application process, developer interest has been stagnating: more and more applications are being denied because they fail to provide evidence that they will have a positive impact on the community. About 18 months ago we observed (http://pracsys.com.au/want-a-small-bar-licence-approved-sorry-theyre-not-in-the-public-interest/) that a small bar in Cockburn Central had its liquor license application turned down for this very reason, though seemingly without much due thought. While it’s fair to require public input and demonstrate a lack of negative impact, the additional ‘public interest’ requirements allow liquor licence applications to be denied somewhat arbitrarily, creating a major source of frustration for prospective owners while simultaneously providing a barrier to new entrants. Resultantly, growth and competition in small bars has been artificially held back.

Luckily for proponents of small bars, timely change could be on the horizon, with a review submitted late last year focused on “providing certainty for applicants, stakeholders and industry participants and improving transparency and expediency” (http://www.rgl.wa.gov.au/). Increased clarity in what constitutes ‘public interest’ would be hugely beneficial to both potential applicants and to increase the efficiency of the licensing system; tourism WA suggests more comprehensive guidelines should be produced by the licencing authority to assist in the application process. The report also recognises the importance of small bars to both Perth’s nightlife and urban development, and moreover in shaping its drinking culture – noting that “small bars support a more mature drinking culture” whereas larger venues are more likely to encourage irresponsible drinking.

I’m not sure whether to be apprehensive or excited given the way our last reform developed; at the very least I think we’re beginning to realise the importance of small bars in the evolving culture of Perth. If we can ease the licensing process and clarify ‘public interest’, we might see a huge growth in small bars, with increased competition ideally driving quality up while lowering prices. Maybe we can get those pesky pint prices below $10. Raise the (small) bar, Perth.