Short term lets crackdown is biggest joke of the Fringe - John McLellan

While astronomical accommodation prices in Edinburgh during the Festival might be a joke, short-term lets aren’t everyone’s idea of comedy gold, although amidst the hundreds of stand-up hopefuls of the Fringe someone is bound to be trying.

Short-term lets (STLs), did feature in Scottish comedian Stuart McPherson’s show (no, we hadn’t heard of him either, but he’s the computer bloke from Scot Squad so we gave him a go), but it was really only in passing in his routine about being dumped by his girlfriend, and how he booked an Airbnb to go away for a few days, rented out his own flat, cocked up his travel, stayed at home and ended up spending the weekend with a random visitor. Nae luck.

So maybe there is good material in STLs, but being a bit of a bore about planning and licensing matters my first thought was not about comedic potential, but to wonder if Stu had applied to Glasgow Council for a licence or had planning permission. Sadly, for hundreds of legitimate STL operators in Edinburgh, the aggressive new licensing and planning regime is no laughing matter but an existential threat.

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I have no idea where Stuart McPherson is staying during his Edinburgh run, I’m sure he has plenty of friends who could put him up, but given the cost of accommodation maybe he just commutes because playing a venue with about 50 seats isn’t going to pay the mortgage. But as the city swells to pre-pandemic visitor numbers and hotel prices shoot up accordingly, STLs are needed to keep the whole show on the road.

On the off chance a script writer thinks there is a motherlode of laughter in the vicissitudes of the casual holiday rental trade and the battles with bureaucracy they could look no further than an item before tomorrow’s Edinburgh Council development management sub-committee. The name’s a start, but imagine a character like Blakey from 70s sitcom On the Buses, or Fulton McKay’s prison officer from Porridge, and you begin to get the idea. It’s only one tiny application, and at first glance it might seem relatively unimportant, but the case is so extreme the precedent it could set threatens the entire Edinburgh STL market.

It involves a separate outbuilding in the garden of a family home in a quiet corner of Balcarres Street in Morningside, sitting behind the tenements and accessed through a lane. The building was used as a home office by the owners, but they began to let it out a couple of years ago and there have never been any problems or complaints. Tighter STL rules since the whole of Edinburgh was declared Scotland’s first short-term let planning control area last September mean they have had to apply for retrospective planning permission and a report to tomorrow’s committee recommends refusal, despite there being no objections and a petition in support signed by 30 neighbours.

No complaints in the past, no objections, 30 neighbours in support, yet the officers have decided that turning an outbuilding tucked into the corner of a back yard could have a detrimental effect on the neighbourhood. “There is no guarantee that guests would not come and go frequently throughout the day and night, and transient visitors may have less regard for neighbours' amenity,” says the report, even though this has proved not to be so. The operation “would result in significantly different level of ambient background noise than neighbouring residents might reasonably expect and will have an unacceptable effect on the living conditions and amenity of nearby residents,” claim the officers, when the people actually living there have reported no such thing. For two years. And even if there was potential for disturbance, the operator lives there too, and would be the first to feel the effect, and on hand to deal with any situation immediately.

The report recognises the “economic benefit to the city as a whole from the provision of tourist accommodation,” so why is there a recommendation to block what by any measure is a model small-scale short-term-let with a two-year track record of problem-free operation? It looks very like a political decision to smash the sector, following the Court of Session ruling that Edinburgh’s blanket refusal of operating licences was too draconian, partly because the planning system was there to prevent undesirable businesses. It appears to be the next step in a process to turn Edinburgh from an STL planning control area, to an STL-free zone, picking off operators good and bad as the applications come in. Maybe most councillors on tomorrow’s committee will think that’s a good thing, but if so, they should be clear so the sector knows what it’s dealing with.

A study for Edinburgh Council in early 2019 by property consultants GVA Grimley and Ryden estimated Edinburgh could offer 13,180 hotel beds, with 2,750 in the pipeline, and there are around 1500 serviced apartment units and 20,000 purpose-built student rooms. With 60 per cent of Fringe ticket sales bought by people from outside Edinburgh, 40 percent from outside Scotland, even on a very conservative estimate on any night there could be about 50,000 people looking for a place to stay over and above normal visitor numbers and not including casts and crews.

There is therefore no escaping the fact Edinburgh needs occasional accommodation if the festivals are to be sustained, and with Hogmanay being downgraded, the pressure is growing for hospitality businesses and retailers to do well in August to cover for the quieter months. Whether councillors or officers like it or not, and I saw an ex-senior planner out enjoying the Festival like the rest of us on Sunday night, STLs play their part in the annual miracle of absorbing so many people into a city the size of Edinburgh in a concentrated month.

Wipe them out and the likes of Stuart McPherson will not just find it hard to afford the Edinburgh run, there will be nowhere to go at all.



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