Short term lets and the limits to Liberal localism

From 1 October 2023, operators of short term lets in Scotland must have a licence issued by the local authority to do so (or at least have applied for a licence before that date).

Local authorities decide for themselves what the licence fee should be (on a cost recovery basis) and how long they last for. Good localism there.

To get a licence, the property will also have to have cleared any planning issues which, together with the ability of a local authority to declare a “control zone”, are ways for a local community to regulate the impact of short term lets. Another big tick for localism.

One of the drivers behind the licensing process is to ensure that short term let premises are safe. A fire in March this year in a building in Montreal, Canada took the lives of seven people – six of whom were guests in an unsafe AirBnB.

Before this law reform in Scotland, a hotel was subject to rigorous safety rules but an AirBnB was not. The expectations for safety of a guest paying to stay in a property that is being marketed commercially should be no different for a hotel guest or a BnB guest (Air or otherwise). The Short Term Let platforms may encourage operators to run their premises safely but they don’t enforce this in any way.

The Short Term Let industry brings in a lot of money for the owners. I lived in Edinburgh’s city centre until earlier this year and the flat the same as mine on a lower floor could go for over £600 a night at high season – and given you could accommodate six guests easily that’s a bargain compared with hotel costs. That money is one reason why the campaign against regulation has been slick and, at times, misleading. I saw one owner today lament her ability to let out her property “when away” only for someone to demonstrate statistics to show she let out for 200 nights and year and was bringing in something like £40,000 for a small flat in Edinburgh’s Old Town.

From what I can tell, there would appear to have been a view taken amongst some STL operators not to cooperate with regulation and thus destabilise the efforts to regulate. A walk down the Royal Mile on the weekend that regulation became effective showed many properties with the tell-tale STL key boxes but no notice advertising their application for a licence.

In the weeks before the regulations came into force, there was an attempt in the Scottish Parliament to derail it – led by the Tories and supported by the Labour and, sadly in my view, two of the four Lib Dem MSPs. The attempt failed.

As Liberals, one concern I’ve seen expressed is that we have a top-down requirement to licence that is driven as much by the needs of an over-heating Edinburgh than anything else. Surely liberal localism should mean we want local communities to design their own licensing regime?

This raises a great question for us as a party? When do we support different answers for different places decided by different communities and when do we deride a patch work of local answers as (to use the old cliche) a “postcode lottery”?

On debating with one of our MPs I’ve been clear that we should not expect the approach to fire safety to be different in Lockerbie and Lerwick, Glasgow and Galashiels, Edinburgh and Elgin.

In the same way, we wouldn’t expect drink driving rules or employment rights to be locally decided.

Just like the debates within the party on Nimbyism in the planning system, we can’t just be a vehicle for giving voice to local opinions whatever those opinions may be. The STL issue shows that those whose profits or other vested interests are impact by regulation often speak out against it.

Discerning the fair limits to localism is our challenge.

* Stephen Harte is a lawyer and a member in Edinburgh West.

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  • This article raises the intriguing question of what things are best decided locally (and therefore by local councils) vs. what should be decided regionally/nationally, which is something that I feel has not been sufficiently thought through in previous devolution work/local Government reorganisations. For short term licensing, I can see the logic of national regulations (so no confusion about what’s allowed where) but with inspections and admin decided locally by people who know the area. For other things I’m less clear about the logic. For example, does it really make sense for councils to have to run social care when it’s all being run to national requirements with little local decision-making anyway? It’d be good to see some more thought about these kinds of questions.

  • Andrew Emmerson 2nd Oct '23 - 2:17pm

    The problem with what the SNP has done isn’t necessarily the localism, it’s the requirement. I wish they’d properly devolved powers to councils to decide whether they even want this

    Once again every gets what Edinburgh needs.

    In Shetland and our small isles many are facing extreme difficulty in getting tradesman to complete necessary works, and supply certificates.

    We might expect a set of minimum standards, and it’s reasonable for landlords to meet those costs. But more localism, and time scales and freedom would have been better.

    I’ve no trouble bashing landlords, but many of these holiday places will fall into dereliction or off the market not for sale if certification and work can’t be done.

  • Robin AG Bennett 3rd Oct '23 - 4:40pm

    Will the City of Edinburgh Council be up to the task of enforcing the new law? Landlords who have responsibly sought planning permission for short term lets have had their applications refused in central areas while landlords without planning permission have operated for years without challenge. .

    Traditional Bed and breakfast is a great institution, with a full breakfast cooked on the premises by careful, hard-working housewives who have one or two spare bedrooms. Why should they, if they can accommodate a maximum of, say, six guests have to pay for planning permission, a licence and additional safety requirements? What is the incidence of damaging fires in such homes compared to other homes? All domestic properties now have to have enhanced fire smoke and CO2 alarm systems. A disaster in an unsafe AirBnB in Montreal has not justified another instance of Health & Safety over-regulation

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