My June article for the Wood and Vale

Posted: 20/06/14

To say that inner London experiences severe housing pressure is an acute understatement. We can see with our own eyes how new developments are dominated by luxury housing, not only wholly unaffordable to most local people but all too often sold ‘off plan' as investment opportunities for international capital, and in some cases, left empty as house price rises almost do away with the need for rent. We can see how buildings once used for public services- St John's Wood and Harrow Road police stations, the Jubilee Sports Centre, the Adult Education Centre- are converting to luxury homes- with the former Adult Education site flats being marketed for £890,000 for a 1-bed. And we can see the impact this is having on central London- young people priced out of the chance to own or rent; homelessness costs rising and neighbourhood life undermined.

On top of all this, a new challenge has emerged. For many years London has been protected by law against property owners engaging in ‘short term lets' without permission The logic behind this is to resist the pressure which would turn ever more of our residential neighbourhoods into an extension of the tourist industry. We need homes that people actually live in rather than see more and more properties effectively given over to visitors, especially as short-term lets are known generate a disproportionate level of nuisance in the form of noise, rubbish and anti-social behaviour. (This isn't necessarily because the visitors are anti-social, incidentally- it is more in the nature of the temporary, high-churn letting).

Why is the government doing this? Well, the argument goes that the letter of the law currently restricts homeowners from doing something as modest as a holiday house-swap, or, doing the Olympic Games or some similar event, from having the right to let their home for a couple of weeks. Social media has opened up new opportunities to generate some income, such as via the popular ‘AirBnB' app, and bureaucracy shouldn't get in the way of a homeowners right to take advantage of these.

This is fair up to a point. Regulation has to adapt to changing times and we don't want government imposing unreasonable restrictions on our homes. No sensible person could object to the holiday home-swap or the occasional money-making holiday let.

Only that isn't the whole story.

Even with the protection of the current law , requiring permission for any short-term lets, Westminster Council alone has had to take an average of 500 enforcement actions each year for breaches of the rules. And the fact that these problems are overwhelmingly concentrated in areas on the fringes of the West End tells us that such enforcement isn't usually directed against the family swapping with pen-pals in California. This is action to resist the tourist trade eating deep into residential neighbourhoods, eroding the residential housing stock and making life harder for those who remain.

The understandable anxiety is that, with less regulation to back them up, councils will find it harder and harder to take a case. They will no longer have to demonstrate that a property is being let without permission, but that it isn't being consistently let.

No wonder that all Westminster's amenity societies joined together to express their alarm at the government's plans- an expression of concern I was happy to support in representations to the Government.

These concerns have been over-ruled by the government. The question now is, at what additional cost to inner London councils; at what cost to the permanent residential communities in areas like Marylebone, Bayswater, and Lancaster Gate; and at what cost to those who remain? It is not the first time the urge to de-regulate comes into conflict with the need to protect and we will need to monitor the impact very closely.