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Short term lets need regulation, regulation, regulation

Chitra Ramaswamy - Holyrood Magazine

Short term lets need regulation, regulation, regulation

For anyone living in the capital, it will have become a classic Edinburgher experience – up there with salt ’n’ sauce and complaining about the trams – the ever-changing procession of tourists passing by on your stair or street who are clearly letting a neighbour’s flat for a few days. 

Letting spare rooms on Airbnb perhaps helps to cover mortgages and bills, perhaps provides extra cash, and often there are heart-warming and occasionally odd anecdotes that accompany briefly sharing one’s home with a total stranger. 

It’s also generated spin-off enterprises and experiences – the local now running an Airbnb ‘business’ full-time with properties all over the city; the renters queuing to view flats as demand outstrips supply. 

Or my most recent one. Driving down a street in the Old Town, I spotted a typical tenement entrance, except every single buzzer was flanked by one of those key safes used for self-check-ins. It was the perfect metaphor: plastic boxes colonising old crumbling stone. 

And it hammered home what’s now self-evident – the unstoppable rise of Airbnb and short lets has taken over Scotland’s capital. And it has, literally, been unstoppable. Equally, it’s been causing great concern. Virtually no regulation exists to prevent the mushrooming of the short-term letting market, especially Airbnb, the global accommodation provider so gargantuan, it long ago transitioned to a verb. Until now. 

Finally, at the SNP conference in Edinburgh, as part of a raft of housing measures, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon unveiled plans for a crackdown on short-term letting agents and platforms across Scotland so they will be subject to the same laws and licences as hotels and B&Bs. “We want to give councils the power to control the number of lets and ensure they make a contribution to the services they use,” Sturgeon said.

To say this is long overdue is a bit like describing Airbnb as, well, a B&B. It’s a travesty that with recent data revealing there is one Airbnb resident for every 48 people in Edinburgh – more than double that of Greater London – it has taken this long for the government to act. 

Los Angeles, New York, Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona and many more have all enacted robust laws to keep the rampant growth of Airbnb and co in check. In Paris, hosts can only rent out their flats for 120 days a year, must get written approval from a landlord if they’re renting themselves, and have to register with the city. Meanwhile in Edinburgh, Airbnb properties have doubled in three years and the number of people staying in Airbnb accommodation rocketed by a whopping 70 per cent in a year. 

There is only one solution to a complex and global problem ripping the heart out of cities on every continent. To borrow some analogue spin from the days of Thomas Cook, travellers’ cheques and Tony Blair, this is about ‘regulation, regulation, regulation’. 

Why does it matter? For every reason imaginable, which is why I’m proud to be one of a dying tribe (often mistaken for Luddites, smug gits, or some variation on old fart) who has neither stayed in an Airbnb, nor turned my Leith flat into one. As well as increasing anti-social behaviour and pushing up property values, the impact on housing supply and especially the amount of affordable housing available in a city already under enormous pressure, is huge. A paper produced following a mini conference organised by the Cockburn Association in March 2018 on ‘The Airbnb phenomenon’ stated concerns that “the stock of available and affordable housing is being reduced, and the character of the Old Town in particular is being changed”. 

Airbnb and other short-term letting agents drive rents up, which does the opposite of benefitting the local community. It shuts the door on it, unless you happen to have the key safe code. Then there’s the question of who’s doing the letting. A detailed survey in 2018 revealed that in Edinburgh, one third of lets were offered by landlords or ‘barons’ with more than three properties listed on the site. Critics claim this shows Airbnb has become a platform for commercial business to bypass taxation and regulation. 

Edinburgh has a deep and longstanding relationship with short-term letting, largely because of the festival. Anyone and everyone rents out their home during August. I even did it once myself (never again). Perhaps this is why this takeover has happened not by stealth but in plain sight. But we must not underestimate the power and influence wielded by these apparently caring and sharing economies. 

At the start of this year, an investigation by The Ferret revealed Airbnb had been lobbying the government behind the scenes in an attempt to prevent tighter controls, licensing and regulation. As MSPs considered the new planning bill unveiled at the SNP conference, the Scottish Parliament’s lobbying register showed the public relations firm hired by Airbnb had met with members, ministers and special advisers 28 times since March 2018.

All of which makes the pledge to crackdown on this unregulated system both more welcome and urgent. This is not a question of clamping down on tourism to one of the world’s great cities. It’s no longer even about preserving the Athens of the North’s character and heritage for future generations. It’s about saving our cities, right now. It’s about making a statement: neither Edinburgh, nor Scotland, are for sale.

Read the most recent article written by Chitra Ramaswamy - Division now infects every part of our politics

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