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Short-Term Let Licensing Proposals: Letter from ASSC Member

Fergus Ewing MSP & Kevin Stewart MSP

The Scottish Parliament


EH99 1SP

17th October 2020


Dear Mr Ewing and Mr Stewart

Short-term lets – licensing scheme and planning control areas

I write to you regarding the above proposal as the owner of a small business offering traditional self catering lets at my second home in the Isle of Harris (since 2009).  I built this house on a plot which had been available on the open market for a while, I did not take stock from island housing and I received no assistance to do it.

I have a business degree and experience of working in Banking, Procedure Design, Client and Crisis Management and providing liaison between IT and Business areas.  I grew up dealing with customers and business contacts in our family business which has been in it’s formal state since 1918.  I also have long standing experience of the business of self catering lets which I first offered at a property on the mainland between 2003 and 2005.  I am sure the Scottish Government wants to make successful and fair decisions which support the self catering sector, it’s vital you do, and hopefully you will be able to learn from the experience of many small business owners like me providing feedback and comments.  Having read the consultation paper I find it hard to see how the scheme being proposed can work in the real world.  There are many points on which it fails to deliver fairness or meet the aims intended and I believe it will have many unintended and negative consequences on the self catering sector, business in general and the economy and families of Scotland:

Forceful imposition with only 4 weeks of “consultation”.  The proposal excuses this because of the pandemic however other proposals, e.g. the TVL have been put on hold at the current time so why is this different?  In many ways this will have greater impact on tourism than TVL yet it is being given less time and consideration and scrutiny than many relatively minor matters.  Why?  The severe limitation in the wording and scope of the questions accompanying the document indicate that this is not a consultation at all it is an abuse of process.  The timing is also surprising given the October break and many MSPs on holiday.

Extremely limited field of investigation given the breadth of impact the scheme will have on the self catering sector and the wider economy.  The pool of input consisted of:  592 affected residents (where from?), 63 Community Groups (ditto), some Air BnB operators (ditto) and only 5 professional self catering businesses.  A tiny and skewed group of “over 1,000”.

Lack of clarity and fairness in the types of accommodation included – some surprising categories are excluded and the definitions are not tight and clear as they should be.  If this is about the issues claimed then all types of self catering should be included.

Introduction via a secondary legislation route receiving no scrutiny or debate.  It is not being exposed to the oxygen of wider knowledge or opinion and no vote.  Why not?  This excludes all other MSPs from having any say in the matter or representing their constituents and is undemocratic.  I am appalled.

No BRIA has been undertaken.  Why not?  How can any scheme be devised without understanding the impact and costs?  How can any debate or consultation be undertaken without having this information?  I believe Scottish Government guidance required a BRIA, is this not so?

Written almost entirely from the perspective of AirBnB lets in hotspot areas.  The terms and tenor of the proposal do not relate to the vast majority of self catering in Scotland.  If I can give you an analogy: possible issues with a bad apple in Edinburgh and plums in Skye are leading to licensing and control of 90% of completely innocent pears in Scotland.  This is nonsensical and disproportionate.

Hugely burdensome in financial terms on an ongoing basis, with uncertainty as to business continuation under both the licensing and planning sections.  Planning is being applied in a way completely contrary to normal applications.  Why?  Self catering holidays are booked at least a year in advance in most places and especially in Harris, I have a few single weeks left in 2021 season and already have weeks booked in 2022.  It is not possible to take bookings wondering whether you will be licensed to operate, and which guest would want to take the risk of making one?

Hugely burdensome in administrative terms as there will be several arms that will need to be continually monitored and rules for each kept up to date with.  The alternative relies on purchasing external help to do this causing more financial outlay.  The sector is already heavily regulated, it’s a lot and adding more in this heavy handed way is too much.

Local Authorities will be burdened with additional work when they are struggling to deal with the pandemic and to provide basic services.  I can tell you trying to get even simple answers out of either of the Councils I have to deal with could be likened to trying to get blood from a stone pre-pandemic.  This scheme means there will be 32 different ways of implementing as there are no national rules and is a blank cheque written against my account because there is no BRIA and councils are expect to recoup costs directly but nobody knows what those will be or when they will be due.

Fiddling with several pieces of legislation to try and make them fit with the proposed scheme without full understanding of the risks and costs (limited field of view and no BRIA).  Disaster will follow.  I note from the meeting records of the Short-Term Let Delivery Group Workshop on 7th October several questions raised were completely ignored, particularly some relating to legal aspects, the general stance taken in the meeting was a worrying read.

Immensely and unnecessarily complicated proposal.  I have no problem with the idea of licensing in principle and feel all self catering should meet the same standards however the proposed scheme does not meet its own aims and is not only unworkable but as it is not based on evidence, illogical.  Simple and less burdensome solutions are available such as the scheme outlined by the ASSC or the successful scheme employed in the Isle of Man.

It seems to me there are 2 main issues here which need to be separated and addressed, they cannot be fixed with the same hammer and they cannot be fixed by the proposed scheme:

  • alleged issues with Air BnB operation in hotspot areas
  • 50 years of lack of investment in housing

The proposed scheme is an over-reaction to the first and does not fix the second.

Perceived issues with Air BnB operation in Edinburgh (and other hotspots) should be directly addressed by controlling those involved in that kind of letting in those areas and most importantly the letting operators/management companies who facilitate the lets.  That is not the self catering sector as a whole, it is a small section of allegedly dreadful behaviour which has been allowed to continue despite there being existing rules and regulations which could have been used to control it (antisocial behaviour and fire regulations).  If current measures are deemed insufficient then changes should be made to directly target the problem, not against the entire sector.  It’s a disproportionate abuse of power to damage and punish everyone for a small and dirty issue.

The assertion that the planned scheme will drive housing into the market and alleviate housing issues in Scotland is flawed and without foundation.  It will simply make a lot of self caterers withdraw from the marketplace because of the burdensome nature of the rules.  This was borne out by the recent ASSC survey of actual self catering business owners which found 49% of respondents would withdraw from the market and 33% of those would leave their homes empty or for use by friends and family only.  The Scottish Government is about to fuel a Clearance of the country with ghost properties sitting empty for much of the year instead of being used and bringing much needed income to rural and island communities.  What a legacy that will be.

I surely don’t have to mention the £723million brought into the Scottish economy from the sector annually.  Nor, I’m sure, do I have to explain to you the importance of the associated additional income to communities, businesses and wellbeing in our country.

The self catering sector is full of small business people like me who are struggling to cope with the effects of the pandemic, huge financial losses, stress of dealing with guests, how to manage any bookings which have been possible, understanding the guidance for re-opening, writing risk assessments, procedures, expenditure on additional items required in order to re-open.  In my case I have also had additional expenditure in making sure my property, housekeeper, guests and the island are kept safe, keeping up with an ever changing situation and rules and wondering if next year will bring more of the same.  It has been a hugely stressful year so far and next year is but a heartbeat away.

At a time when domestic holidays are more important to the population than ever and we need to keep as much of our money in our economy as we possibly can, self catering should be being supported and encouraged.  The proposed scheme will damage the market and have far reaching deleterious results in the economy as a whole.  A licensing scheme like this is a very blunt instrument and not the most appropriate way to fix a (perceived) problem in certain areas, it is not an appropriate solution for the whole of the country.

The scheme needs to be scrapped and started again with proper investigation of the whole sector, proper definition of the issues, fairness to all, simple, low cost and appropriate solutions, risk assessment, costing, scrutiny, debate and a vote in parliament.  It is completely inappropriate to impose such a wide ranging policy without doing these things.

Yours sincerely

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