Single image is proof whining NIMBYs are killing Sydney’s vibrant soul

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Noise complaints before the sun has set, bans on mirror balls, residents of newly built apartments whining about 100-year pubs and whole venues shuttered after one complaint.

Those stifling conditions became the norm in Sydney over recent years, turning the once-vibrant global icon into a shadow of its former self, critics say.

An inquiry by the New South Wales Upper House conducted back in 2018 warned the city’s night-life was “slowly disintegrating” because of draconian laws and overzealous regulatory authorities.

The eventual repeal of the controversial ‘lockout law’, which contributed to the closure of up to 200 licenced venues across Sydney over several years, and a flurry of entertainment reforms gave hope that change had finally come.

Back to the future?

News this week of a restaurant’s application for an extension of its trading hours being blocked by a resident – who lives 600m away on the other side of a golf course, and despite some 130 submissions in favour of the move – show there’s more work to do.

The Joey in Palm Beach has become the new face of so-called NIMBYism, when a distant neighbour claimed allowing the eatery to open until 11pm would cause his family anxiety.

“It is totally unreasonable for the nearby residents to have to suffer from noise issues from this venue operating seven days per week,” the man wrote in a complaint to Northern Beaches Council.

He cited an example of a noisy wedding function held last month that resulted in an “extremely high level of noise”. The event concluded at 10pm.

The Joey’s co-owner Ben May said a couple of locals who lived a fair distance from the venue had prompted the council to reject their application, despite more than 130 submissions received in support.

“It’s a little ridiculous, isn’t it?” Mr May said in an appearance on the Today show.

“I mean, there’s a golf course between us and these people and they’ve found reason to have a problem with it.”

Matt Levinson, culture policy lead at advocacy think tank the Committee for Sydney, agreed.

“When the majority of locals backing more vibrancy in their area can be overruled by a couple of complaints, clearly something’s off kilter,” Mr Levinson told news.com.au.

The Joey’s saga is one faced by countless other venue operators for years, who’ve been forced to severely restrict their trade, fork out hundreds of thousands of dollars in remediation and legal fees, or shut down entirely.

How Sydney lost its soul

Twelve months ago, beloved pub The Eveleigh Hotel in colourful Redfern was slapped with harsh restrictions by City of Sydney Council that capped the number of patrons allowed in its outdoor area to just eight, with an 8pm curfew.

The venue was also banned from hosting live music because of noise complaints about its previous events – a “gentle jazz” session on Sundays that wrapped up by 7pm.

In Glebe, the Friend in Hand hotel was also hit with a raft of complaints from a single neighbour last year, including a written submission to council about the pub’s resident cockatoo perched on a chair “outside the designated area”.

That same resident bizarrely complained about the outdoor dining space at another hotel in the next suburb over.

The Great Club in inner-city Marrickville – once declared the coolest suburb in the world by TimeOut magazine – was pushed to the brink of closure by a couple of narky neighbours over the space of two years.

“They’re complaining a lot,” owner Alison Avron told Today in 2022. “There’s three of them. They don’t like the noise in the car park.”

Ms Avron faced threats of criminal proceedings and a licence suspension, was told to install soundproofing costing upwards of $250,000, and prevented from staging some live music events.

The club, which has been in Marrickville since the early 1950s, enjoyed support from the “vast majority” of neighbours, she said.

Commonsense eventually prevailed and The Great Club is these days a popular and beloved local institution once more.

In 2022, authorities imposed restrictions on the Cliff Dive nightclub, located just off the famous Oxford Street in Darlinghurst and within the designated CBD Entertainment Precinct.

It followed multiple complaints from one resident who demanded the venue be shut down and the area rezoned to prevent future entertainment businesses from operating.

While the resulting order from authorities didn’t go that far, Dive Bar was forced to undertake acoustic testing every month and hire a security guard to patrol the area to move on loitering members of the public.

That’s despite authorities finding that one apparent noise-related incident complained about occurred on an evening when the club wasn’t even open.

And a snap inspection that found there were too many people queuing outside was conducted on the night of the Mardi Gras parade, which draws more than 100,000 people to the suburb.

