Airbnb-style short-term lets should face cull instead of reopening – Martyn McLaughlin

The devastating impact of the coronavirus outbreak on tourism offers a chance for Edinburgh to remould its housing market and rebuild communities fractured by property speculators, writes Martyn McLaughlin

Key safes outside blocks of flats are a common sight across swaths of Edinburgh. (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)

You do not need to wander far in Edinburgh’s Old Town to catch a glimpse of how the city’s dwellings have been colonised by buy-to-let landlords. There is no shortage of closes and stairwells where nearly every property is a short-term let, with a cluster of key safes around communal doors a tell-tale sign of just how skewed and broken the housing market has become.

But in the wake of Covid-19, the decentralised disruption of the so-called sharing economy now resembles a minor tremble. The advent of a global pandemic has been the real earthquake, and the shift in the tectonic plates has thrown up a prospect unthinkable only six months ago: the capital may soon become a place where working families can afford to live.

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The rapid proliferation of Airbnb properties and other short-term lets throughout the city has been disastrous, benefiting speculative investors at the expense of ordinary communities. A growing clamour for change means that local authorities, Edinburgh included, will have the power to implement a licensing scheme from next spring. It is a welcome and overdue step. Even so, the long-term impacts of coronavirus should prompt questions of whether it goes far enough, quickly enough.

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Short-term let properties with shared stairwells have been off-limits during the pandemic, though some openly flouted Covid-19 regulations, a situation not been helped by property sites continuing to accept bookings; even Visitscotland has continued to host listings for self-catering accommodation in communal buildings.

The good news for landlords and budding property magnates wishing to abide by the law is that such units will be allowed to open come 15 July, though ordinary families are unlikely to be best pleased, and with good reason.

The fundamental principle underpinning the staged exit from lockdown is one of managed risk. People still have the choice not to frequent beer gardens or non-essential shops in order to minimise the chances of them contracting the virus.

There is no such luxury allowed if short-term lets are allowed to reopen. It takes away all choice, and leaves people fearful in their own homes, the one place where they should be entitled to find a degree of sanctuary in these troubled times.

Andy Wightman, the Lothian MSP, has urged the government to prevent such businesses operating until the end of the first emergency period set out in the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020, which runs until the last day in September. It is a shame that such a proportionate request fell on deaf ears.

The need to try and kickstart the economy is, of course, vital, but it is hard to see how short-term lets can make a significant contribution at a time when so many people remain reluctant to travel, particularly internationally. Indeed, there is arguably no better time to curb the ruinous social cost of the sector’s untrammelled expansion and begin to redress the balance in favour of the communities they are obliged to serve.

As of this month, Amsterdam is no longer allowing Airbnb rentals in swathes of its city centre. Those properties still allowed to be used for short-term lets must operate under a permit system, and only for a set number of nights per year. The action was taken due to the longstanding problem of overtourism in the Dutch capital, and while Covid-19 may have brought a halt to the tide of visitors, it is telling that the restrictions have still been rolled out.

An important irony to bear in mind is that the dizzying scale of the pre-pandemic, short-term market in Edinburgh, as well as Amsterdam, is entirely out of keeping with the new reality of the city’s tourism offering, and we are already witnessing a contraction.

As has been the case in cities as far afield as London and Montreal, there has been a major spike in the number of fully furnished flats available for long-term let, as property owners move away from the Airbnb model. A cursory search on one of the leading property sites yesterday showed 1,961 properties across the city available for rent, with many prices slashed.

You need only heed the recent remarks by Brian Chesky, who warned that “travel will never, ever go back to the way it was pre-Covid”, to appreciate that the traditional tourism model is undergoing a sustained transition. If his name is unfamiliar, his position – CEO of Airbnb – ought to lend credence to his analysis.

Will Edinburgh suffer as a result of this? Undoubtedly so, and Scotland will too. The city is a gateway for many international visitors, with 2.4 million of them spending £1.1bn in 2018. But taking more definitive action against the short-term let sector will not invite this pain. Instead, it can be a response to it, helping the city rebalance a battered economy, and ensuring that those who are committed to its recovery can afford to live – and spend – within its boundaries.

In any case, a modest reduction in the number of short-term lets would not necessarily have the kind of devastating impact on the economy many landlords would have you believe. Occupancy rates of self-catering units in the city stood at just 52 per cent in 2018, the lowest of all available types of accommodation. The respective rate for hotels was 71 per cent, closely followed by 68 per cent of guest houses and B&Bs.

It may be that a carrot is required alongside a stick. The City of Edinburgh Council is certainly moving in the right direction by appealing to landlords to rent their short-term properties to the local authority to help accommodate homeless and vulnerable individuals. It will take imagination and no small amount of money to expand that strategy, but the council, at long last, has the upper hand, and a chance to make the city a better place for all.

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