A Conservative MSP accused of “sabotaging” regulation on short-term lettings has met twice with an Airbnb lobbyist to discuss her plans, according to Scotland’s lobbying register.
Critics have said that rising use of Airbnb is pushing up rents in parts of Scotland popular with tourists such as Edinburgh, Glasgow and the Isle of Skye.
Neighbours of Airbnb lets have also said their guests can be noisy, anti-social and it can be intimidating having strangers in their building all the time.
Green MSP Andy Wightman aimed to combat some of these effects through an amendment to the planning bill going through parliament. This would require planning permission for anyone turning a home into a commercial let.
But Tory tourism spokesperson, Rachael Hamilton MSP, has said she plans to table a rival amendment which would mean people would only need planning permission to change a home to a commercial let in certain areas rather than the whole of Scotland.
Hamilton said her amendment would give councils control over how they deal with the issue. “Somewhere like Edinburgh can tackle problems head-on where they see fit,” she said, “while more rural areas where there isn’t that pressure can continue going about their business.”
Wightman, however, argued that Hamilton’s amendment was worse than the status quo. He accused the Scottish Tories and the Scottish Government – which he said was supporting the amendment – of bowing to industry lobbying.
The Ferret has previously revealed that Airbnb lobbyists wrote to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and finance secretary Derek Mackay arguing against a “one size fits all” approach to regulation. “Regulation should be bespoke to Edinburgh,” the lobbyist said to Sturgeon.
Now new data from the Scottish Parliament’s lobbying register shows that Airbnb’s policy officer, Marie Lorimer, met twice with Hamilton and Conservative housing spokesperson, Graham Simpson MSP, to discuss the amendment – once in December 2018 and once in February 2019. Lorimer also discussed the planning bill with Simpson in August 2018.
Airbnb also employs a specialist Edinburgh-based agency called Halogen Communications to lobby on their behalf. According to one of their clients listed on their website, Halogen’s “contacts are excellent”.
Halogen’s partners are John Crawford, a former Scottish Conservative chief of staff, and Raymond Robertson, a former chair of the Scottish Conservative Party.
The firm also employs Alan Grant, who worked in the Scottish Conservative press office during the 2015 election and John Wadell, who was an assistant to Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, Willie Rennie MSP, until June 2018.
Since April 2018 Halogen’s lobbyists have met MSPs, ministers and special advisers 13 times on Airbnb’s behalf. The meetings included discussions of the planning bill with Graham Simpson, Tory deputy leader, Jackson Carlaw MSP, Labour MSP Anas Sarwar and Andy Wightman.
A Ferret freedom of information request has also revealed Halogen lobbyists have been present at meetings between Edinburgh councillors and Airbnb.
Dodgy deals behind closed doors and sweet-toothed lobbyists cannot conceal the fact that whole areas of our country are being gutted by these types of housing. Gordon Maloney, Living Rent
Gordon Maloney, from campaign group Living Rent, said: “Dodgy deals behind closed doors and sweet-toothed lobbyists cannot conceal the fact that whole areas of our country are being gutted by these types of housing. Voters will not forgive the Scottish Government if they let Airbnb-style holiday lets devastate our communities.”
He added: “Parts of Edinburgh now have more holiday lets than normal rented flats. Where are people meant to live? How much worse does the situation have to get before we see action?
“The Scottish Government have put bold plans on the table around licensing and regulating holiday lets to bring them under control, but these need to be followed through if they are to mean anything at all.”
The City of Edinburgh Council’s housing convenor, SNP councillor Kate Campbell, said that planning permission was not the way to stop the negative effects of Airbnb listings as it is resource intensive.
She said: “Andy Wightman thinks his amendment will fix everything but it won’t. We’d still have to investigate, prove a change of use from residential to commercial, and then take enforcement action which can be – and usually is – appealed. You then have to wait for the reporter to make a decision.”
Campbell added: “We’ve seen cases of two years before we could end a property being used in this way. And because of the resource implications we have to focus on pursuing the most challenging and serious cases. This amendment won’t change that.”
Instead Edinburgh council wanted a proactive licensing regime, she said. “It would also give us the power to control the concentration, overall numbers, and make sure that landlords are fit and proper.”
Campbell welcomed the Scottish Government’s consultation on a range of options including licensing of Airbnb hosts.
The Conservatives bowed down to corporate lobbying and are putting wealthy property owners’ desires to make a fast buck ahead of the real needs of local communities. Andy Wightman, MSP
Wightman responded by pointing out that he had never argued that his amendment fixed everything. “Regulating short-term lets effectively requires two things – planning controls to determine where they are permissible and a licensing system to regulate the operators and ensure they comply with basic standards,” he told The Ferret.
“My amendment to the planning bill provides a modest tightening up of planning law to make it easier for a change of use to be demonstrated. I am surprised that Kate Campbell seems to want to remove short term lets from the planning system.”
Wightman added: “The option now being proposed by the Tories will maintain confusion for planning officers and communities all over Scotland. It’s obvious they’ve bowed down to corporate lobbying and are putting wealthy property owners’ desires to make a fast buck ahead of the real needs of local communities and tackling Scotland’s housing crisis.”
Glasgow City Council argued that the “zonal approach” suggested by the Conservative amendment did not fit with current policy. “It would fail to protect the amenity of residents living outside of those zones who may be affected by unauthorised change of use to short stay accommodation,” said a council spokesperson.
A spokesperson for Airbnb said: “We have long supported discussions on clear rules that recognise the diverse needs of communities across Scotland and those families that rely on tourism.
“Visitors who use Airbnb boost the Scottish economy by almost £1.5 million a day and almost half of hosts say they rely on the additional income. We want to continue working with everyone to secure clear rules that work for everyone.”
Diligent MSPs meet with all kinds of organisations, businesses and community groups - it’s part of the job. If Andy Wightman doesn’t realise this, it explains why he’s been such an inept MSP. Scottish Conservatives spokesperson
The Scottish Government stressed it was reflecting on possible changes to the planning bill. “This bill must lead to an improved, effective planning system,” said a government spokesperson.
“We are working with stakeholders to return the bill to its aims of securing inclusive economic growth, delivering development and empowering communities. We are lodging amendments in the Scottish Parliament which seek to do that.”
The spokesperson added: “We also understand the pressure in some parts of Scotland for new controls over short-term letting of residential properties and believe there is a case to take action. As such, we have published a consultation paper on the appropriate regulatory arrangements for short-term lets and welcome views.
“In the meantime we are committed to working with local authorities to allow them to balance the unique needs of their communities with wider economic and tourism interests.”
A spokesperson for the Scottish Conservatives said: “Diligent MSPs meet with all kinds of organisations, businesses and community groups – it’s part of the job. If Andy Wightman doesn’t realise this, it explains why he’s been such an inept MSP.”