Fiona Campbell, Monday 7, January, 2019
THERE’S A HOUSING CRISIS in this country. Scotland, and our capital city in particular, just doesn’t have houses available to meet the needs of our population. This lack of housing represents one of the biggest challenges that we face as a country and, without doubt, something must be done about it – and soon. It is simply too important a problem to be allowed to get much worse.
Before we can begin to resolve this situation, however, we must understand how it came about in the first place. If our medicine is to work for future generations of Scots, and it must, we have to understand how the patient became ill and what the symptoms are.
Sadly, in the context of the housing crisis, this is where our politicians and pressure groups make a huge mistake as they continually misdiagnose the problem and how it came about. Driven by a variety of different individuals, from fringe politicians to respected figures in the property business, some opinion-makers have decided that there is a direct relationship between the number of short-term rentals in Scotland, especially in Edinburgh, and the housing crisis.
Whether they are spurred on by their own self-interest, politically motivated reasoning, or the need to feel relevant, their diagnosis is the same – short-term rentals have caused the housing crisis. No ifs, no buts (and nothing to do with housing cuts).
Far from being just an innocent mistake, the promotion of this falsehood has serious implications. For the same reason that a misdiagnosis has serious ramifications for a patient, without meaningful action, things will get worse.
The truth is that the short-term rental market, while it is worth £50 million to Edinburgh and £723 million to Scotland as a whole, actually accounts for a tiny percentage of housing stock, according to our recently published report, Far More Than Just Houses. In fact, according to national reports statistics, there are five times as many empty properties in Scotland than there are self-catering properties. Short-term rentals simply aren’t there in sufficient numbers to have a significant impact on housing supply.
What has led to the housing crisis is the fact that not enough houses have been built.
While the crisis is not the fault of any one government or party, there is blame that must be shouldered if we are to address the problem like a grown-up country.
The governments of the 1970s through to the 1980s oversaw a massive reduction in housing construction – a trend carried on through the 1990s and the 2000s by successive administrations. This is understandable as governments face competing pressures and committing to house building is a large commitment for any government to undertake; but the facts are the facts and we’ve seen a reduction in housing stock and a steady increase in population. Compared to these factors, whatever increase in short-term rentals there may have been in Scotland or anywhere else is insignificant.
The motivation is perfectly clear, even if it is not justifiable; it is far easier to make a scapegoat out of an industry than it is to look back on the past decades of housing policy and conclude that monumental, era-defining, mistakes have been made in planning and execution. To blame short-term rentals is easy, simple, and can be morphed into a moral crusade for people to get irate and indignant about. A good, hard, honest look at housing policy is difficult.
We at the Association of Scotland’s Self-Caterers, Scotland’s only trade body representing the traditional short-term rental sector, have an interest in it being represented accurately and for all the issues that effect our sector to be handled sensibly and with vision. The scapegoating in the name of finding an easy answer that we’ve encountered is as far removed from this as could be.
Rather than taking cheap-shots at the people who make their livelihoods and support their families in our historic industry, which is as important a part of our compelling and world-beating Scottish tourism offering as any other. Policymakers and influencers would be better placed using their sway to get on with the job of building more houses for those who need them. Committing to this would be a bold and difficult decision to make but, as the old adage says, nothing worth having ever came easy.
The number of Scots who are facing housing insecurity is too high. Now is the time for action on housing stock and to stop blaming a sector whose impact on that supply is negligible. Scots deserve better and any politician who took the initiative and worked to help them would have the support of the ASSC and all of our members across Scotland.
Fiona Campbell is Chief Executive of the Association of Scotland’s Self-Caterers