Cllr Antonia Cox is a councillor in on Westminster City Council representing Hyde Park Ward
Having to get planning permission before you can let out a home in London for a few days may seem to Conservatives like a tiresome bit of red tape.
However, there is a very good reason why this requirement exists and must not be removed in the way that the Housing Minister is suggesting. In central London, if flats are used on an industrial scale as an alternative to hotels, the neighbourhood deteriorates fast. In my ward, which has long attracted summer visitors for private health care and tourism, many blocks have been taken over by the short letting industry. One or two companies manage these properly – most are cowboys who don’t.
The constant turnover of visitors, often unfamiliar with noise and waste disposal rules, creates fear of crime and makes these blocks very hard to live in for long term residents. The effect then snowballs. Long term residents leave and new tenants and owner-occupiers cannot compete with the rents the short let industry can get (typically 4 or 5 times higher, according to Westminster City Council’s director of planning, than lawful long term rents).
This has been a problem locally for over twenty years. Finally, the Church Commissioners and other freeholders have realised how damaging it is to their assets, and have started to put in new managers, regularly change security systems, and work closely with the council and police.
As the chairman of my local residents’ association put it in a letter to the Housing Minister: “there is the frequent and callous exploitation of short-term residents seeking homes for a few weeks near to their hospitals or business associates. This causes intolerable difficulty for the existing lessees, many of whom now feel they live in unmanaged hostels with little care being given to the buildings or existing residents.”
The very high rents available for short lets also created an environment in which housing benefit fraud flourished. A couple could claim falsely to have separated. The “single” mother and children qualify for a flat paid for by housing benefit, then let that flat out for £1000 a week on short lets while still living with the father elsewhere. Much central government and council money has been spent on getting convictions (see Cllr Lindsey Hall’s campaign reported on BBC London Tonight, the Sunday Times and elsewhere.)
In recent months, the Planning Inspectorate has upheld every single one of WCC’s enforcements against short letting and over 400 flats have now been put back on the market for long term tenants or owner occupiers. However, officers now worry that because the big blocks are getting a grip of the problem through better management, the activity will shift to converted houses and small porterless blocks – and to other parts of inner London. So, if you are in London, deregulation could bring these problems to a street near you.
Rumour has it that the new short let agencies have been lobbying Number 10 for deregulation, claiming that their clients are all nice young professionals who want to swap stays with fellow hipsters in fashionable cities. Though I know there is a bit of that, industrial-scale short letting is bad news. We can’t open the door to more of it just to oblige these agencies. Do not be deceived by what they want you to believe.