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When a Temporary Exemption is not an Exemption at all

At the meeting of City of Edinburgh Council’s Regulatory Committee on 13.05.2024, Mr Paul Lawrence, Executive Director of Place and Mr Andrew Mitchell, Head of Regulatory Services, asked committee members to note concerns about the availability and price of short-term self-catering accommodation in the city this summer, particularly in light of representations from stakeholders including the ASSC and the Fringe Association.

Councillors were asked to consider proposed amendments to the city’s licensing policy which might encourage more people to offer their own homes as temporary short-term accommodation at peak times, via home-let licence exemptions on which the city’s hopes appear largely pinned.

Officers appear to recognise that obtaining an exemption, even on a home-let basis, is onerous.  There are several perceived barriers to entry and it was noted that only around 200 such exemption applications have presently been received from home-letters.

Proposals presented to councillors included a temporary reduction of the exemption application fee and a simplification of the application form.  These are perhaps non-contentious, albeit it is unclear that anyone swithering over whether to offer their home as a short-term let for 6 weeks around the time of The Fringe Festival would be finally ‘convinced’ to do so because of a reduction in the fee from £250 to £120; or a on the basis of a shorter application form.

More worryingly (and counter-intuitively given the stated aims of the licensing scheme) it was suggested that the requirement for home-let ‘exemptees’ to undertake safety testing (such as Electrical Installation Condition Reports, Portable Appliance Tests and Legionella Risk Assessments) should be scrapped.

Councillors were additionally asked to consider doing away with requirements for Gas Safety inspections and public liability insurance, and it was further suggested that exemptions might be granted even where properties do not meet the repairing standard for habitability (expected of all commercially offered residential property, including other short-term lets.)

Whilst councillors (quite rightly) did not support any proposals to reduce safety measures and habitable standards, officers within the council appear to recognise that the licensing scheme has had a pronounced negative impact on the levels of available accommodation and that prices pressures have increased as a result.

Solutions which some might consider extreme are therefore being considered.

Indeed, the situation must be grave for officers to propose that inexperienced hosts be potentially allowed to offer accommodation not subject to robust safety testing regimes, the repairing standard or public liability insurance.

Given the above, it is bewildering that the city continues to pursue planning enforcement action against experienced secondary and home-let operators even where, in some cases, they have already obtained a licence demonstrating that their properties are safe and suitable for use.

There are cases where even licenced home-letters (that group who councillors seek to encourage to provide accommodation during the Fringe) have been served with enforcement notices by the city’s planning department.

These notices actively prevent those operators from offering their properties as short-term let accommodation (even on a licence-exempted basis) in future.  This planning enforcement policy is utterly self-defeating in light of the above and may appear irrational to some.

Officers apparently recognise that the incredible demand for accommodation is not being met.  Nevertheless, they continue to try to force experienced (and in some cases already licenced) operators, who have robust safety regimes and management practices in place, out of the market.  Officers advise councillors that the requirements of obtaining a home-let exemption are too demanding and costly for most ‘lay-people’ to contemplate.  Nevertheless, councillors continue to appeal to large numbers of such people to come forward to seek those exemptions.  They resist proposals from their own officers to potentially reduce standards, instead hoping that a reduction in fees will be enough to encourage applications.

This is a vain hope.  The simple fact is that, in Edinburgh, an ‘exemption’ is not an exemption.  It is a (temporary) licence, by another name.  It requires the same background checks and is subject to all of the same conditions as a full licence.  Costs, in terms of both money and administrative burden, for anyone seeking a licence exemption therefore go far beyond the completion of the application form and the payment of the fee.

Electricians, gas-safe engineers and risk assessors must be sourced, booked and paid for.  Reports must be obtained, and any remedial works undertaken.  Energy performance certificates must be obtained.  General works required in respect of the repairing standard must be completed.  Furnishings which cannot be shown to meet fire safety standards must be replaced or removed.

Public liability insurance must be sourced (perhaps from specialist insurers) and put in place.

Hosts’ contact information (including a 24-hour contact number) must be given to neighbours.  This is something very few people are likely to be comfortable with in an age where privacy concerns abound.

The above doesn’t even consider the potential need for planning permission as a condition of any exemption, an issue which remains ominously and inexplicably unaddressed by the council.

There are other practicalities to consider too.

Cleaners and handymen must be sourced and contracted with.  Agents must be contacted, and advertising costs and commissions must be agreed upon.  Extra keys must be cut and paid for.  Current home and building insurers must be informed of the proposed use; with home insurers unlikely to be delighted at the prospect of strangers being given keys to hosts’ homes, resulting in the potential for increased premiums or even outright prohibitions.

If a property has any hope of being ready for August, the above must be looked into and undertaken imminently.  Would-be hosts having to take time off work to organise all that is required therefore seems likely; particularly given the shortage of available tradespeople and specialist assessors in the city at present is likely to lead to extended lead times.

It is therefore little wonder that many who have hosted guests during The Fringe in previous years now feel that the juice is no longer worth the squeeze.

Officers appear aware of these facts.  They are offered as the rationale behind the suggestion to do away with many safety checks and other responsibilities.  Whilst it is of course right that these suggestions have been resisted by councillors, the problem still remains that the city’s need for accommodation this summer will not be met.  At least, not lawfully.

If a significant amount of temporary short-term accommodation is to be provided in Edinburgh this summer, there is a danger that it will be provided in an unlawful manner which is potentially unsafe for hosts, neighbours and guests.

Some on the Regulatory Committee are wary of the possibility that, given current confusion and complexities, the public will be discouraged from engaging with the licensing scheme altogether; with resulting negative consequences.

Resolution, however, seems a far-off prospect. Whilst some councillors seek to find and promote a balanced view, others appear entrenched, not to mention confused, about aspects of the licensing scheme.  One at the meeting raised their concern that the suggested measures (designed to encourage people to offer their own homes for temporary short-term letting) might, somehow, “lead to evictions.”  Others continue to question whether or not concerns about the state of available accommodation have been overstated, or expressed cynically.

This all occurs at a time when the city’s planning and licensing policies continue to force hundreds of demonstrably safe and suitable bed spaces from the market; closing down experienced and conscientious operators (who are desperate to continue operating and who have voluntarily engaged with the licensing scheme) with one hand, whilst unsuccessfully trying to drag unwilling and inexperienced home-owners (temporarily) into the STL marketplace with the other.

Incidentally, the cost of a single night’s hotel accommodation during the upcoming Taylor Swift concert in Edinburgh is now reported as being £686; and rising.

With thanks to Ross Armstrong, STL Solutions

The ASSC is an agreement with councillors on the issue of safety, however the solution is a balanced amount of responsible full time operators who meet all safety conditions.

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