Cllr Greg Hammond is a councillor for Courtfield Ward in Kensington and Chelsea.
“This generation are Uber-riding, Airbnb-ing, Deliveroo-eating freedom fighters”, says Liz Truss, Chief Secretary to the Treasury. And she is right that disruptive technologies are delivering consumers new opportunities for services at lower prices than conventional taxis, hotels and restaurants. Such new freedoms are welcome, and are particularly taken for granted by the young generation that does not remember the restricted choices of the pre-smartphone age. Yet are these new technologies an unalloyed good?
In my ward and its neighbours in South Kensington, in addition to enjoying the benefits of Uber, Airbnb and Deliveroo, our residents have been experiencing some unintended second – and third – order consequences of these disruptive technologies.
Uber drivers have found hitherto quiet residential streets in which to hold while awaiting a call-forward for a fare. In some cases, unwilling to pay for parking and with no designated rest areas, drivers are discarding on the curbsides litter from hastily-eaten meals and even drinks bottles re-used for urine. Of course not every Uber driver is guilty of such anti-social behaviour, but as a minimum residents’ parking bays are blocked and extra traffic created in certain hotspots.
Short-term holiday letting is also proving to be much more lucrative than traditional residential letting. Although Airbnb and similar sites apply a maximum limit of 90 days’ letting per year, it is easy for unscrupulous landlords to register with more than one site and let all year round. Instead of being just a means of making some occasional money from a spare room, there are now short-term letting businesses with multiple properties. Indeed there are some entire town houses containing nothing but short-term letting flats. The consequences are hollowed-out communities, a reduced supply of properties for those who want to live in the area, rubbish left out in the streets on the wrong days by people who are not invested in the local community, and increased instances of noisy parties at anti-social hours on what are working days for local residents.
Deliveroo (and Uber-eats) riders meanwhile are congregating near the restaurants whose products they are going to deliver. Increasingly using noisy scooters rather than relatively benign bicycles, large numbers of riders are positioned at peak times near the restaurants. An example of this problem was in an echoey residential mews which also happens to contain the service entrance to a local branch of Nando’s.
So what is to be done?
The answer is certainly not Labour’s instinctive opposition to new ideas that threaten existing vested interests: the type of reaction that was recently demonstrated by Sadiq Khan’s clumsy attempt to ban Uber in London. This is the kind Luddite approach that would still see our cloth made on the Spinning Jenny and steam locomotives on the railways. Something much more nuanced is required.
In Kensington & Chelsea we are having some small successes in addressing these problems. My Ward colleague worked with parking enforcement and an engaged group of residents to address the problem of Uber drivers holding in one particular hotspot. I organised a meeting on site with Deliveroo’s head of public affairs to show her the problem in the mews. Pleasingly, she was proactive in following up by explaining the problems to the riders and setting up a direct email address for residents’ complaints. As councillors, meanwhile, we have encouraged the Council to increase parking restrictions in that mews, but have accepted that the Deliveroo riders have to go somewhere and that the already-busy commercial street is the place. In both cases the problems have been mitigated in the particular hotspots, though these are microcosms of the problem as a whole.
On short-term holiday letting, last year our relevant scrutiny committees launched a proper study into a problem that had been identified by councillors but had hitherto been completely overlooked as an issue by council officers. The study identified that only a quarter of the short-term holiday lettings in our borough were for the classic ‘spare room’, whereas three-quarters were full dwellings and therefore probably primarily business enterprises. The recommended solutions in many cases would require primary legislation. Suggestions included the creation of a mandatory licensing system and registration with the local authority to facilitate enforcement actions against breaches of, for example, the 90-day limit. A more ‘joined-up’ approach to enforcement between different council departments was also proposed.
The actions described are all tentative first steps, and in some cases are hyper-localised. It would be wrong to squash the new freedoms and opportunities offered by disruptive technologies or to give in to vested interests. But we also need to protect our residents from new threats to the quiet enjoyment of their homes and neighbourhoods. Where does the balance lie? There are no easy answers. Constructive suggestions in the comment area would be a useful contribution to the debate.