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By Paul Smith

This month I must start the column with a hypocrite alert. Who am I impugning you may ask? Well, the hypocrite is me. I want to pick up on the Michael Gove and Airbnb story, knowing full well that in a few days’ time I will be staying in one.

A consultation and call for evidence were launched in April on short-term lets (not just Airbnb). Quoted in the departmental news release Mr Gove said, “Tourism brings many benefits to our economy but in too many communities we have seen local people pushed out of cherished towns, cities and villages by huge numbers of short-term lets. I’m determined that we ensure that more people have access to local homes at affordable prices, and that we prioritise families desperate to rent or buy a home of their own close to where they work.” The main proposals were for an exclusive short-term lets registration scheme and the creation of a new Planning Use class for short-term lets not used as a sole or main home.

The outcry was immediate, with a Conservative Party donor branding the plan as “Communist”. Those involved in the market were keen to point out the economic value they add, a claim rarely backed up with any meaningful data and a more verifiable assertion that lack of homes is due to not enough being built, a view echoed by a former Housing Secretary Simon Clarke the plan stemmed from “our failure to build enough homes”.

On the economic contribution I have my doubts. If those homes were occupied for the whole year by a household rather than just in the tourist season the impact on local shops and other facilities would be greater. It would have a negative impact on the domestic cleaning sector but could increase the viability of hotels and B&Bs. 

On the ‘this won’t solve the housing crisis’ argument, it can be added to a whole mountain of other measures which on their own won’t solve the housing crisis, but which collectively can make a significant contribution. The campaign group, Inside Airbnb, who are clearly not a neutral source in this debate, list the number of short-term lets in some parts of the UK. Looking only at entire property listings the numbers are not insignificant: London 46,000, Bristol 1,500, and Greater Manchester 3,000, half of these in the City of Manchester. These are all homes which have been withdrawn from the housing market. 

One of the concerns of the Government (and the rest of us) is that as rules on private renting increase, instead of selling properties to other landlords or to potential owners they are flipped to short term lets, further collapsing the number of homes available.

We should also remember what the purpose of planning classes is. It is to determine that the land use follows the needs of a local area. Homes are (mainly) in Planning Use class C3 and the housing targets in local plans are based upon an assessment of local housing need. Hotels, guest houses etc are in Planning Use C1. If someone wants to convert a house into a hotel, they will need to submit a change of use planning application. Currently changing a home into a short-term letting does not require planning permission. It would be possible for a whole block of flats or even a whole community to be converted to short term use without any intervention from the local authority (London has slightly different rules to the rest of England). This appears to be a complete perversion of the planning system and a way of covertly sabotaging housing provision and whole communities.

Gove must be right to seek a Planning Use class for this type of property.