Letter to government asking for action on short lets

This is the text of a letter written by councillor Susan Brown on 22 June 2021 urging minister of state for housing Christopher Pincher to take action to regulate the short let sector:

I am writing on behalf of Oxford City Council to express my concern about the impact of whole property short lets in Oxford and to ask the government about its intentions to regulate the short let sector.

While numbers are difficult to quantify, we estimate that there are nearly 900 homes in Oxford entirely rented out on short lets for all or most of the year and that these numbers are increasing. This is very worrying in a city that is so reliant on the private rented sector to house its population. About 50% of our local residents live in private rented homes – the highest number in the country.

Tourism makes a vital contribution to our local economy and there is no doubt that short lets will have an important part to play as this sector recovers from the effects of the pandemic. However, this loss of valuable family homes puts upward pressure on rents that are already among the most unaffordable in England. We have deliberately encouraged the development of hotels and guest houses through our planning policies to support tourism and resist the loss of family housing.

In extreme cases, some of these short term let properties have been used for illegal or antisocial purposes – for example, as brothels or for regular loud parties. The strain on neighbours of these properties, often in quiet residential neighbourhoods, can be immense.

All houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) in Oxford require a licence and we are also be seeking confirmation for a selective licensing scheme covering all private rented homes in Oxford. However, we are currently not able to apply licensing requirements to properties rented as short lets.

Currently owners only have to apply for planning permission when there is a ‘material change’ in the use of a property. We are not automatically notified when entire homes become used for short lets. We must rely on complaints from members of the public, lengthy investigations and individual assessments on whether there has been such a change.

We issued a planning enforcement notice against the owner of a short let in July 2019, following a complaint of antisocial behaviour and nuisance from the property. The owner appealed and the appeal was not dismissed by the Planning Inspectorate until August 2020. But for lockdown, the property would have remained available as a short let for another 13 months.

Apart from enforcement action against short term let properties without planning permission, we can only tackle effects like antisocial behaviour and nuisance. However, it is almost impossible to do this when there is a stream of different people using a property.

Quite simply, we do not have the tools to effectively manage problematic short term lets in a timely way. A new approach is required – one that puts short term lets on a level playing field with other rented properties and rental businesses like hotels and guesthouses.

At the moment, legitimate businesses such as hotels and guesthouses have to follow appropriate guidance and legislation around areas like environmental health, food and fire safety, which are simply not applied to short term lets. Equally, there is every chance that private landlords who are not licensed because of the poor quality of their properties will see an opportunity in the short term let market to avoid the necessary work needed to bring their properties up to standard. This has the possibility of putting short term tenants at risk and the reputation of our city and country as people find themselves in properties that are far from desirable, as well as offering unfair competition.

With this in mind, and noting with approval the Scottish government’s intention to require all owners to have a licence before they are allowed to operate an entire property as a short let, I would therefore ask:

  • what steps will the government take to regulate the short let sector?
  • will the government consider legislation on the proposed Scottish model?

In particular, I would ask the government to consider:

  • the designation of homes used predominantly as short term lets as a separate planning class, allowing local authorities to introduce policies to restrict their numbers and location and for enforceable conditions to be applied if necessary
  • allowing local authorities to introduce local licensing schemes for short term let properties and landlords, matching local and national HMO and other private rented licensing schemes
  • ensuring that short term lets are subject to the same environment health, food and fire safety regimes as hotels and guest houses
  • allowing local authorities to charge short term let properties as commercial businesses

We believe legislation along the Scottish model would bring clear benefits. We would be able to attach planning conditions to short lets – for example, by restricting their use to avoid the loss of much needed family housing or to reduce adverse impacts on local communities.

We would have a complete list of entire homes rented out as short lets, which would make investigating complaints significantly easier. In the most extreme cases, it would provide us with wider and easier to use powers to take action against the illegal use of short lets.

Oxford City Council first called for mandatory licensing and changes to planning legislation to enable the effective regulation of short lets back in 2018. As a top ten visitor destination before COVID-19, we believe there is a pressing need to enact these changes to allow a safe and successful bounce back from the pandemic in Oxford.

We understand that many other areas with large tourist markets are experiencing similar issues and would be supportive of our request, including coastal areas who have been very badly hit by the growth in this unregulated market.