This July, the city authorities in Barcelona sent an ultimatum to the owners of nearly 200 empty holiday flats: find tenants within the next month, or your property will be taken over by the city. This was a drastic step from the city administration, but it was considered necessary to deal with two chronic problems in the Catalonian capital: the exponential growth of commercial short term lets, and the desperate shortage of affordable housing for residents.
While Edinburgh doesn’t have the same powers to take over empty flats as Barcelona, there’s no doubt we have many of the same problems: there are estimated to be over 6,000 short term holiday lets in our city, while demand for social housing far outstrips supply, and private rents are soaring.
Short term holiday lets can cause misery to their neighbours, with all-night parties, or rowdy stag- or hen-dos. One constituent of mine recently complained of a neighbouring flat being rented out to a raucous weekend rave with 12 people, in complete contravention of Covid restrictions. And more short term lets also means fewer homes, and exponentially rising rents.
Of course, most short term lets have been empty for the duration of the covid-19 pandemic: the number of tourists has plunged and regulations have forbidden most holiday flats from operating. A small number of owners have decided to rent their properties to the council to provide short-term homeless accommodation. Some may have decided that a long-term tenant is less risky than a holiday let, even though it’s less lucrative. But many will have decided to accept the temporary loss of earnings and wait for visitors to return.
Of course, holiday lets can, if they’re well managed, properly controlled and regulated and in the right place, offer visitors a base to explore our beautiful city without having a negative impact on neighbours. But the short-term let sector is largely unregulated, the number of these properties uncontrolled, and the rules around them unclear. Does an AirBnB flat need planning permission, for example? The answer depends on how many days a year it is let out, and how much impact it has on neighbours. Whether it is part of a tenement or not may also have a bearing.
Not only are the rules unclear, but as the council’s Planning Committee found out last week, actually enforcing those regulations is complicated, time-consuming and expensive. My Green colleague Andy Wightman MSP, as part of his HomesFirst campaign earlier this year, asked Edinburgh residents to let him know of any holiday lets in their area. Nearly 500 properties were logged, and only one of those was found to have planning permission.
Council staff said they couldn’t investigate those properties, partly because, they argued, enforcement officers are already overwhelmed with work. Thankfully, my committee colleagues agreed with my request to ask officers to reconsider what action could be taken in response to Andy’s detailed report. We’ll decide this at the next committee meeting.
The Scottish Government says they will introduce new regulations for holiday lets within the next year. Will they grant the same powers as Barcelona? Sadly, it seems not. More likely is that all short term lets must apply for planning permission. This is a step forward. It’s possible that a full licensing regime will also be introduced, which will also help tip the balance in residents’ favour. But this new system will still need to be enforced, and as we found out last week, that requires staff time.
So if the Scottish Government is serious about tackling this blight on our communities, they must give local authorities not just the powers, but the funds to tackle short term lets as well.