Oxford City Council calls on UK Government to follow Scotland’s lead and empower councils to tackle short-term lets

Published: Monday, 28th September 2020

Oxford City Council has called on the UK Government to follow Scotland’s lead and empower local authorities to crack down on short-term lets.

The Scottish Government is planning to introduce new laws that will enable councils to regulate short-term lets, to ensure properties are safe and do not negatively impact on the local neighbourhood. It has launched a final consultation on the plans.

There are no such regulations in England, meaning councils have few powers to tackle the issue.

In Oxford, the use of short-term let websites to rent out entire properties for most, or all, of the year has resulted in a loss of valuable family homes and, in extreme cases, properties being used for illegal or anti-social purposes. Some short-term lets in the city have been used as brothels or for regular loud parties.

Councillor Alex Hollingsworth, City Council Cabinet Member for Planning and Housing Delivery, has called on the UK Government to follow the lead of the Scottish Parliament and regulate short-term lets in England.

The City Council has now been calling on the UK Government to take action against short-term lets for two years.

Current regulations in England

Local authorities have powers to tackle the symptoms of short-term lets – such as anti-social behaviour and noise nuisance – but the only way to tackle the root cause and stop a property being used as a short-term let is through a lengthy legal process.

Currently, national planning laws in England require landlords to apply for planning permission only when there is a ‘material change’ in the use of the property. But the phrase ‘material change’ is ill-defined in the law. This means many landlords convert their homes into short-term lets without seeking planning permission, meaning local authorities and neighbours are not given a notification about, or a say on, the conversion.

The only way local authorities can take action against particularly disruptive short-term lets is to prove there has been a ‘material change’ to the property. If successful, this would require the landlord to change the property back to its original state and then seek planning permission to convert it into a short-term let.

But as there is no automatic notification that a property has been converted into a short-term let, local authorities are reliant on members of the public making complaints – and then have to carry out a time-consuming investigation and prosecution.

The City Council requires licences for Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs) and is consulting on requiring licences for all private rented properties. But short-term lets are a loophole as they cannot be regulated in the same way. Equally, guest-houses and hotels are subject to rigorous inspections for fire and food safety as well as child sexual exploitation, but short-term lets are not. The City Council is therefore trying to close these loopholes.

Despite this challenge, Oxford City Council has successfully taken enforcement action against short-term lets in the city. In August, the City Council won a planning appeal after proving there had been a material change to a home in William Street.

The Scottish proposals

The Scottish Government’s proposals would require all short-term let landlords to receive a licence before they are allowed to operate a short-term let. The licence would require the landlord to meet minimum safety standards with their property or properties.                   

Under the plans, local councils would also be able to set their own conditions on the licence to address local needs or concerns, such as restricting noise levels at night or littering.

The proposals would also enable local councils to designate areas where there is a high density of short-term lets as ‘control areas’. In these areas, all conversions of homes to short-term let would be deemed a ‘material change’ and would require planning permission.

Local authorities will also be able to restrict the number of short-term lets that are allowed in a ‘control area’.

These changes mean councils would have a complete list of all short-term let properties in their area, could put conditions on the licence or planning permission to set out what is allowed and what is not, and could take action to stop the short-term letting by removing the licence or planning permission if conditions are breached.

The Scottish Government is currently carrying out a final consultation on the proposals. If passed by the Scottish Parliament, the new rules could come into force by April 2021.

Two years of calls for action

In 2018, City Council Cabinet Member Alex Hollingsworth backed calls from a London council for the UK Government to introduce legislation to compel short-term letting hosts to apply for a licence and be included in a register kept by the Council.

Last year, the City Council suggested the UK Government “would have to act”, after short-term let company Airbnb recommended the UK Government change the law to require landlords to receive planning permission before they rent out an entire house on a short-let basis for more than 140 nights in a year.

London has powers to set its own rules in this area. Landlords in the capital are required to seek planning permission if they are letting out an entire house on a short-let basis for more than 90 nights in a year.

According to a BBC report, nearly half of listings on short-let websites come from hosts with more than one property, and in London 24% of listings are by hosts with five or more sites.

“We welcome the proposals in Scotland, which come after cities like Edinburgh suffered exactly the same issues that Oxford has.

“Short-term lets have a place in a tourist city like ours, but making sure that they get planning permission and a licence will mean that the Council can prevent the loss of too many family homes, and protect neighbours when there’s a problem.

“This is exactly what English cities need, and we hope that the UK Government will learn from what is proposed in Scotland”

Councillor Alex Hollingsworth, Cabinet Member for Planning and Housing Delivery