What next for short-term lets in Edinburgh?

The announcement last week by Airbnb recommending imposing a 90-day curb on short-term lets in Edinburgh reignited the debate on this important matter. The proposed cap is, in fact 156 days if the Edinburgh Festival and Winter Festival are added (Airbnb propose excluding those periods from the 90-day cap)

Cutting through the headlines and rhetoric from commentators who lauded Airbnb’s intentions, there are serious misunderstandings about the nature of this move.

The Leader of the City of Edinburgh Council, Cllr Adam McVey, for example, tweeted:

“This is a welcomed start from @Airbnb A 90-day restriction (even excluding festivals) will help enforce the Capital’s existing policies & hopefully avoid more of the City’s housing stock moving to short-stay lets.”

One way of preventing the “City’s housing stock moving to short-stay lets” is through an effective planning system that can regulate the circumstances under which a change of use is allowed. The Council has been doing its best on this but is hampered by planning legislation that explicitly excludes both flats and short-stay accommodation.

Despite this, the Council made a significant planning decision earlier this month. It refused an application for a Certificate of Lawfulness for a property being used 30% of the year for holiday lets. In other words, the Council’s policy is to refuse consent for conversion in this case for short-stay use which extends over 107 days – a far shorter period than the 156 days being promoted by Airbnb.

The Homes First campaign argues that we need reform in the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) (Scotland) Order 1997 to include flats (which are excluded) and to include short-term lets (which are also absent). Giving Councils these powers would enable them to regulate the existence, extent and scope of short-term lets. It would allow them to adopt policies as to where in a town or a city such activity should be allowed and clear guidance on whether or not to allow short-term lets in residential tenement stairs.

The First Minister last week at First Minister’s Questions agreed that this is a matter for the planning system and didn’t rule out new powers:

"It is important to point out that it is for the planning authority, which in Edinburgh would be the City of Edinburgh Council, to consider the evidence on a case-by-case basis on whether the principal use of a property had changed from residential to business. I know that some argue that new powers are required. I am not ruling that out."

All of this comes about, as we anticipate the publication of a report by the Scottish Expert Advisory Panel on the Collaborative Economy to Scottish Ministers. Airbnb is a member of this Panel and presumably knows what is in the final report. Given that the remit was restricted to the sharing or collaborative economy, we have concerns as to whether the impact of commercial letting (i.e. not home sharing) on housing markets were properly considered by the Panel and look forward to its recommendations.

Airbnb’s announcement (with its insider knowledge of the advice to Ministers) proposes that where a person owns a property and lets out a spare room all year round, then this limit will stop that. But it would abolish the full-time commercial short-term let market. To be clear, I don't agree that there should be no commercial short-term lets at all. I simply believe that it should be regulated and the Council’s existing attempts to do this through the planning system has already shown that Airbnb’s arbitrary limit violates Council’s planning policy.

To do this, as I have previously argued, we need to create new Use Classes in the planning system to allow Councils to set policy for sharing AND commercial as they see fit in their area, Our Briefing Paper elaborates on this. This will, of course differ between Edinburgh and more rural places, like Skye or Arran, but it provides local government with effective tools to manage and control this newly evolving commercial market.

Airbnb are welcome to have their views but one has to ask why they are not already putting in place the limits they advocate should be imposed. Above all, this is not their business. It is the job of Parliament and Scottish Councils to put in place a regulatory regime that makes sure that properties are used as homes first. The demands of the international tourism market and multinational companies should have no role in framing and determining the future of our communities.