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Following concerns that constituents expressed to me shortly after I was elected in 2016, I began looking into the question of short-term lets. I got the opportunity to ask a question during general question time on 19 January 2017, and I asked the Scottish Government what plans it had to regulate the growth in short-term letting. The minister will probably remember it as the “audible sex parties” question.
The minister, Kevin Stewart, told me:
“The Scottish Government has no plans to regulate the growth in short-term letting.”—[Official Report, 19 January 2017; c 6.]
He told me that any change of use was a matter “for the planning authority” and that I should engage in the consultation on the planning bill. So, here we are at stage 3: I engaged with the Planning (Scotland) Bill.
I discussed the matter with planners and ran a consultation over summer 2018, and I concluded that the planning rules that govern change of use need to be changed. Put simply, the conversion of a domestic dwelling to a commercial short-term let is a change of use, and it requires consent if the change is material—that is the law today. Given that planning authorities across the country tend to assess the question on the basis of the intensity and frequency of visitors, the problem lies in determining whether such a change is material. Effectively monitoring the comings and goings of visitors is an impossible task for planning officers. Therefore, I lodged an amendment at stage 2 that provided that a simple change of use from a dwelling to a commercial short-term let, which is no longer the sole or main residence of any person, constituted a change of use for the purposes of planning law, with no additional inquiries needing to be made. The amendment was accepted at stage 2 and it formed section 11B of the bill. At stage 2, the minister promised to work with me in advance of stage 3, as did Conservative members.
My amendment 156 reflects recommendations from the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee to define short-term lets, which I have done. Amendment 156 does not, however, as has frequently been claimed, fetter the discretion or autonomy of planning authorities in any way. It merely makes a modest change to the framework for considering change of use—regulations that have been in place since 1997 and that are universal in their application across Scotland. Amendment 156 makes a modest change to the gatekeeping functions that determine what is, and what is not, a change of use. Today, in almost every instance, any change of use to a commercial short-term let is a material change of use, and planning authorities deal with those applications.
Local flexibility, which is at the centre of many people’s concerns, does not arise from planning law. To my knowledge, not a single piece of this planning bill or the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1997 applies only in certain parts of Scotland—Scots law is for Scotland. Local flexibility does not arise from law, but from plans and policies that enable planning authorities to be free to consent to as many or as few applications as they wish, in line with their own plans and policies. My amendment would not change that one bit.
Rachael Hamilton’s amendment 157 is a wrecking amendment. It would sabotage the central purpose of amendment 156 by making the modest change that I just outlined applicable only to so-called
“short-term let control areas”.
I am sure that the phrase will be repeated ad nauseum by the Scottish National Party and the Tories to pretend that they have done something about the problem. In addition, by making the provisions of amendment 157 subject to further regulations, the opportunity is created for the vested interests in the short-term let industry to influence those regulations in their own interest. That should be of no surprise to any member, given that Airbnb was a member of the Government panel on the collaborative economy.
We already know that some planning authorities are not even interested in the so-called zones. Last week, Glasgow City Council argued that the zonal approach that is suggested by the Conservative amendment does not fit with current policy. A council spokesperson said:
“It would fail to protect the amenity of residents living outside of those zones who may be affected by unauthorised change of use to short stay accommodation”.
All of that raises the question: if planning authorities are not interested in the provisions in amendment 157—the so-called areas, when they are finalised—what should they do? What if they think that the control areas are of no use to them?
I accept the parliamentary arithmetic, and that Rachael Hamilton’s amendment will probably pass. However, some weeks ago, I put a compromise to the Conservatives. I said that we should allow those areas that are not to be short-term let control areas to enjoy some modest improvement in the law—hence my amendments 157A to 157E to Rachael Hamilton’s amendment 157. They are designed to allow planning authorities for which control areas are deemed not to be the answer a more straightforward means of identifying properties that are changing their use. In other words, if the minister and Rachael Hamilton are genuinely interested in local choice, they should provide one.
I move amendment 156.