The Passion of St Tibulus
Imagine that there was a unit of measurement for quantifying our propensity to anger. And imagine that in addition to weight, blood pressure, lung capacity, cholesterol level, that measurement was one of the standards recorded annually on our medical records. It would then be possible to plot our propensity to anger over time, illustrating it as a graph, anger on the vertical axis, our age on the horizontal axis.
My anger line would pootle about at a negligible level slightly above the horizontal axis through childhood, teenage years, university, starting work, living in Luxembourg, returning to Edinburgh. The line only starts to rise in my early 30s and rises at an increasing rate until I’m 52, at which point it drops sharply, almost back to the halcyon days of my youth. The end of the upward curve was brought about by the passing of my father and a realisation that life’s too short for resentment. As to what lay at the start of the curve, who knows, probably someone put a spoon in the knife drawer.
But the waters aren’t yet completely calm. If we were to zoom in on my graph over the last three or four months, we’d see that there are some blips, where my anger levels momentarily rise to alarming levels, but rapidly disperse. This is when I read about the current debate surrounding the licensing of short-term let accommodation in Scotland.
I should at this point declare an interest, or to be precise, a past interest. I used to own a flat in Stockbridge, Edinburgh which I rented out on a secured tenancy basis. It’s not for me to say, but I’d like to think I was a decent enough landlord, kept rent below the going rate, dealt with any issues myself rather than outsourcing them, repainted every year, organised a couple of major repairs required to the tenement roof.
After three years, I decided to sell but for whatever reason, at that time, there were no takers. A client of mine who ran a holiday letting agency suggested listing the property as a short term let until it sold, which is what I did. This was a bit of an eye opener and perhaps I was unlucky, but a high proportion of my guests were complete idiots, unable to close the front door without smashing the doorframe, disposing of their waste food and other garbage on (literally) every available inch of flooring rather than bins provided, phoning me at midnight twice in a row to say they’d lost the keys, taking the living room door off its hinges and replacing it with a half empty bottle of whisky, that sort of thing.
So, I empathise with those that work in the short-term letting sector, it’s not just a case of sitting back and waiting for the three melons to line up on the fruit machine. But it’s a choice, no one ever forced anyone to become a landlord, and there’s always a way out.
That was then but this is now.
With effect from 1st October 2023 all short-term let accommodation in Scotland must have a licence. To obtain the licence the property must meet certain minimum conditions concerning the likes of fire safety, gas supply, electrical safety, public liability insurance. Additionally, local councils can set extra conditions and several councils, including The City of Edinburgh, require the property to have planning permission to operate as a short-term let.
None of this appears particularly controversial. On a recent holiday to Mull, I found it quite reassuring to see that the cottage we were staying in had an up-to-date fire safety certificate and that the private water supply had had a legionella risk assessment. And why should the change of use of a dwelling previously constructed as a private residence to one used as commercial short-term accommodation be exempt from obtaining planning permission for change of use?
There are those who disagree and who disagree very vocally. We’re told that the Scottish Government wants to “ban tourism”, the real intention of the legislation is to “destroy the industry”, the impact on Edinburgh “will be catastrophic”, we hear of the “misery inflicted” on the sector and of application fees of “£24,000” (which must surely be outlier, if not simply incorrect). I accept that the legislation is flawed: there seems to be no logical reason for bed & breakfast establishments to be included and there should be an exemption for genuine ‘home sharing’ arrangements i.e. where you rent out a spare room while still living in your house.
But even if those amendments were made to the legislation, I’m not convinced that would be enough for the short-term letting sector. They constantly tell us that they welcome regulation “but not this regulation”. However, we – the public – are never told in any detail what regulation they do want. Without that information, it sounds like a sector that doesn’t want to be regulated.
And then there’s housing.
The housing crisis in Scotland is complicated but I don’t think anyone is saying that the root cause is short-term letting. However – in Edinburgh and Skye, for example – it is undeniably a factor. If a dwelling previously used as a family home (whether owner-occupied or rented) is converted to a holiday let, then that’s one less family home.
The short-term letting sector are in denial about this, pointing fingers everywhere to deflect attention. At a protest two weeks ago outside the Scottish Parliament one landlord went so far as to blame Margaret Thatcher’s landmark Right to Buy policy of 1980. She felt that councils should have kept their promises to “rebuild” on the back of the proceeds of sale of council houses. Since councils had to remit 50% of the proceeds to central government and apply the remainder first against existing debt, it’s hard to see how they could do this, although I suspect these 40-year old promises were pure fiction on the part of the protestor. Again, anything to deflect attention.
Sheila Averbuch owns and runs several holiday lets in Edinburgh and, at the same protest, reported that the new rules are having a “horrendous” impact on her mental health. Having been on anti-depressants for a while during that 20-year curve, I sympathise. But she then goes on to explain that the properties are in the New Town and the Old Town and “these are not places that people would want to have domestic housing”. Let that sink in, short-term let landlords are now telling us where we can and cannot live in our own city.
But the award for the most ignorant comment goes to Debbie Klein. We’ve already heard her warped interpretation of Thatcher’s Right to Buy policy. But where she really loses it is when she makes an allusion between the treatment of short-term let landlords by the Scottish Government in 2023 and pogroms, violent attacks directed at Jews, such as those perpetrated by the Nazis in the 1930s.
In Fiona Campbell, the Association of Scotland’s Self-Caterers (ASSC) has a strong Chief Executive who, throughout this saga, has acted in the best interests of her members. I think even she might have been embarrassed by the recent protest which appears to have been organised under the auspices of Save Self-Catering in Scotland, the crowdfunding campaign that raised £300,000 for a Judicial Review of The City of Edinburgh’s short-term lets licensing scheme earlier this year. The A4 placards stating PAUSE NOW! held above their heads are inexplicable to anyone outside of the industry, and reminiscent of CAREFUL NOW and DOWN WITH THIS SORT OF THING from The Passion of St Tibulus episode of Father Ted.
Yesterday it was reported in the Times newspaper that the Scottish Government is considering granting an exemption from the legislation for genuine home swaps, their inclusion being “an unintended consequence of the changes to the law”. Although Ms Campbell has welcomed this news, she has suggested the exemption (yet to be confirmed) “would critically undermine the policy objective of licensing upholding health and safety standards” and asks if “further exemptions be offered to other forms of accommodation captured under licensing such as self-catering and B&Bs”. Not to do so, she suggests “would be iniquitous and not offer a level playing field for tourist accommodation”. While the inclusion of B&Bs may have been an unintended consequence, short-term lets were not, the clue is in the name of the statutory instrument effecting the legislation.
On behalf of the ASSC, Fiona Campbell wrote to the First Minister on 11 September asking that he “reset, reflect [and] review” the legislation over the next three weeks and concluded by saying that “the fate of Scotland’s tourism industry and the communities that depend on it, rests in your hands”.
I suggest it’s a two-way street. A starting point might be for those involved in the sector to turn down the anger-inducing rhetoric, realise that regulation cannot be applied to bad actors only, and accept that short-term lets do have a part to play in the housing crisis. Resetting, reflecting and reviewing works both ways