Austin says too that a District Licensing Board, which is responsible for granting and renewing the bulk of the licences, also takes into consideration the number of such business already in existence in a particular neighbourhood and whether the business is a nuisance, among other things.
Recently, residents have been complaining bitterly about rum shops in Station Street, Kitty and the havoc they cause. During a recent visit to Station Street, Stabroek News counted a total of six bars and liquor restaurants. In addition to these businesses, there are also corner shops.
Residents complained about the noise emanating from the businesses and the behaviour of patrons, including the blocking of the roadway and driveways and lewd sexual conduct.
They have also laid the blame for their suffering at the feet of GRA, the Mayor and City Council and the police.
But in a recent interview at his Camp Street office, Austin told Stabroek News that people often mix up the noise nuisance with the licensing. “That has nothing to do with GRA. That is the police and the Ministry of Home Affairs,” he stressed.
Austin explained how licences are granted and what role the GRA plays. According to him, there are five main types of licences that persons can apply for: the malt and wine liquor licence; the liquor restaurants licence; off liquor licence; hotel liquor licence; and members’ club liquor licence.
He explained that under the malt and wine liquor licence, the beverages must contain less than 11.4% alcohol and in the case of wine, less than 24%.
For the liquor restaurants, he added, both spirituous and non-spirituous beverages can be used on the premises. In the case of the off liquor licence, one can sell the alcoholic beverages but they are not to be used on the premises, Austin said, while adding under the hotel licence the business is permitted to sell hard liquor.
With regard to the off liquor licence and the malt and wine licence, the GRA Commissioner General has the authority to issue them, Austin said, while adding that the approval of the hotel and the liquor restaurants licences are issued by a district licensing board. There are three such boards, he said, with one in each county.
The GRA, he added, acts as the secretary to the boards and persons who are desirous of having liquor licences would apply to GRA, which forwards the applications to the boards for review and a decision.
He added that an approved building plan is among the general requirements with applications. For the malt and wine licence, the applicant must have a shop licence while for off liquor licence, there is need for fire and police clearances. The members’ club liquor licence, he said, the requirements differ as the applicant would have to submit details like the rules of the club and the list of committee members along with the application. Austin also noted that sports bar and liquor restaurants require two separate licences, with the latter serving hard liquor in addition to malt and wine beverages.
Asked what happens if it is found that someone with a malt and wine licence is selling hard liquor, he said that the police can seize the alcohol or if GRA gets the information it can do an investigation. “If your licence says malt and wine, you are not supposed to have any hard liquor there. It can be seized,” he said.
Austin said that licences are renewable every year. “Even before renewal, we publish the list for people to object and there is a procedure for people to object.
They have to write to the district licensing board and they have to come to appear before the board,” he said, while adding that the board meets once every quarter. Dates of when meetings will be held and when persons can attend court are also advertised.
He said there are several grounds in law for non-renewal of licences, including if the business doesn’t meet the necessary housing requirements, if the applicant is of a bad character, if the applicant would have allowed the business to become a nuisance to the neighbourhood and also if there is a sufficient number of premises already licensed in the neighbourhood.
He, however, emphasised that the GRA does not look at the amount of liquor businesses that exist in a particular street. He said that this is the responsibility of the board. “When people apply for all these licences they have to be (first) published in the Official Gazette and in the newspapers so that people can object. It is published on two consecutive Saturdays,” he said. This is the standard procedure once a person applies.
Meanwhile, Mayor Hamilton Green said the city council has no power to deal with the noise nuisance situation. He said that the Central Housing and Planning Authority has assumed overall control over zoning. “There is an argument that that really is not their responsibility but that has to be contested in court,” he said. “It is lawlessness and it is the Central Housing and the Revenue Authority who give these people permission. Nobody cares. I don’t think we have the law to stop them. That is my understanding,” he said, while adding that all the council can do is put pressure on the people who apply for those licences.
According to Green, it has long been recognised that there was need for city planning and there have been proposals, including the strengthening of the zoning laws to give the municipality the right to refuse permission if persons wanted to put a rum shop in a certain street. He opined that there is need for local government reform, “which gives the municipality a little bit more teeth and power. You cannot give the city the responsibility and not the power. Money, management and materials [are] what is needed.”
Green said the government, the police and the council must sit down and come up with a plan which “disallows this lawlessness.” Apart from making the city ugly, he contended, rum shops impact negatively on young children.
“It is not the number that is the issue. It is the zoning. There are some areas where it should not be allowed at all. It is only in this country that every corner got a shop,” he said.
However, all the municipality can do now is look at whether the building being put up satisfies the building code, Green noted. “The licences are not granted by us. All we can do is the chief medical officer can say the building does not have requisite toilets and so but that is minor,” he pointed out.
Green added that he passed through Station Street, Kitty a few days ago and “it was terrible, all those rum shops.” He said that a woman who works with him lives in that street and she is very unhappy. “This problem of the many rum shops is all over Georgetown,” he added.
During a recent community meeting in Kitty, residents complained to the police that life in the area has become unbearable, saying that they are frustrated over the situation since many complaints to the police have gone unheeded. They said that at nights the music coming from the establishments is unbearable and some also noted the bumper-to-bumper traffic that prevents them from getting to their home.
The police, in response to some of the complaints raised, said that the traffic ranks would be dispatched to the area every Friday and that there would be a crash truck present.
When this newspaper visited, five of the shops were open and there were patrons consuming beverages. Music could not be heard. From all indications, music is only played at nights into the wee hours of the day.
Herstelling, on the East Bank Demerara has also been known for its many rum shops. When Stabroek News visited the area there were signs marked “El Dorado Demerara Rum” in every street and there was also a sports bar.
Most of the businesses were closed when this newspaper visited. Residents had often complained about the noise emanating from the rum shops. Several residents this newspaper spoke with during the recent visit said that things now are much better. One woman said that the music would cease around 10 pm. Another resident said that some of the businesses have closed down and in other cases the owners moved out of the community.