That same year, the historic Native Rose Hotel in Rozelle – a 140-year-old pub – shut down after incessant noise complaints from one neighbour relating to its beer garden.

Around the same time, the Royal Hotel in Paddington was ordered to invest heavily in additional soundproofing after complaints from residents about noise.

In 2021, Inner West Council was forced to introduce extraordinary measures to protect the acclaimed Enmore Theatre from noise complaints relating to the 110-year-old venue, designating the entire suburb as an entertainment precinct.

In 2019, several well-known pubs across Sydney – some of which have been serving punters for the better part of 100 years – were ordered to shut down their rooftop and outdoor areas.

A handful of complaints from neighbours, most of whom had moved into brand-new apartments near the venues, had prompted local councils to issue the heavy-handed bans.

Kings Cross Hotel in Darlinghurst, The Royal Oak in Double Bay, The Marlborough in Newtown and Moore Park View Hotel in Moore Park were among those affected.

That same year, City of Sydney Council slapped Darlinghurst pub Black Bottle with a breach for hosting pétanque – a French game similar to lawn bowls played with metal balls – in its car park.

“Apparently the ‘metal balls clanking’ were disturbing the neighbours in the already ghastly neighbourhood,” the pub wrote on Facebook at the time.”

Just down the road around the same time, Japanese-inspired bar and restaurant Goro’s was told by authorities that hanging a mirror ball could result in harsh penalties.

In 2017, a gig in Kings Cross held in conjunction with the annual Vivid Festival was shut down at 9.30pm by police after a complaint from a neighbour.

That same year, owners of Enmore venue Hideaway Bar were dismayed to receive a warning by police over a noise complaint made at 7pm on a Saturday night.

Mr Levinson said history – and this week’s events – show Sydney clearly has a problem.

“What we need is clear objective requirements for sound, which would protect both venues and the community around them, backed with standard statewide policies for assessment,” he said.

“This would let us set criteria that align with the current or future strategic intent of an area, considering sound from venues and activity in public space.

“State-supported guidance could also extend to best practice for mitigating sound from venues and design of surrounding development.”

The race to save Sydney’s vibrancy

In October last year, the New South Wales Government moved to repeal what it called “nanny state laws” covering live music venues and pubs.

The changes made it easier for clubs and hotels to host events and harder for noise complaints to shut them down.

Premier Chris Minns also announced new “order of occupancy” rules, meaning existing venues can’t be hit by new neighbours’ complaints “because all of a sudden they don’t like to have noise in the evening”.

“It’s another step in removing the nanny state restrictions, the red tape, that have really stifled the vibrancy, the life and the fun out of Sydney for the last 10 years,” Mr Minns said at the time.

“We will no longer allow just a single noise complaint to close down live music venues right across NSW.

“It’s not just there for the enjoyment of people in the local community. It’s a magnet for those who live and work in Sydney and also for people who want to visit our great city.”

The first round of the Vibrancy Reforms, which passed the parliament in November, offer direct support to operators to launch and grow local music, with cost relief focus that includes an 80 per cent cut in annual liquor licence fee.

Streamlined approval processes for licences and a “commonsense” approach to noise complaints is also providing certainty and confidence, the government said.

Under the previous government, seven different agencies had oversight of entertainment noise complaints, meaning just one neighbour could force the closure of a venue.

Now, Liquor and Gaming NSW is the lead body that manages noise complaints targeting licensed venues.

“The government’s taking a sensible approach, creating a one-stop shop to replace the current smorgasbord of up to seven regulatory bodies involved in dealing with noise complaints,” Mr Levinson said.

“We need to maintain the focus on reform upstream to make sure great proposals that have support of the wider community aren’t stopped by a vocal minority at the planning stage.”

In an interview with news.com.au last month, Mr Minns pledged to continue “working incredibly hard to ensure we’re protecting venues, particularly venues that draw a lot of people”.

Since March last year, 112 pubs, clubs and other establishments have been added to the list of venues eligible for two hours of extended trading in return for staging live music events.

On Wednesday, Mr Minns said he’d meet with owners of The Joey because the decision to oppose their extension application, which he described as “troubling”, was “the opposite” of his vision for Sydney.

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