Byron Shire mayor Jan Barham says she won’t bow to pressure to revisit the issue of installing CCTV cameras in Byron Bay’s CBD to try to curb late-night alcohol-fuelled brawling and assaults.
And her stance has been backed by the state’s powerful police union, which says restrictions on licensed premises similar to those already in place in Newcastle should be the first step in addressing the issue in the popular tourist town.
The town has been put on the map as the fourth-worst area for alcohol-fuelled violence in NSW with 225 assaults recorded for the 12-months to the end of March, 190 of them in the Jonson Street strip.
Alcohol is sold at more than 50 licensed pubs, nightclubs, cafes, restaurants and bottle shops in the CBD area.
This week, Byron Bay’s reputation for violence was further boosted when shocking video images of some recent late-night brawling in Jonson Street was aired around the state by a TV network.
It prompted police minister Michael Gallacher and his colleague, Ballina MP and local government minister Don Page, to back local police and business in their calls for the installation of closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras to try to tackle the issue.
Mr Page said there was a very strong argument to instal the cameras in the CBD, especially on Jonson St.
‘It’s very worrying that a place like Byron Bay, which has a laidback, carefree and peaceful ethos, should be nominated as the fourth most dangerous town in NSW,’ Mr Page told media.
Not council role
But Cr Barham, who has renewed calls for an earlier closing of pubs and clubs, says the issue is becoming a political football in the leadup to the local government elections in September and that it’s not council’s role to police antisocial behaviour.
She says ratepayers should not have to foot the bill for the installation and monitoring of the cameras, and that other measures, such as lockouts and restricted hours, would be more effective and should be tried first.
‘The police union at least agrees with us and is also proposing something we feel would work,’ she said.
NSW Police Association president Scott Weber said licensing rules applying in Newcastle is what’s needed to stop ‘boozed-up Byron thugs ruining one of Australia’s most idyllic towns’.
Mr Weber’s comments also follow the screening of the dramatic footage of the violence in Byron Bay this week, which he says highlights the need for immediate action in the town ‘or we risk the problem in Byron spiralling out of control’.
‘When a suite of simple, moderate measures to reduce alcohol-related violence were introduced in Newcastle we saw a dramatic decrease in the number of after-dark assaults. In fact, they dropped by more than a third,’ he said.
‘Measures introduced in Newcastle include the restriction of high-alcohol-content drinks after 10pm, lock-outs and restricted trading hours.
‘It worked in Newcastle and there’s absolutely no reason why it won’t work in Byron,’ Mr Weber said.
‘These drunken thugs are putting innocent members of the public at risk, they’re putting themselves at risk, and they’re putting emergency service workers at risk. It just can’t go on.’
But the local business chamber and liquor outlets oppose lockouts and are pushing for CCTV cameras, saying money is not the issue and want council support to obtain funding for the cameras.
Byron United’s president Paul Waters says both CCTV cameras and increased police patrols or a mobile police booth focusing on violence hotspots, similar to ones used on the Gold Coast, would be effective in deterring alcohol-fuelled assaults.
Mr Waters says many incidents involve out-of-town youth who buy their alcohol and consume it before coming into town ‘fired up’ and getting into fights.
But Cr Barham says blame shifting won’t help address the problem and that much of the violence is caused by drunken patrons after leaving licensed premises in the early hours of the morning.
‘Whatever happened to responsible service of alcohol? The fact is youth think the town is open all hours, that it’s a party town, but if there was an earlier lockout and they had nowhere to go, police could keep a closer eye on things in violence hotspots and make it easier for them to control,’ she said.
‘We should all think about the accountability of this profit-making liquor industry and ask what the hell are they doing about the problem? We seem just to get all the pain and heartache.’
Cr Barham said cameras were ‘mostly about collecting evidence’ and that claims they can deter violence were overblown as ‘in Murwillumbah the cameras there helped catch a few kids over vandalism’.
‘But if it’s about crime prevention, you need to employ someone to monitor it; who’ll do it? Is Byron United prepared to do it? If only the cameras are there and they’re not monitored, then they’re just for evidence gathering.’
Australian Medical Association’s NSW president, associate professor Brian Owler, supports the Last Drinks coalition’s call for the Newcastle measures to be extended elsewhere in the state.
The coalition represents NSW emergency service workers and includes doctors, police, nurses and paramedics.
‘Public health research shows alcohol-related assaults, street offences and hospital emergency department presentations are down by as much as half under the Newcastle restrictions on licensed premises,’ Professor Owler said.
‘It’s just common sense really. Newcastle was experiencing very similar problems to Byron. Then once a few simple restrictions were introduced we saw a marked improvement.
‘The Newcastle measures are popular and effective in that region. It would be negligent of the government not to introduce them in Byron and other hotspots around the state.
‘Our doctors, nurses, paramedics and police see the cost of alcohol-related violence first hand every single day. We know how critical it is that something is done and so does the community.
Visit www.lastdrinks.com.au for more information.
Byron Shire Council recently rejected a motion by Cr Diane Woods to support CCTV in Byron Bay; Cr Woods said this week she would move it again at the next meeting.
But Cr Barham said Cr Woods did not understand council meeting practice and could not put up the same motion within three months of the previous one.