Short term lets: time for regulation?

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 The growth in short term lets, facilitated by peer to peer online platforms, such as Airbnb, has sparked debate about whether short term lets should be regulated.

A recent amendment to the Planning Bill, lodged by Andy Wightman MSP of the Scottish Greens, means that we might be a step closer towards a limited form of regulation through the planning system. This blog considers background to the debate and details of the amendment.

Peer to peer accommodation can be helpful to respond flexibly to increased tourist demand at peak times, without requiring significant investment in new hotels/tourist infrastructure. It can also help the extension of tourism into new parts of cities and regions.

However, the growth in such accommodation has also brought some problems for local communities. This is particularly so in areas where there is heavy concentration of such lets, for example, in Edinburgh.

Camaign for reform

The Scottish Greens, in their Homes First campaign, have led calls for regulatory reform. The City of Edinburgh Council has also established a working group on short term lets. A council report identified some of the main complaints about short term lets, including:

  • an erosion of sense of community in areas with dense concentrations of short term lets
  • noise and antisocial behaviour created by guests using short term lets
  • short term lets which operate on a commercial basis may not be paying rates or other council charges required
  • properties which are used as short term lets may not reach the same safety standards as other types of visitor accommodation.

The City of Edinburgh Council and the Scottish Greens are particularly concerned about properties that are rented out for significant periods of the year and are no longer used as someone’s main home.  The council argues that this is impacting on housing supply. It estimates that 10% of the private rented sector stock in the city has been lost to short term lets (although further research is ongoing to better quantify this).

The Scottish Greens argue that reform to planning legislation and licensing powers will give local authorities additional flexibility. This would enable them to set their own policies to regulate short term letting, according to local conditions.

What is the current regulatory framework for short term lets?

 There is no consistent definition of short term let in legislation or any regulatory regime specific to short term lets.

Despite the lack of a specific regulatory regime, owners of short term lets still need to comply with certain requirements. For example, owners need to check that the title deeds to their property allow the use of their home for short term lets and have adequate insurance cover.  Holiday lets must also meet the relevant fire safety standards.

In certain cases, a property used for short term, commercial lets may be liable for business rates on the property.

Local authorities also have some existing powers to address the problems arising from short term lets that may be experienced by local communities. These are drawn from, for example, planning, environmental health, anti-social behaviour and waste legislation.

Is the Scottish Government planning any regulations for short term lets?

The short answer is not now.

The final report of the Scottish Expert Advisory Panel on the Collaborative Economy, published in January 2018, made recommendations to the Scottish Government about short term lets. These recommendations made suggestions for areas of further investigation and experimentation.

In their response to the group’s report, the Scottish Government did not commit to the introduction of any specific regulatory measures for short term lets. Instead, it has established a Short Term Lets Delivery Group.

The group will work towards increasing the data available by setting out an approach to pilot a data observatory on short term lets. It will also work closely with the City of Edinburgh Council and will consider any plans that they, or other local authorities, may have to pilot the solutions proposed by the Panel.

More recently, in its Programme for Government, the Scottish Government committed to:

“…work with local government, communities and business interests to ensure that local authorities have the appropriate regulatory powers to allow them to take the decisions to balance the needs and concerns of their communities with wider economic and tourism interests.”

Planning Bill amendment

Green MSP Andy Wightman MSP lodged an amendment to the Planning (Scotland) Bill during the Local Government and Communities Committee’s Stage 2 consideration of the Bill. This takes forward proposals made in the Homes First campaign.

This amendment would extend the definition of development, set out in Section 26 of the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1997, to specifically include the use of a dwelling house as a short-term holiday let. There would be exceptions where a property was let under a residential lease or the property is the main residence of the landlord or owner.

This means that planning permission would need to be obtained from the relevant local authority before a dwelling house could be used as a commercial, short term holiday let.  The amendment would also allow Scottish Ministers to issue guidance on what constitutes providing a short term holiday let.

The amendment was agreed to by a majority of four to three, with all three SNP members on the committee opposed. Speaking to the amendment, Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning, Kevin Stewart MSP stated:

“We have made a commitment in the Programme for Government to consider the matter further, to look at what the evidence tells us and to ensure that local authorities have the appropriate powers to manage short term letting. To that end, we have set up a short term lets delivery group of officials from across Government.

“As I have said, we cannot accept the amendments in their current form, but I am happy to work with Mr Wightman in advance of Stage 3 to see what we can take forward to enable the planning system to contribute to addressing the problems.”

Therefore, this issue is likely to be debated again during Stage 3 considerations of the Bill (the final stage of the Bill). No date has yet been set for Stage 3 proceedings.

Kate Berry and Alan Rehfisch

Senior Researchers, SPICe