Concern about short lets rules - fears that new regulations could hit Western Isles tourism

The announcement means that some areas of the Western Isles could see new rules applied in regards to short term lets.
The announcement means that some areas of the Western Isles could see new rules applied in regards to short term lets.

Fears that new powers for local authorities to regulate short-term lets, including the ability to limit the numbers of lets in designated areas, could hit the economy of the Western Isles, have been raised by the head of the islands’ local tourism organisation.

Last week the Scottish Government’s housing minister, Kevin Stewart MSP announced measures in the Scottish Parliament to provide local authorities with the ability to implement a licensing scheme for short-term lets from spring 2021.

The new licensing scheme will, the minister confirmed, include a new mandatory safety requirement that will cover every type of short-term let, and will give councils the discretion to apply further conditions to ‘address the concerns of local residents’.

Councils will be able to designate control areas to ensure that planning permission will be required for the change of use of whole properties for short-term lets.

Additionally, Ministers have committed to considering how short-term lets will be taxed in the future ‘to ensure they make an appropriate contribution to local communities and support services’.

Kevin Stewart said: “Short-term lets can offer people a flexible travel option and have contributed positively to Scotland’s tourism industry and local economies across the country.

“However, we know that in certain areas, particularly tourist hot spots, high numbers of short-term lets are causing problems and often make it harder for people to find homes to live in.”

But Rob McKinnon, Chief Executive of Outer Hebrides Tourism, has expressed concern at the potential impact of the measures on a key economic sector for the islands.

He said: “The government has done the same with this as with the Tourism Levy and given local authorities the powers to introduce licences.

“Use of shared economy channels like Airbnb has been growing, both on an ad-hoc basis and as an alternative to traditional sales channels, which can undermine the established tourism sector.

“We also recognise the shortage of affordable homes across the islands, but aren’t convinced that a licensing scheme for short-term lets is the solution to either problem, and may well hinder one of the strongest parts of the island economy.

“A good example of the difficulties will be determining which properties receive a licence, if there is to be an overall limit on licences within a community.”

Western Isles MSP Alasdair Allan backed the announcement of the measures and in a statement highlighted the findings of a recent study commissioned by the Scottish Government into AirBnB that showed, the MSP stated, that “the Western Isles had the second greatest increase in registered properties behind only Edinburgh”.

In a question in the Scottish Parliament last week to the Housing Minister, Alasdair Allan raised the problem of regional discrepancies in the issues associated with short-term lets and said that further regulation was needed for parts of the Western Isles.

Alasdair Allan MSP said: “It is important that we strike a balance between the economic benefits of tourism to Scotland and the impact on local communities.

“In parts of the Western Isles short-term lets are having an impact on the local housing market and restricting the number of properties available for those looking for a home to live in.

“The proposals announced by the Scottish Government will give Comhairle nan Eilean Siar new powers to control the number of short-term lets in the local community and ensure they make a fair contribution to the services they use. I would urge the Comhairle to make use of these powers.

“We are already approaching the situation in some parts of the islands where whole villages could be full in the summer and virtually empty for six months of the year. We need to ensure that villages are not transformed from communities into resorts in the space of just a few years.”

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar were approached for a comment on the announcement of the new measures, and a spokesperson for the Comhairle said that the authority “hadn’t had a chance to consider” the detail, but that a report would be going to the Comhairle’s April round of committee meetings.