Eddie Hughes – 2022 Speech on the Sharing Economy and Short-Term Letting

The speech made by Eddie Hughes, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, in the House of Commons on 16 June 2022.

I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) for the opportunity to debate this important issue. It is a matter of considerable interest to many hon. Members across all parties and I am grateful to have heard some of their contributions today. Although short-term and holiday letting to paying guests is not a new phenomenon, it is clear that there has been rapid and significant growth in the market over the last decade or so, driven by the proliferation and popularity of online platforms such as Airbnb—other platforms are available.

Many hon. Members will have seen first hand and heard from their constituents as to the challenges and, on occasion, the benefits that that growth has brought to communities, the tourism industry and the wider housing market. Today’s debate has been an invaluable opportunity to hear about the picture in different areas of England, and indeed Scotland.

We can all agree that the sharing economy makes an important contribution to the wider economy. Some estimates suggest that short-term let hosts and guests contribute more than £3 billion to the UK economy. The sharing economy also benefits consumers, who enjoy a greater choice of accommodation at a range of competitive prices. Obviously, for households who have unoccupied or underused accommodation, it provides an additional source of income. Of course, an increased number of tourists in any area will have a positive knock-on effect for local businesses, particularly tourism and hospitality businesses, which will see more footfall and more spending.

Despite those myriad benefits, there are major drawbacks for certain local areas as hon. Members have highlighted. It is a particular issue in hotspots such as the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster; in York, as the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) highlighted; in rural areas, such as the south-west and the Lake District; and in Edinburgh, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) highlighted.

It has been argued that the growing number of short-term lets is affecting housing supply. Some people are rightly concerned that landlords may be prioritising short-term letting activity instead of long-term tenancy arrangements. Today, the Government published a White Paper for private renters, “A Fairer Private Rented Sector”, which sets out our plan to fundamentally reform the sector and to level up housing quality in this country. Our hope is that that package of measures will help good landlords in the market.

Another concern about short-term and holiday lets is the reports of noisy neighbours and the antisocial or nuisance behaviour of guests. Indeed, the Greater London Authority has reported that in the five London boroughs with the most Airbnb listings, there have been complaints related to short-term letting activity. Westminster reported 194 complaints of noise, waste and antisocial behaviour over just one year. Local authorities have a range of powers to enable them to tackle such issues, including being able to serve abatement notices if they believe a statutory nuisance is taking place; powers to tackle noise under the Noise Act 1996; and powers under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 to act on nuisances such as litter and garden rubbish, as well as noise.

As we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster, a further issue in London is that some short-term lets are regularly in breach of the 90-day rule that we have heard about. She has done a valiant job of lobbying Airbnb to take an industry lead and has encouraged it to accept a registration scheme, to provide local authorities with full disclosure of properties in their area, and to enforce that rule.

For those unfamiliar, if London properties that are liable for council tax are let out for more than 90 nights a year, that represents a material change of use for which planning permission is required. That rule was introduced in the Deregulation Act 2015 and gave Londoners similar freedoms to residents in the rest of England, where there are no restrictions. Prior to 2015, Londoners could not let out their homes on a short-term basis. The rule means that Londoners can rent out their property when, for example, they are away on holiday. In practice, however, as we have heard, local authorities say that they are struggling to enforce when there are breaches because of a lack of data on where the lets are located and who runs them.

This brings me on to what steps the Government are taking to improve how the short-term lettings sector operates. There is currently no definitive source of data on short-term lets, and much existing evidence is largely anecdotal. Much of the publicly available data also predates covid-19, so we really need to get an up-to-date picture of how the market is operating today. In the very near future, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport therefore intends to publish a call for evidence to help us do precisely that. After this debate, when I see the relevant Minister in the Tea Room, I will be nudging him in the right direction. Getting an up-to-date picture of how the market is operating will be vital for developing appropriate ways forward that not only preserve the benefits of short-term letting but address the challenges. When the call for evidence is published, the Government will welcome responses from those who have spoken today so that, when working out what the Government should do next, we can take advantage of the valuable knowledge imparted today.

Rachael Maskell

It is my understanding that DCMS will be looking at a registration scheme, not a licensing scheme, and there is a world of difference between them. Given the Minister’s departmental interest in this issue, could there be a roundtable to discuss the impact of this and the difference between licensing and registration? Would he advocate or facilitate such a roundtable with, for instance, the Members here and Members with a particular interest in this issue?

Eddie Hughes

I do not know if I can facilitate that, but, trust me, I am definitely going to advocate it. I think the idea of a roundtable with the relevant Ministers from my Department and DCMS would be an excellent idea. That would give colleagues from across the House the opportunity to engage, and it would be delightful if the hon. Member for Edinburgh East could contribute to it as well. I fully appreciate the jurisdictional element, but it would still be good to have his input.

Another prominent call is for changes to the planning system. I recognise that the creation of a new class for short-term lets appears an attractive way to limit them. However, this would also create challenges about how a new use class would be applied and effectively enforced. That said, I know that the Scottish Government have made changes to their planning system and the Welsh Government are consulting on making changes to reflect the new world created by short-term holiday lets. I would remind Members participating in this debate that the spread of second homes and holiday lets across England is not a consistent picture and clearly varies region by region. Nevertheless, we are speaking with the Welsh Government about the progress and implementation of their planning proposals, and I can assure Members that we will keep this area under review.

I want to mention briefly the action the Government are taking through the tax system. We have strengthened the criteria under which second properties are considered as commercial holiday lets and assessed for business rates, rather than council tax. From 1 April next year, holiday lets will be required to demonstrate that the property has actually been let out for at least 70 days in the preceding year. This will ensure that only genuine holiday businesses that bring tourists to destinations across the country and contribute to the economy can access the rate relief for small businesses.

Today’s debate has also touched on the impact that short-term lets have on the housing market, so I want to mention what steps the Government are taking to address the challenges in our housing market. They include making the dream of home ownership a reality, as well as delivering a significant number of new affordable homes, so that everyone can access a safe and secure home that is affordable to them. We are investing £11.5 billion in the affordable homes programme, which, if economic conditions allow, will provide up to 180,000 homes across the country.

We are also adopting new measures to support people getting on to the housing ladder. Since 2010, over 758,000 households have been helped to purchase a home through Government-backed schemes, including Help to Buy and the right to buy. On top of this, our First Homes programme offers homes to local first-time buyers with a discount of at least 30% on the full market value. Local authorities also have the discretion to apply additional eligibility criteria to First Homes through the plan-making process, including deeper discounts of 40% or 50% where buyers can demonstrate a local connection in order to prioritise local residents and key workers.

I want to close by once again thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster for bringing this important debate to the House. The Government are acutely aware of the issue, and I can assure colleagues that we are paying close attention to it and giving it careful consideration both in my Department and in DCMS. As highlighted at the outset, we recognise that the sharing economy can be beneficial for local communities and businesses, but we are equally clear that those benefits cannot come at the expense of our ultimate priority of ensuring that everyone has access to a decent, safe and affordable home.