CSARA asks: Is Airbnb ruining our communities?

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The Confederation of St Andrews Residents’ Associations (CSARA) has been an active campaigner for the protection of scarce housing stock being utilised as student accommodation and has successfully promoted policies, such as a planning moratorium in the Central Conservation Area, and a policy recently adopted by Fife Council to prevent further homes being turned into Houses in Multiple Occupation.

New pressures on family homes are becoming evident as the Internet has fuelled a market for short term lets, in holiday destinations such as St Andrews.

Recent years have seen an enormous increase in private homes being advertised on-line as accommodation for holidays and events such as hen parties. Cities across Europe are seeing greater impacts of tourists on their communities. Amsterdam for instance, hosted 19 million tourists in the central area housing 850,000 residents, and the city government has legislated to prevent traditional shops being turned into tourist souvenir outlets.

Residents of Barcelona with 30 million tourists each year have implored visitors not to disclose that they have been to Barcelona, as it would become unliveable for them, and less attractive for tourists if the number of visitors increased. The Guardian noted on 22nd January 2020 that profits to be gained by renting properties to tourists in major European cities has increased house prices and driven out locals.

Edinburgh Old Town has a particular problem with 29 Airbnb listings for every 100 homes, The Guardian newspaper (21st February 2020) described the problem of rowdy short-term visitors to flatted properties destroying the peace for permanent residents. A recent planning decision by a Scottish Government Reporter confirmed the finding by the city council that use of a flat by successions of short term residents was disruptive to residential amenity, and the appeal against an enforcement notice was refused. Many other commercial short term lets it would seem, operate under the planning radar, and appear to have little local authority regulation although it has been confirmed that they should be subject to planning approval.

The impact of tourists is not confined to major cities. The Isle of Sky has become a major tourist destination, with areas such as the so called “fairy glen” – featured in a number of fantasy films – being a major draw. Visitor’s cars and busses clog the local single track roads, in the peak tourist season, making normal life difficult for residents going about their usual business. Housing has become more expensive and scarce, as available accommodation has been adapted as short term lets, affecting both families and local working people generally.

In Fife, the East Neuk has seen a rise in family homes being turned into second homes, with these and others being advertised on-line as short stay holiday accommodation. This has been fuelled by some owners being able to escape council and business tax by letting out their second home and keeping earnings under the threshold, where as small businesses, they gain an exemption.

St Andrews has over sixty residential properties advertised on the Airbnb website, and many others on competing sites. In a town with an estimated 2000 family homes, including former social housing, now used as houses in multiple occupations or smaller student flats, a further increase in short term lets will exacerbate the existing housing problem in the town and adversely impact on the sustainability of the St Andrews community.

Golf enthusiasts and holiday visitors combine to add pressure to the town’s limited housing resources, and also produce ever increasing motor traffic, with accompanying congestion and pollution. Nevertheless, Visit Scotland lists 170 properties on their website, albeit some of these are caravans or rooms in private homes.

Some areas in Britain, such as the North West Skye have one Airbnb for every four homes. In February, the Guardian carried published a survey, which showed that Edinburgh Old Town had the highest concentration of Airbnb, lets in the UK with 29% of properties featuring in their listings. The East Neuk of Fife rivals the wider Edinburgh conurbation for the density of short term lets.

At a Sustainable Tourism conference in Edinburgh on 26th February of this year, Prince Harry, making one of his last appearances as a senior royal, suggested that towns such as the Scottish capital were becoming changed into tourist destinations rather than places to live. The international tourist market, he suggested, was getting out of control and destroying communities that had gradually evolved over centuries.

A World Heritage site designation, it would appear provides no defence against mass tourism, and communities with lesser protection seem even more at risk. Our beautiful and historic places will come increasingly under pressure if the present trend to increase tourism under the banner of economic development continues. Scottish planning policy requires all new development to be sustainable, but it appears this principle has not yet been applied to the ever-burgeoning tourist trade.

St Andrews suffers from many pressures on its housing assets, with profit invariably trumping social need. A holistic view needs to taken of the housing market and how it can be reformed to encourage the maintenance of a sustainable community. At the moment, there is little sign of this, but Fife Council have to their credit introduced a policy to protect family homes from being turned into houses in multiple occupation by Buy-to Let-Landlords. The legislative tools to tackle the holiday letting market have, so far, been in short supply.

The current lockdown legislation allows only essential travel, but despite this there are current reports of people moving to short term lets in St Andrews. Advertisers on the Airbnb website have been berated for advertising their properties as “Covid-19 retreats”.

New Scottish legislation, due to be implemented in 2021, will allow local authorities to regulate the number of short term lets in pressured communities. It is also intended to introduce a law to tax short- term lets so that they make a contribution to the community. 

It is to be hoped that Fife Council will be an early adopter of these powers.

St Andrews QV (Qui Vive) is an independent not-for-profit, non-political platform for news and debates about issues that are important to the Town. It exists to hold decision makers and public services to account while its editorial policy is to accommodate all shades of opinion from all parts of the community, prioritising evidence-based arguments. St Andrews QV is a member of the Independent Community News Network and is committed to the Community Journalism Charter

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