Are Airbnb and its various imitators a boon or a curse? Opinions are deeply divided about the benefits these companies bring and the problems they create.
Even a year ago, Airbnb was reported to be worth almost £1 million a day to the Scottish economy – and Edinburgh’s council was promising a “crack down” on such activities. Incomes may have stalled but the appetite for tourism continues to grow, making a cheaper alternative to hotels ever more attractive. Things are moving quickly and we need to consider the evidence and decide on a way forward. That is why the Cockburn Association has organised a mini-conference today that will bring together speakers from different points of view.
Residents of Scotland’s capital have a long tradition of taking a holiday in August during the Festival, and recouping some of the cost by renting their own place to aspiring actors/dancers/ musicians or simply visitors out for a cultural binge. The origins of Airbnb were equally innocent: in 2007 a couple of hard-up Rhode Island School of Design graduates decided to rent out three airbeds on their living room floor to people attending a design conference in the city. A website followed, and the “sharing economy” was invented. However, many people living in Edinburgh tenements, or trying to find an affordable place to live in the city, no longer view the multi-billion dollar global business in such a cuddly way.
“The unrelenting stream of strangers coupled with the three-day holiday mindset has been deeply unsettling and so disruptive. This type of business belongs in hotels not our homes.” This is what one person told me. It is typical of other complaints that have come in to The Cockburn Association. At a time when the Scottish Government has become sensitised to the importance of well-being, such observations should be a cause for concern. In tenements common repairs are a further problem where the “sharing” has been replaced by an absentee investor who is letting out the whole flat for as many days as possible.
It is this transition from the occasional guest to a business investment that is most controversial. Arguably such arrangements should be controlled through the planning system, but the reality is that the planning function in local government has been so stripped of resources in recent years that rigorous enforcement action has proved difficult to achieve. Nevertheless, Glasgow has made clear that “where a flat is being used frequently to provide short-stay accommodation, there is likely to be a material change of use”, and hence planning permission will be required.
Other tourist cities have grappled with the problem. The city authorities in Barcelona have fined Airbnb 600,000 euros for continuing to advertise unlicensed flats. For enforcement Barcelona has 40 inspectors checking apps as they walk the streets, and plans to increase that number. As in Edinburgh, the loss of affordable long-term rented housing is deeply worrying, especially in historic but low-income areas.
Short-term letting using internet platforms to connect suppliers and consumers is just one of a number of disruptive technologies that are challenging the ways traditional cities develop and are managed. E-commerce is changing the high street, and there are a myriad of other “Smart City” innovations in fields like transport. What future do we want for Edinburgh and the other Scottish cities, and who should decide what future we are going to get?
Cliff Hague is chair of the Cockburn Association