Highland Council face a “huge headache” over the next few months as they try to devise a workable licensing scheme for the area’s estimated 10,000 short-term let properties.
Speaking to the Free Press, the local authority’s chair of the tourism committee, Black Isle councillor Gordon Adam, said the council is currently “running around in circles” trying to figure out what the scheme is going to cost.
He added: “It will cost a hell of a lot, and we are getting no extra money from the Scottish Government, so there is going to have to be full-cost recovery. That is the real worry here.
“We are coming out of a pandemic and small scale operators who are renting out bits of their houses to make a bit of extra money have had a rough time over the last two years. So it is far from ideal for them to face an enormous hike like this.”
Last month, the Scottish Parliament approved the orders for both the licensing scheme and control area requirements, which will limit the number of short-term lets within a given area.
Mr Adam said control areas will have their problems too, and he was unsure whether one planned for Badenoch and Strathspey should include the whole ward.
“Perhaps it is better to have it for a tightly defined area,” he added.
On the question of extra money to recruit more officers to administer the scheme, Mr Gordon said: “That is not going to happen. The Scottish Government has made that absolutely clear. This creates a big problem for the council because of the sheer number of properties and the size of the area. We do not have a huge number of people paying council tax like they do in Edinburgh, where this is less of a financial problem for the council.”
Although the Scottish Government think the licensing fee will be between £214 and £436 for a three-year licence, according to Mr Adam some within the council think this is “way too low”.
He was unable to put a figure on the new licence, but did say that the tourism committee, and possibly the licensing committee, will need to approve the fees.
He added: “Council officers are trying to engage in damage limitation here and come up with a formula where there isn’t any arduous, exhaustive, licensing visits of every property every year. I think they are going to be taking a lot on trust to cut down pretty drastically on the number of visits.
“I was really struck by Fergus Ewing’s comments in committee [Parliament’s housing committee] recently. He’s a lawyer and he said these really are draconian rules – basically giving the council the power to deprive people of their income on the basis that they have fallen out with their neighbour, because that is all it would take; a neighbour who said there is too much noise coming from this property, I object, I want the licence revoked.
“And if not revoked there could be a long delay before the licence is finally granted.”
There is no need to create new powers, as “all the necessary laws and regulations” are already in place, Mr Adam said.
He added: “What arguably is lacking is enforcement of nuisance law. Police are perhaps reluctant to intervene because they are so thin on the ground.
“The council do have the powers but enforcement of this kind of thing is very tricky because we have so few enforcement officers.
“I’m also not sure of how big a problem this is in the Highlands, especially as any noise or nuisance could well be in a remote cottage a long way from anywhere else.
“This is very different from problems in Edinburgh where you have four or five flats in tenements and it makes life hell for the permanent residents. It is a very different situation here.”
It will be up to council officers to set the fees, he said, but the council as a whole “cannot subsidise” the licensing fee “given the hole in its finances.”
A lot of research will be required into the ultimate ownership of some properties, he said, or when more than one property is owned by the same interest.
“All this could become a very complicated regulatory process and I imagine what the licensing people will want to do is keep it as straightforward as possible, in the interest of keeping the fees as low as possible,” he added.
Targeting larger operators could be a “legal minefield”, he said, and if “local people are exempt in some way or only pay a reduced rate” then there might be legal challenges by others.
TAKE RESIDENCY INTO ACCOUNT
On his croft in Edinbane, Alistair Danter, a director of SkyeConnect, is developing a “romantic hideaway” – a hand-built, four-wheeled wooden caravan called a roulotte. He already has two other short term rentals, existing ruins that have been restored, on the croft.
He said that, depending on what the licensing fee is set at, accommodation providers could face a “real challenge” in absorbing that cost on top of the steep rise in energy prices that are due to kick in this coming spring.
“These costs are something we may have to recover,” he added. “I hope we can absorb it, and that could well be the case given the demand on Skye and its popularity. But we won’t know that until the fees have been set. The rise in energy prices is an additional concern for everyone.”
Another accommodation provider, Donald Mackenzie in Plockton, who owns Plockton Cottages, told the Free Press that he hoped that Highland Council, when setting the fees, “take into consideration people who are specifically involved in tourism and who live here.”
He added: “I have four letting cottages, all purpose-built for tourism 30 years ago, but I can see where the Scottish Government are coming from when it comes to existing houses that are bought and turned into airBnBs. It would be pretty steep though if the licences applied to purpose-built houses.”
Like Mr Danter, Mr Mackenzie was also concerned about the steep rises in energy prices that are in the pipeline.
Local authorities have until 1st October to establish a licensing scheme. Existing hosts and operators will then have until 1st April 2023 to apply for a licence.
Article by MICHAEL RUSSELL