Edinburgh Festival: Scottish Government and city council must find a way to resolve baffling short-term lets row – Brian Ferguson

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A few issues have left me fairly baffled during just over a decade specialising in Scottish culture – but none more than the one I’ve tried to grapple with in recent days and weeks.

The potential impact of new housing controls on Edinburgh’s festivals has repeatedly left me scratching my head in confusion. The issue seemed straightforward at first. For years, it had been increasingly obvious that something needed to be done about the growing trends for snapping up properties to turn them into holiday homes.

The growing popularity of booking platforms like Airbnb has simply encouraged the development of countless businesses which specialise in turning former homes into holiday flats or temporary accommodation.

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Edinburgh city centre – and especially its Old Town – has long been one of Scotland's “short-term letting" hotspots and the impact has long been felt by residents suffering problems with antisocial behaviour and disruption from ever-changing neighbours. The knock-on impacts are equally well-known, with many of those who have jobs in the city unable to afford to rent a flat or buy a home.

Ukrainian and Czech circus artists performed at the McEwan Hall during last year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)Ukrainian and Czech circus artists performed at the McEwan Hall during last year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)
Ukrainian and Czech circus artists performed at the McEwan Hall during last year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)

After many years of campaigning across Scotland, by community groups and local authorities, the introduction of two new laws last year was hailed as a major breakthrough. Edinburgh became the country’s first designated control area, meaning anyone seeking to use a second home for short-term lets must secure planning permission, with a presumption against tenement flats being used.

Separate proposals have been approved to ensure all properties used for short-term letting meet “mandatory” safety standards. The thing that struck me as odd about these controls was that there would be “exemptions” offered during peak periods of demand for accommodation, which seemed to slightly defeat the point of them. That was when my confusion began.

The Fringe Society went into battle before Christmas about the potential impact of the new controls – bringing criticism that it was undermining efforts to improve the housing market. It turns out that the government and the council have very different interpretations of what “mandatory” and “exemptions” mean in reality.

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The council has decided to apply all the safety conditions for short-term lets to applications for exemptions during the festivals, which must be made for landlords to stay within the law. But the festivals question why people offering up their home or a spare room for the Fringe are being swept up in regulations they believe have been created to curb the commercial property market. The council is adamant that an exemption for a peak period is only an exemption from the need for a year-round licence, and not fire, gas, electric and water safety conditions.

Just to add to the confusion, Festivals Edinburgh, which represents all of the city’s major events, presented a united front on their behalf at the Scottish Parliament, only for the biggest Fringe venues to intervene with a letter to MSPs taking a much firmer line, warning of prolonged decline and even “extinction” for the festivals.

Given their heritage, reputation and profile, it is incumbent on the Scottish Government and the city council to navigate a way forward out of a mess which threatens to overshadow the festivals for the foreseeable future. But given the complexity of the issues involved, I would not bet on it happening anytime soon.

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