Sam Davies

Short term letting: why it is so hard to control

As we enter the last week of the summer holidays, it seems timely to comment on what’s probably the second most frequent reason for people getting in contact with me: the impact of ‘Airbnb’ style short-term lets on our residential neighbourhoods.

It has long been known that the relationship between the proportion of properties being used as short-term lets and the availability of housing stock for residents can lead to market distortions, particularly in tourist hotspots. In June the Guardian reported that while over 10,000 Cornish properties were offered on the Airbnb platform alone, only 62 were available for long-term tenants.

A study has recently been conducted on behalf of Cambridge Ahead to investigate the situation in Cambridge. The author estimated the number of Airbnb lettings in the city (Airbnb does not release that data) as being between 500 and 750 units pre-Covid, which at the higher end would place Cambridge firmly in the ranks of cities which have acknowledged a problem with the impacts of short-term lets.

Moreover, discussion with the Principal Planning Enforcement Officer at Greater Cambridge Shared Planning Service suggested that only half of the city’s short-term lets were advertised on the Airbnb platform.

Numbers of Airbnb lettings in Cambridge

Beyond the plain numbers however, and the reason behind the impassioned emails I receive on the subject, are the detrimental impacts on the quality of life of nearby residents.

The worst cases involve levels of disruption and antisocial behaviour which merit police intervention and action through the courts. The threshold for this route is rightly high, but it is immensely distressing for neighbours to have to wait while the necessary evidence is gathered, and who are caught between a rock and a hard place – feeling they are putting themselves at risk by co-operating with the investigation, but knowing that the situation is unlikely to change without their evidence. I have met some very brave residents who found themselves in exactly that dilemma but by working together and dogged persistence the situation was successfully resolved.

A second category of cases covers situations where the antisocial behaviour is less dramatic but over time has a corrosive effect on neighbours’ quality of life – car doors slamming, bins not being managed properly, noise from parties, etc. I’m dealing with some cases where these problems have been ongoing since 2018, despite residents’ efforts to tackle the situation. It’s not hard to imagine the frustration and upset which this causes over an extended period.

A third is where there is not necessarily evidence of antisocial behaviour but the act of sub-letting is still against the terms of the lease. As the short-term let market has grown and people have become more aware of the problems it can generate, many actively choose to purchase a house/flat in an area where the lease terms don’t allow for sub-lets. So when letting happens anyway, they feel let down because part of the value they paid for is not being delivered.

Similarly there are cases where property owners have applied for planning permission for an extension or annexe, which has been granted on the express condition that it is ancillary to the main dwelling and not used independently, including for short-term lets. They are then let out as self-contained units contrary to the planning condition, effectively an ad hoc and unapproved change of use. Again, this causes those impacted to feel a breach of trust in the planning system and the authorities which are supposed to uphold its operation.

Unfortunately, the message I have to deliver to residents who contact me about these problems is that it can be extremely hard to get action taken. The Planning Enforcement team at the City Council are inevitably resourced constrained and these cases can be very complex. The ‘Key Findings’ of the Cambridge Ahead study demonstrate how (yet again) the hands of local government are tied by policy decisions taken nationally. English councils simply do not have the same powers that were deployed last week by Edinburgh Council to regulate the short term let market in that city. However, the report also highlights action that Cambridge City Council could choose to take, for example:

“A notable omission in Cambridge’s definition is the absence of a limit on total days in a calendar year in which a property or part of a property can be let out on a short-term basis. London and many other international cities do include such a limitation, which is set at a total of 90 days in a calendar year. What is also missing from Cambridge City Council’s definition is the categorisation of different types of Short-term lets. Not all Short-term lets are equal and some will have larger impacts on the availability of housing and community than others.”

Queen Edith’s proximity to the Biomedical Campus and pleasant residential character mean that it is already prime territory for the short-term letting market. Here’s a screenshot I took this morning of the approximate locations of properties available on Airbnb for a mid-week stay in October:

 of Airbnb lettings in Cambridge

Many of these will be legitimate lets, operating entirely within the legal provisions, but I recognise several of these as locations where there is evidence that short-letting is happening despite leasehold or planning conditions. I cannot promise to work miracles on individual breaches, though I will of course try. But I will also be looking to find solutions at a systematic level to the problems created by short-term lets.

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Sam Davies

6 comments

  • An excellent and revealing article. Having been aware of this problem on a city-wide basis, the situation locally you have described is enlightening. Thank you.

  • It happens round here (Rustat Road) especially in the new developments, like Flamsteed Close.

    Very interesting analysis but agree the problem is both complex and difficult to resolve. Keep up the good work, even for non constituents!

  • While I generally sympathise with the the feeling that short-term lets are a problem to the area and community, here is the flip side.

    We applied to convert an existing garage and annexe to a self-contained flat in order to future-proof our home, providing a flat for granny or adult child in case we needed it in the future. We bought our house ten years ago with that in mind, and now have the money to do it. We had hoped to do the work last year, then let the flat to a hospital or university employee at a reasonable rate until such time as we needed it for family.

    The planning permission, while granted, was exactly as your article describes, forbidding us from letting it to anyone outside our household. As we have no immediate family need, we are not going to spend that money to create a white elephant. An economic loss to the area, a loss of reasonable accommodation for a key worker (yes, I know you only have my word for that!) and our contingency plans for elderly parents remain on indefinite hold.

    There is a huge need for key worker accommodation in this part of Cambridge. It seems such a shame that, in trying to prevent the problems caused by short-term holiday lets, longer-term letting to responsible tenants is also prohibited. Planning permission could ban only short-term lets, but it bans all letting, while anyone could let a room, an entire floor, or the entirety of their existing property without any permission needed at all.

    • Thank you for this comment which does, as you say, present the flip side. I guess the problem is that, while the legislation tries to protect against those minded to abuse the system, unfortunately it can also deter those with perfectly reasonable objectives, while simultaneously not having enough teeth to deal with those who are really don’t give a damn about their neighbours. Perhaps some of the suggestions in the Cambridge Ahead study might improve the balance?

  • I think part of the problem is that many people do not know the difference between lodger and tenant. Lodger being someone who lives in the same house as their landlord and shares the same facilities with the landlord, kitchen etc. Lodgers dont have much security as they are in effect strangers in the landlords home.

    Tenants on the other hand live in self contained units, they have much more security of tenure. In or on domestic properties – If they cut up rough, say not paying the rent, eviction is long and tortuous nearly always ending in court and possibly bailiffs. Even letting agencies use the wrong terms

    It might be helpful for Council to put the easy to understand definition of ancilliary and the definition of lodger versus tenant on their planning portal and explain why they dont like two separate households on one domestic site.

Sam Davies

Sam Davies was elected to Cambridge City Council in May 2021 as a representative for the Queen Edith's ward, and is the city's only independent councillor.
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