‘Worse than the status quo’: Andy Wightman accuses SNP and Tories of succumbing to lobbying pressure on short-term lets regulation

Proposed changes to the Planning Bill, which would see its reforms to the short term let sector only apply in some areas, follow months of industry lobbying

  • Scottish Green MSP accuses SNP and Tories of yielding to pressure from short-term let sector
  • New plan for ‘control areas’ echoes alternative amendments drafted by Airbnb lobbyists
  • Scottish Government tells CommonSpace they are “reflecting on changes” made to Planning Bill at stage two, which passed with Wightman’s amendment proposing a comprehensive, nationwide scheme
  • Nicola Sturgeon pledged at April SNP conference that a new system of regulation for short-term lets would “control the number of lets”

ANDY WIGHTMAN, the Scottish Greens MSP and housing spokesperson, has accused the SNP and the Scottish Conservatives of attempting to “water down” efforts to reform Scotland’s short-term let sector and weaken efforts to rein in the growing industry, dominated by the digital platform Airbnb.

The Times newspaper today reported that the Scottish Tories “are thought to have struck a deal” with the Scottish Government, with tighter controls to the short-term lets sector applying to certain designated ‘control areas’ throughout Scotland, as opposed to the comprehensive, nationwide scheme proposed by Wightman.

‘Amendment 45’, tabled by Wightman and passed at stage two of the Planning Bill’s passage through Holyrood in October 2018, would have required that all short-term lets apply for council planning consent in order to change their legal status. Planning authorities would base their decision in part on the needs of the local community.

At present, residents in areas such as Edinburgh – where the concentration of properties listed through Airbnb is proportionally four times greater than in London or Paris – and the Highlands have voiced mounting concerns about the effect of short-term lets on local communities and the availability of residential housing.

READ MORE: 'Protecting Liveable, Affordable Communities': new group calls for short-term lets licensing system in Edinburgh

While the reforms included in Amendment 45 would have been applied nationwide, the SNP-Tory proposals will lead to public uncertainty and a system that is “worse than the status quo,” Wightman has argued.

Wightman commented: “It’s shocking that SNP and Tories are lining up to sabotage my amendment on short term lets. What I was seeking to do is clarify and simplify the law governing change of use to make it easier for planning authorities to regulate the sector as they see fit.

“By making my amendment only applicable in defined areas, the rest of the country will be left with unclear rules about what constitutes a change of use. The Planning Bill was the opportunity to clarify this and the Government has had since October 2018 to discuss this with me. It has not done so and, instead has been working with the Tories behind the scenes to water down its impact.”

Wightman also stated that he believed the new proposals were the result of intensive lobbying by the short-term let industry.

READ MORE: New data revealing 1 Airbnb for every 48 Edinburgh residents sparks renewed calls for regulation on short-term lets

Wightman commented: “It is clear to me that the short term let industry has been successful in lobbying Ministers and the Conservative Party to weaken the Bill. Their changes will be worse than the status quo and Greens will be opposing the amendment at Stage 3."

The Scottish investigative journalism platform the Ferret revealed in January of this year that Halogen, a public relations firm hired by Airbnb, had met with MSPs, ministers and Scottish Government special advisors 28 times since March 2018.

One note from these meetings indicated that the firm had drafted alternative amendments to the Planning Bill, which would undercut the “blanket approach” pursued by Wightman.

The Ferret report also revealed that lobbyists acting on behalf of Airbnb had written to ministers including First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and finance secretary Derek Mackay, urging a delay in the implementation of short-term let regulation, and arguing that reforms should only apply to one part of central Edinburgh.

Speaking to CommonSpace, a Scottish Government spokesperson did not directly address Wightman’s accusations that the new proposals were the result of lobbying, but noted the inclusion of “stakeholders” in their efforts to “return the Bill to its aims”.

READ MORE: Caught between Universal Credit and AirBNB: Suzy Cargill’s story

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We are reflecting on changes made to the Planning Bill at Stage 2. This Bill must lead to an improved, effective planning system. We are working constructively with parties and stakeholders to return the Bill to its aims towards securing inclusive economic growth, delivery of development and to empowering communities. We will shortly lodge amendments in the Scottish Parliament which will seek to do that.”

Speaking to the Times newspaper, Scottish Conservative tourism spokesperson Rachael Hamilton also said: “Our amendment seeks to give councils more control over how they deal with the Airbnb [issue]. There is widespread geographical disparity, so it needs local decision-makers to take the lead. This means somewhere like Edinburgh can tackle problems head-on where they see fit, while more rural areas where there isn’t that pressure can continue going about their business.”

Several Scottish local authorities welcomed First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement in April that the Scottish Government would seek to further regulate the short-term let sector.

Speaking at the SNP conference in Edinburgh, Sturgeon announced a new public consultation to “control the number of lets and ensure they make a contribution to the services they use”.

Sturgeon argued that, while the “cheaper, flexible travel” afforded by Airbnb was one of the reasons Scotland’s tourism industry is “booming” – it was making it harder for others to find homes to live in, and pledged to “get the balance right” with a new system of regulation.

Picture courtesy of Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine

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