The Scottish Government’s controversial plans to regulate short-term let accommodation were condemned as heavy-handed and too far-reaching as MSPs rejected a last-ditch bid to postpone the deadline for licence applications.
Opposition parties argued that some short-term lets were essential to sustain Scotland’s tourism sector and criticised the legislation for insisting on licences not just for Airbnb-style accommodation but also people letting out their spare rooms as well as traditional bed and breakfasts and even house swaps. But a Tory call for the October 1 date for licence applications was defeated after a debate in the Scottish Parliament.
Former Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie acknowledged issues with party flats in Edinburgh and the increase in Airbnbs making it harder for people to find homes. He said: “There is a problem, but that doesn’t mean we should remove large numbers of perfectly good short-term lets from the market because we need them for a thriving tourism industry. The licensing scheme is too heavy-handed and it is a victim of mission creep: the reach has now caught yurts, house swaps, rooms in people’s homes and bed and breakfasts. Imposing controls on those properties won’t tackle the problem of insufficient housing for locals nor will it bring an end to the party flats.”
Edinburgh Southern Labour MSP Daniel Johnson accused the Scottish Government of "washing its hands" of the impact of the legislation. And he called on ministers to revisit the proposals. He said: "We didn't need to bear down on B&Bs - already a highly-regulated part of the sector; we had no need to tackle house swaps; we had no need to tackle people letting individual rooms within their houses." And he stressed that councils had no flexibility over these matters.
"There is a real issue with the way the government has approached this – you cannot treat all businesses as though they are large multi-national corporations because there is a very real human impact and consequence to this." He said he had held a meeting with people from the sector. "It was harrowing, tears were shed - people who had invested their life savings, whose pensions are the businesses they run. Small businesses are people."
And he said there were still B&B owners unaware they had to apply for a licence in order to continue. "I'm very concerned there are businesses in this city who after October 1 will be operating illegally simply because they do not know."
Edinburgh Northern & Leith SNP MSP Ben Macpherson said licensing of short-term lets was "long overdue" and Scotland was "playing catch-up" with places like Copenhagen, Paris, Barcelona and New York.
He told the chamber: "I appreciate there are highly respectable, very effective managers and owners of short-term lets and they do produce employment, but even before I was elected in 2016 I was hearing form many people in Leith in particular about how poorly managed short-term lets in their tenements and streets were causing disruption, discomfort and dilapidation of common property.
"And I've heard from many who feel it's been unjust that private rented sector landlords and other visitor accommodation providers like local hotels have until recently been held to a higher standard than those short-term let properties."
He also argued it was right that home-letting and home-sharing were covered by the licensing law because "there are several very successful businesses that have several rooms in their house that they rent out but they still live in it" and they ought to be held to the same standard as other accommodation providers.
Lothian Labour MSP Sarah Boyack said Edinburgh had a long-standing housing crisis which was getting worse and an estimated 13,500 properties had been lost to short-term lets. She said she had welcomed plans to act on the issue, but the Scottish Government's legislation did not strike the right balance.
"Long established B&B operators who had been in the city for decades, who are not part of that loss of housing, were also going to be regulated and licensed. Unregulated short-term lets need to be acted on but it has reached out far more than people wanted."
Campaigners have claimed that thousands of short-term let owners could leave the sector because of the new licensing scheme. And Lothian Tory MSP MIles Briggs suggested the loss of that accommodation could hit Edinburgh's Festivals and open the door to other cities to snatch the Capital's crown. He said: "Cities around the world which are growing their arts festivals would give their right arm to become as successful as Edinburgh. Indeed, many will be looking at the potential impact on next year's Festival and seeing how they could benefit and try to become the world's largest arts festival."
After the vote, Andy Fenner, chief executive of the Short Term Accommodation Association, said the debate had been the last of trying to win a “common sense” delay to the licensing scheme. And he said: “It’s now vital that those owners and operators yet to apply for their licence do so by October 1, otherwise they won’t benefit from the ability to continue operating while their application is decided. They will be treated as new operators who cannot accept bookings until they have been awarded a licence.”