An opinion piece by Councillor Susan Brown, leader of Oxford City Council:
With most lockdown restrictions now lifted, tourism will play an important part in Oxford’s recovery from the pandemic – and rightly so. With our world-famous heritage and an exciting mix of culture, leisure and retail attractions, Oxford was a top ten visitor destination before COVID-19. We look forward to welcoming people back to enjoy all our city has to offer.
But there’s an issue. We need to talk about short lets.
Let me be clear here. I’m not referring to people letting out rooms in their own homes, but rather the growing practice of renting out entire properties as short lets. While numbers are difficult to quantify, we estimate that there are nearly 900 homes in Oxford rented out like this for all or most of the year – and that these numbers are increasing.
This is very worrying in a city where half our homes are rented privately. The growth in short lets robs our city of much needed family homes and 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 let properties have been used for illegal or antisocial purposes – for example, as brothels or for regular loud parties. These short lets are often in quiet residential neighbourhoods and the strain this causes can be immense.
All houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) in Oxford require a licence and we are also seeking confirmation for a selective licensing scheme to cover 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. If it hadn’t been for lockdown, the property would have remained available as a short let for another 13 months.
Apart from enforcement action against short 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 lets in a timely way. A new approach is required – one that eliminates unfair competition and puts short term lets on a level playing field with other rented properties and businesses like hotels and guesthouses.
At the moment, hotels and guesthouses have to follow appropriate guidance and legislation around areas like environmental health, food and fire safety. These are simply not applied to short term lets.
Equally, private landlords with properties in poor condition – who we would not deem fit to let to families – may see the opportunity to avoid bringing them up to standard by renting them as short lets. This lack of regulation could put visitors at risk and damage the reputation of our city and country.
Airbnb, has recommended the creation of a register of short lets and a change in the law requiring planning permission before an owner can rent an entire house as a short let for more than 140 nights in a year. We would like to see the designation of homes used predominantly as short term lets as a separate planning class of commercial businesses. This would allow us to introduce policies to restrict their numbers and location, and for enforceable conditions to be applied if necessary. We would also be able to levy business rates on short lets, ensuring that they paid for the services that they use.
The Scottish government is proposing legislation requiring all owners to have a licence before they are allowed to operate an entire property as a short let. This licence would ensure owners meet minimum safety standards in their short let properties. It would also allow Scottish councils to set their own conditions to address local needs or concerns, such as restricting noise levels at night or littering.
We believe this type of legislation in England would bring clear benefits. A mandatory licensing scheme would give us a complete list of entire homes rented out as short lets. This would make investigating complaints significantly easier. In the most extreme cases, we would have 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 we – hopefully – emerge from the shadow of 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. I have written to housing minister Christopher Pincher expressing my concerns and asking for the necessary tools to regulate the short let sector.
I await his response with interest.