Queenstown's restrictive brothel bylaw could be putting sex workers at risk

by Kim Bowden - May 02, 2024

Rules on where brothels can be located may be loosened up as the Queenstown Lakes District Council undergoes a bylaw review process, but the changes suggested do not go far enough for some.

After a decision at a meeting in Wānaka today, elected members of the council agreed to put out for public feedback a proposal to widen the areas where brothels are permitted to operate in the district.

The current bylaw heavily restricts where a brothel is and is not allowed to be, and this restrictiveness has come under fire from the New Zealand Sex Workers' Collective and Health New Zealand during early consultation undertaken by the council.

The sex workers' collective says it is "deeply concerned" it is nearly impossible for sex workers to operate within the rules.

The current bylaw bans brothels from being within 100 metres of each other, located at or below ground level, or located anywhere outside of the immediate Queenstown and Wānaka CBDs. 

The proposed bylaw tweaks remove the ground or below ground level prohibition, and slightly grows the CBD areas where brothels can be established.

But the collective claims the district's current rules are out of date - and based on its feedback to council the tweaks put forward today may not address this concern.

"It’s 20 years since the Prostitution Reform Act 2003 and most councils with previously restrictive bylaws have repealed these and adopted a more realistic approach that doesn’t create outcomes where sex workers are forced to work in ways that compromise their safety and health," the collective says in its feedback.

"It’s extremely difficult for sex workers to find venues to work from that meet the distance requirements for the location of brothels.

"Consequently, if sex workers have a problem and need to seek support, they are less inclined to do so if they are working in breach of a bylaw. 

"It appears to be unreasonable."

Since 2003, sex work has been a legal occupation in New Zealand after the introduction of the Prostitution Reform Act.

Councils can choose to ditch a brothel bylaw entirely, and others around the country have already done so.

Today, the QLDC could have opted to revoke its bylaw, and instead use the District Plan to manage brothels.

But, despite a move by Councillor Lyal Cocks to adopt this management approach, there was little appetite for it from others around the decision making table.

Speaking at the meeting, Councillor Cocks questioned why brothel owners and workers are being singled out by the council, saying, "We don't treat any other small business this way".

His view was mirrored in the submission by the New Zealand Sex Workers' Collective, who also would have liked to see brothels treated as a commercial activity under the District Plan.

This would mean brothels would be allowed in commercial areas in line with other businesses and small owner-operated brothels regulated as a 'home occupation' activity.

The QLDC is one of seven councils that regulate the location of brothels through a bylaw.

Staff today did confirm members of the public will be able to have their say on the option to revoke the bylaw in favour of District Plan controls during consultation.

In the district there are also no rules specifically preventing a brothel from setting up shop beside a potentially sensitive site, like a school or a church, and this was also confirmed by staff today in response to questioning by Councillor Matt Wong.

In its submission, Health New Zealand says it would like to see ia more "permissive approach that has exclusions for sensitive areas or situations that have the potential to give rise to nuisance".

It does not support restricting sex workers to operating within small areas close to the district's CBDs.

"We believe this puts prostitution at risk of operating outside the law and in doing so gives rise to serious health and safety risks."

Regardless of this early advice, and that of the sex workers' collective, three different sized options for permitted areas for brothels in the Queenstown and Wānaka CBDs - and nowhere else in the district - have been mapped out.

It was noted by some councillors that the larger option for Queenstown's mapped area would bump up against Queenstown Primary School and include the new Lakeview precinct.

A majority of elected members opted to endorse a middle-ground map - so not the smallest nor the largest areas put forward by staff, although public feedback will be invited on this during consultation.

Councillors Cody Tucker, Craig Ferguson, Melissa White and Gavin Bartlett have been appointed to a hearing panel for the bylaw review.

The council is now taking formal submissions on the draft bylaw, and information about the process is available here.

Main image (Pixabay)


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