Of the three flats on the corridor where I rent my current Edinburgh home, just off the Canongate, two were lived in and one a holiday let. As of this month, only we are resident and there are two holiday lets. Before this I lived in the Holyrood Park apartment block. Of the 14 flats on the stair we lived on, only 3 were inhabited. Eleven were holiday lets and holiday homes. Our rent was raised every six months until eventually we we were forced out by rent reaching over £1500 a month. A taxi driver taking me home once told me he had never taken an actual resident there before, only holidaymakers; he did not know there were residents.
One Edinburgh website alone boasts that over 2,000 Edinburgh apartment owners use its short term letting service – and presumably a significant percentage of those 2,000 own multiple apartments. The authorities simply cannot know how many Edinburgh flats are holiday lets. It is a huge black market, avoiding income tax, fire, safety and other regulations and very often involving illegal sub-letting. Certainly in the apartment block I now inhabit there are flats used for holiday lets which are supposed to be social housing. The extent of it may be gauged by the fact that, with parking in great demand in Central Edinburgh, we have an underground car park with just one narrow space per flat, but that outwith the festival I have never seen the car park more than 20% full.
It is partly, but not just, an airbnb phenomenon. There are many other websites. A search for “apartments only” in Edinburgh from booking.com for 6-8 November shows an astonishing 877 apartments available – in addition to those already let, or available from a plethora of other sites and agents. There must be a minimum of 3,000 housing units not designed as holiday accommodation, taken out of Edinburgh’s housing stock and put to that purpose. Of these, I know from direct observation most are simply empty for the vast majority of the year, but from just Hogmanay and the Festival an owner can make more money than a working family could pay for rent in the year. The result is, of course, to force rents up across the city for ordinary people.
The impact on the city centre community has been devastating, and the process is by no means ended, with estate agents I have spoken with saying that most city centre properties now sold are still going to investors for this purpose.
Cities like Edinburgh and Barcelona, which are quite rightly huge tourist attractions, need to take urgent planning decisions to prevent the organic life of the city becoming extinct, and their being reduced to Disneyland parks. I have sympathy with those who argue that greedy overcharging in the hotel sector is part of the problem. But having lived as a resident in hollowed-out empty buildings, surrounded by homeless people sleeping rough next to empty homes, it is plain something is very wrong. That is without mentioning the unpleasantness of the stag and hen party culture which forms a significant part of the Edinburgh trade, and amongst which even the most liberal person has trouble living with small children in the family.
State regulation is out of fashion, but I would advocate tackling this through planning consent and simply designating which properties are for residential purpose only, and which for holiday accommodation if a permit is obtained. The latter might then be easily taxed as commercial properties, overcrowding and fire regulation addressed, and the income tax more easily pursued. The alternative is for the community of Central Edinburgh to vanish. I live a short walk from my father’s birthplace in a tenement on Johnstone Terrace. It is now a holiday let.