How the NIMBYs of Khandallah took down a bottle store

The Wellington suburb’s successful opposition to a proposed Bottle-O shows how the system is biased towards communities with the organisation, capacity and resources to protest effectively, argues Jenesa Jeram.

For those unfamiliar with Wellington geography, Khandallah is a Very Nice place to live (Aucklanders: think Remuera). So when it was reported that an application to open a Bottle-O in the suburb received over 500 objections (reduced to 178 as not all objectors had standing), a few eyebrows were raised.

The number in and of itself is surprising. For perspective, an application in the relatively less well-off Wellington suburb of Newtown received 40 objections, and that’s after Regional Public Health went door knocking in the area to drum up opposition. If alcohol-related harm was the main concern, you would expect more opposition to licences in poorer suburbs: statistically, adults in the most deprived areas are 1.3 times as likely to be hazardous drinkers as adults in the least deprived areas.

Does Khandallah have a booze problem?

Listen, I’ve watched enough television shows on suburbia to not discount the possibility that behind the flash cars and pristine lawns lies a dark and terrible secret involving booze.

But I don’t think that’s what is happening here.

And it appears the police and Medical Officer of Health aren’t worried that a Bottle-O would cross the thin line between civilised society and booze-fuelled carnage either: neither objected to the application.

And yet the Good Folk of Khandallah have won anyway. The application has been declined by the District Licencing Committee on the grounds that it would harm the amenity and good order of the suburb.

Bottle-O’s are ugly

There’s no denying it, it’s right there in the name: Bottle-O does not exactly scream sophistication and class. And the branding, with its signature lime-green hue, is not going to win any awards for excellence in aesthetic design.

I’m not just speculating that this might be a factor – some people raised the colour of the signage in their objections. Beyond the evidence-lite fears that a bottle store would fuel social harm was the observation that it wasn’t ‘in keeping with the village’. A bottle store would change the village’s ‘unique feel’. It was acknowledged a boutique store might be more appropriate than access to cheap liquor (Khandallah residents, it seems, are cool with overpriced wine but are too fancy for Woodstock or Scrumpy).

If only a Glengarry had applied for a licence instead.

A typical Bottle-O entrance (photo: marketingworks.co.nz)

This is NIMBYism, plain and simple

To be honest, the fact Khandallah doesn’t get a bottle store is probably not the end of the world.

But it does reveal a rather insidious attitude, and one that does need to be taken more seriously: the organised power and influence of Not-In-My-Backyard types (NIMBYs). And in case you haven’t heard, NIMBYs are just the absolute worst.

Existing home and land owners will talk up the specialness of their suburb in a bid to prevent new developments that might threaten that. Minutes from a community meeting in Khandallah reveal that such concerns were raised when medium-density housing was proposed for the suburb. Here, preserving the vibe of a community means locking other people out.

But it would be unfair to just focus on Khandallah. NIMBYism is a nationwide problem, and is an approach that significantly exacerbates the current housing crisis. It works like this: those who own houses or land have incentives to oppose new housing developments out of fear that it will harm the value of their own property or the ‘feel’ of their neighbourhood.

So NIMBYs lobby local government. And for the most part, local government has a responsibility to listen. But apart from the expectation that local councils will represent the views of their communities, there’s a pretty strong electoral incentive at play too. Come election time, existing residents are voters, and keeping those residents happy improves the chances of getting re-elected. So existing residents are happy, and local representatives are happy.

And this is why houses don’t get built.

A little less local democracy?

Whether it is opposition to a new bottle shop or a new housing development, one thing is clear: NIMBYs have the power and resources to protect and entrench the status quo, even if their actions harm others.

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The solution, then, is surely to take some of that power away. In the housing space, the proposed National Policy Statement on Urban Development recognises the difficulties local councils face in standing up to ‘local propertied interests’ and would ‘direct local authorities to enable higher-density residential development in specified areas.’ In other words, give local government the power to override NIMBY opposition.

Though it is not as noble a pursuit as fixing the housing crisis, perhaps similar limitations are needed to quell NIMBYs in the alcohol licensing space. After all, the current system is biased towards those communities with the organisation, capacity and resources to oppose a licence. If there is credible evidence that the harms of approving a liquor licence would outweigh the benefits, why should communities – especially poorer communities – be the ones expected to fight it? And if there is no such credible evidence, should pester power really be grounds to stop a new development?

Don’t hate the NIMBY, hate the game

Finally, I’ll confess something to you, dear reader. I cannot hand on heart promise that if and when I ever become a homeowner, I will never become a NIMBY myself. The right to not only decide the development and ‘feel’ of my own property, but the entire neighbourhood and suburb, may be a power too dizzying to resist.

Someone should really be able to stop me from doing that.


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