By Scott Wright

GROUPS representing Scotland’s £867 million self-catering tourism sector have vowed to keep on fighting controversial government proposals to introduce a licensing system for short-term letting accommodation, amid fears it will have a devastating effect on the rural economy.

The Scottish Government announced this week that legislation will be laid before parliament that will require all local authorities to establish a short-term lets licensing scheme by October 2022, following responses to a third consultation on the matter. Existing hosts and operators will then have until April 2023 to apply for a licence for each property they operate as a short-let.

The proposals, which have been in development for four years, aim to tackle anti-social behaviour that has been linked to the rise of Airbnb-style properties in major city centres such as Edinburgh. Officials also argue that the move will tackle a shortage of housing supply in some areas.

But groups representing tens of thousands of short-term let properties are dismayed they will fall into the scope of the legislation. They say it will ramp up costs and red tape at a time when operators are bidding to bounce back from the pandemic, and will lead many to exit the industry. That in turn, they argue, will have a knock-on effect on the many businesses that feed off the short-term letting sector – from trades people and cleaners to tourist attractions, restaurant and bars in their vicinity.

Speaking from this week’s Scottish Tourism Conference, Fiona Campbell, chief executive of the Association of Scotland’s Self-Caterers (ASSC), said: “We are here to try and support tourism in Scotland. Policy makers should be supporting businesses to survive and recover. We are still in survival mode, we are not even near recovery, and yet they put this through. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Simon Ovenden, policy adviser at Scottish Land & Estates, told The Herald: “It is putting additional and unnecessary burdens on the short-term let sector. We acknowledge that there are problems, particularly in some urban areas with short-term lets and party houses. But what the Scottish Government has done is pile all the short-term lets together and [is] trying to impose this licensing order across every short-term let operator in Scotland when really it is not necessary.”

Mr Ovenden said Scottish Land & Estates had a meeting recently with Housing Minister Shona Robison during which it “emphasised that this is really an urban problem that they are trying to address”.

“But it is potentially going to affect so many small, rural short-term let businesses,” he added. “There is a feeling that the rural short-term let operators could be seen as the collateral damage or the sacrificial lamb of these proposals. Ms Robison emphasised that this was around health and safety but I’m sorry, that argument just doesn’t stack up. There are already requirements for short-term let operators to adhere to in terms of building standards, health and safety regulations, and those are already more stringent than for hotels and guest-house operators.”

Local authorities expressed concern in responses to the latest consultation over the additional workload that a licensing scheme would bring. Some said extra staff would need to be recruited which could in turn push up the cost of licences. In the case of Highlands and Islands Council, it has been observed officials would have to inspect thousands of properties over an area that accounts for a third of Scotland’s land mass.

Concerns have also been raised over the level of fees councils will set to cover the cost of the system. Draft guidance from the Scottish Government advises that licensing authorities must determine their own fees and fee structures, and that fees will vary across the country. In its submission to the consultation, Perth and Kinross Council states: “There is a wide discrepancy in terms of potential costs involved in the operation of the proposed licensing scheme. The Scottish Government has quoted indicative application fee costs of around £223-£377 while other predictions are as high as £1,200-£1,500. These discrepancies threaten the fragile recovery of Scottish tourism and demand further work to be undertaken on the actual position.”

The legislation goes before the local government, housing and planning committee of the Scottish Parliament for scrutiny this week, before going to a vote in Parliament. “It is not too late,” Ms Campbell said. “We want to work with the Scottish Government to get it right.”

Ms Robison said this week: “This is the next significant step to delivering a licensing scheme that will ensure short-term lets are safe and the people providing them are suitable. We want short-term lets to continue making a positive impact on Scotland’s tourism industry and local economies while meeting the needs of local communities.

“Short-term lets can offer people a flexible travel option. However, we know that in certain areas, particularly tourist hotspots, high numbers of lets can cause problems for neighbours and make it harder for people to find homes to live in.”