There has been much trumpeting of a change in legislation in the government’s Deregulation Bill that will allow Londoners to participate more fully in the “sharing economy” by renting their homes out on a short-let basis for up to 90 days a year. While many may be excited at the prospect of earning some extra cash when they go on holiday, we fear it could have some worrying unintended consequences.
One concern is that, in a city where housing is so scarce, losing homes to holiday accommodation is a luxury we cannot afford. There is also the threat of anti-social behaviour, particularly for those who live in blocks of flats. Apartment buildings work well when neighbours are considerate, but temporary holiday-makers will not have the same stake in the building. They can often be noisy neighbours, arriving and leaving at anti-social hours, and may potentially compromise security and invalidate insurance.
Our members have come to us with even worse stories – we have had several examples of short-let properties being used for raves, drug dealing, prostitution, and overcrowding. And we are not alone in our concerns. Paris has cracked down majorly on holiday lets, as has New York.
So what should the government do? Previously, the law was not well-enforced but it did sort of work. The individual householder renting out their home for a couple of weeks without planning permission was rarely prosecuted, but problem short-lets would generally be picked up by local authorities, which had the planning powers to deal with them.
Now, those who let out their homes for up to 90 days a year will no longer require planning permission. The burden thus moves from the local authority simply having to prove that planning permission wasn’t sought, to the authority having to prove that the property has been let out on short-lets for more than 90 days. Short of spying on individual flats, this is a tough ask.
There is, however, a solution. In an ideal world, the owners of sharing economy websites would police themselves, checking whether planning permission had been granted and weeding out properties that exceed the legal limit of 90 days. They should at the very least respond to requests from local authorities that think properties are being used illegally. At present, council queries fall on deaf ears unless they have the force of criminal law behind them, such as in cases of benefit fraud.
We rightly expect businesses to act as good corporate citizens in our country. Internet operators should not be exempt from this expectation. Attack the internet, however, and you are seen as attacking freedom and something sacrosanct. That is wrong. The worldwide web shouldn’t be the Wild West, and we should expect better of firms that are happy to take profits from this country, but aren’t prepared to act as good corporate citizens.
The residents of London may not be as glamorous as the latest tech whizz, but they will be around long after the owners of these websites have cashed in. Let’s hope that Londoners still have somewhere to live, and that their property managers, freehold owners, and local authorities are not left behind in the government’s rush to embrace the sharing economy.