Cllr Jonathan Glanz is a member of Westminster City Council.
My post-bag is full of complaints and requests for help and guidance from constituents in London’s West End who are plagued by the impact of a faceless online revolution, whether it is accommodation-sharing platforms used as pop up party venues, or streets clogged by lingering private hire cars and delivery bikes.
More pressing in the light of recent events, however, are the anxious emails asking for guidance around fire precautions and insurance policies. With questions about the safety of apartment blocks that are now used as unregulated hotels, come questions around who is responsible to prevent and deal with tragedy.
But do we have the powers to deal with these problems? The short answer is no.
This article is not to repeat the lengthy discussions about the Sharing Economy, in which the legal frameworks around platforms such as Airbnb and Uber have come under much needed scrutiny. Instead, by commissioning an independent exploratory report, I wanted to examine whether consumers in Central London, with specific focus on the marketplace of the West End, are now ready for regulation. If so, who should create and implement such frameworks?
As the report ‘Are We Ready For Regulation’ illustrates, there is an expectation of a more proactive approach to supervision. It also highlights that for local government, consumers, platforms and business owners, there are fundamental challenges to meaningful regulation.
First, there is a critical dearth of resource to enable effective implementation, with an apparent lack of will to find this funding. The conversation among long-standing residents on this topic is bleak. As one commented “Residents feel there is nowhere to turn. There just isn’t enough bandwidth to deal with the safety and security issues this revolution has brought.” The loss of local residents to flats that change hands daily, and with it the knowing, caring, eyes and ears from the street level, is a concern that we cannot ignore.
Secondly, this report highlights an expectation of devolution of powers to local authorities and the Mayor of London, reinforcing the need to respond more effectively to the highly localised impact of these platforms.
Thirdly, as policy makers we should recognise that the phrase ‘Sharing Economy’ is widely held as meaningless. With only one in three respondents in the report recognizing this umbrella term for the online marketplace. It is not unreasonable to argue that the spread of these platforms relies on a lack of awareness of the deep changes that are taking place.
But how do we begin to intervene? An approach favoured by some of my constituents as the first step towards meaningful and viable regulation is the creation of a industry specific, centralised licensing system for platforms within the sharing economy. For instance, the asset itself would be licenced, rather than the platform advertising the asset.
For accommodation sharing, this would allow the 90 day rule (currently avoided by swapping letting platforms), to be enforced by a new regulatory body through cross referencing compliance by all companies. The license fee would pay for resources to help promote the positive impact of the Sharing Economy, and provide the capability to deal with the negative implications.
More specifically, if these platforms are being used to facilitate criminal or antisocial behaviour, such as a mobile brothels (enabled by short stay rentals and taxi apps to ferry clientele) they must be held accountable. In the words of one local business owner, ‘the sharing economy is magic when it works well’ but ‘The idea has turned into a business model, without any of the costs of regulation’.
In whatever form this framework takes, more attention must be given to ensure that the delicate balance between residential amenity and commercial activity, which gives the West End its unique character, is maintained. We cannot shy away from regulation in the belief that regulation is the antidote to innovation, and leave the playing field so heavily weighted against local residents and businesses that do not rely on or benefit from these sharing platforms.
The Sharing Economy implies a level of equity and caring. The reality for my constituents however is that huge and powerful businesses are benefiting at the expense of local residents and independent businesses. Without effective regulation and enforcement, these businesses will destroy not only their bricks and mortar rivals, but also the very fabric and attractiveness of the West End.