City tourism: striking the balance

Another festival has come and gone so it’s now time to strike the right balance between tourism and residents says Alex Staniforth.

[avatar user=”alexstaniforth” size=”original” align=”right”]Cllr Alex Staniforth[/avatar]

The Edinburgh Festival is the envy of the world. It is loved by residents, two-thirds of whom attend events and three-quarters of whom see it as a benefit. But, as a city councillor I see the strains as well. Green and open space under pressure. Litter overflowing. Too much traffic with too little space for people on foot.

So let’s mark the end of the another Festival season by highlighting two steps for reform over the next year which, if progressed, would allow Edinburgh’s residents to feel even more confident that the Festival, and the city centre generally, is for people who live in here just as much as for visitors.

The first step is to introduce a transient visitor levy (TVL) or “tourist tax”. Back in 2011 my Green colleague Steve Burgess first secured council backing for this measure and, had it been taken forward then, by now would have seen up to £100m extra to invest in city services and physical improvements. Since then, other parties have come on board and the council is now committed to taking the case to the Scottish Government on being granted the necessary powers. A current programme of talking to businesses about the benefits of a TVL has resulted in a thawing where hitherto there was scepticism. Meanwhile, I also launched a public petition to allow members of the public to express their backing.

The council is looking at the experience of other European countries, most of whom have tourist taxes, and has set out some detailed proposals for design of the tax. So the ball is now in the court of Scottish ministers.

The second step is to introduce proper oversight of holiday lets. In a city with such acute shortages of affordable homes, holiday flats are always going to be controversial. There are several thousand such lets in Edinburgh, some of which will have been purpose built. Most, however, are permanent homes turned into holiday use. Two weeks ago my colleague Claire Miller lodged a written question at a full council meeting to ask how many holiday lets in the last two years had got permission to change from a residential use to commercial use. The answer is that only 13 have sought permission of which only 4 have been granted so far. Meanwhile there are 99 live cases for enforcement action.

Clearly, the planning system is failing to keep pace with the scale of growth of holiday lets. That is why I support my Green MSP colleague, Andy Wightman in seeking to amend the Planning Bill before Parliament so that change from a permanent home to a holiday let is regarded as a clear change in use and so requiring planning consent. In turn, this would allow councils to decide, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, whether it was right for the area.

Of course, as an outward-looking international capital, there will always be need for visitor accommodation in Edinburgh, much as people here would expect to have somewhere to stay if they visited Rome or Paris or Madrid. But that accommodation needs to be appropriately-located and well-managed. So that is also why I support the city council’s calls to have the powers to licence and regulate holiday flats. After all, if an owner were to let out a property to tenants they would know that they had to be registered as a landlord, and, in some cases also licensed as a “house in multiple occupation.” Short-term lets should be no different.

The common theme here? The need for the Scottish Government to give councils the tools they need to get on with job, much as councils across Europe already do. And the prospect of striking a better balance between the interests of visitors and the people who live, work and care for the city all year round.