A newcomer to Edinburgh when I launched a property business more than three decades ago, what particularly surprised me about the capital was the substantial number of residents who lived in, or close to, the centre of town – especially in comparison with Glasgow.
It seemed positive that the presence of long-term residents meant the centre of Edinburgh was not given over completely to the needs of corporate office occupiers, shops and leisure outlets. The Old Town, in particular, has been, at least until recently, a successful community where residents and locally-owned small businesses feed off one another to the benefit of both. Even the more exclusive (and expensive) New Town offers a variety of property options.
Unfortunately this happy medium has been upset in recent years with the emergence of short-term “holiday lets” in what were once overwhelmingly residential streets. Established residents are now complaining that not only is their own personal quality of life being diminished but the city centre’s community is also under threat. Ironically, this is one aspect of life in which long-term owner-occupiers and long-term private tenants – who have not always happily co-existed – have shown a united front in their opposition to the trend.
Consequently, I was encouraged by Edinburgh City Council’s decision to implement a ban on three flats on Bread Street in the city centre being made available as short-term holiday lets following complaints from residents. After appeals by the owners, the ban was subsequently upheld by the Scottish Government.
The owners had claimed the properties were let out to families and older guests, rather than as “party flats”. However, even if true, this is beside the point. Multiple letting of a property on a short-term basis inevitably increases noise and disturbance, no matter the age of guests. It means more comings and goings, people smoking and chatting in the street late at night (a common complaint) and the sound of luggage bumping up and down common stairs. Understandably, long-term residents also feel isolated because they no longer know their neighbours.
As someone who regularly promotes the free market, my support for a local authority restricting how landlords can let out properties may surprise readers. However, a truly free market must be conducted on a level playing field and this one has a slope as big as the old Easter Road playing pitch.
Property let long-term to private tenants is required to undergo annual safety checks relating to gas and electrical appliances. Houses and flats let to more than two people who are unrelated through blood or marriage require an HMO (houses in multiple occupation) certificate and the installation of additional fire-safety measures. Landlords themselves must register with the local authority. Do the same rules apply to properties given over to short-term lets?
Within the holiday lettings market handled by long-established, reputable agents, I have no doubt they do. But there are said to be 9,000 Airbnb hosts in Edinburgh and this market is largely unregulated, involving rooms in private houses as well as whole properties. Apart from disturbance, unregulated short-stay lettings have a wider effect that goes beyond those directly affected. So much money can be made that landlords are increasingly switching to the short-term market; this decreases the available stock of long-term housing, inevitably leading to pressure to increase rents.
In April, Palma, the capital of Majorca – where tourism is the staple industry – announced a ban on all Airbnb-style lettings after a study found unlicensed lettings had increased by 50 per cent between 2015 and 2017.
A total ban on this type of letting in Edinburgh goes against my instincts as a free marketer but greater regulation and the staff numbers required to police them has surely moved from desirable to essential.
- David Alexander is MD of DJ Alexander