Short term lettings in London are out of control. The next mayor needs to act

Them again. Image: Getty.

Quite simply, there’s a renting crisis. Right now, Londoners are spending half of their income on rent, and research from housing charities shows that almost half of renters in England are experiencing stress and anxiety.

And what’s really rubbing salt into the wound is the news from City Hall that 1 in 50 available homes in the capital are now short-term lets rented out by the likes of Airbnb, and TripAdvisor, forcing rents up and driving renters out of their neighbourhoods. These sites make it so easy to list properties for short term holiday lets that many landlords are letting out their properties like this year-round. These sham holiday lets are depriving Londoners of homes and worsening the housing crisis.

The news comes at a time when 1 in 50 Londoners are homeless and the temporary accommodation crisis is spiralling out of control. Right now, 59,000 households in London live in temporary accommodation, including 89,000 children. Temporary accommodation is often anything but, with many families staying in unsuitable and unsafe temporary accommodation for years.

Airbnb has snapped back, calling the figure inflated and blaming double-counting of properties across multiple platforms for the high number. And that reveals yet another facet of the short-term let crisis in London. Back in 2015, the Deregulation Act gave landlords the freedom to rent out their properties for up to 90 days a year – any longer and they would need to secure planning permission to convert the homes into hotels – or face a fine of up to £20,000. While you’d think the steep fine would be a persuasive deterrent, it has been rendered completely toothless as local authorities have no way of proving an offence has been committed.

In fact, the only way that local councils can catch out rogue short-term let landlords is by manually counting the days a property is rented out on, say, Airbnb, and then cross-referencing this with the countless number of other platforms they may also be renting it out on. This is something that cash-strapped councils have no hope of doing. Councillors in the capital have talked about the rise of key-lock boxes on blocks of flats, a telltale sign of the holiday let trade, meaning entire buildings of constituents have been lost to make way for short-term lets.

Short-term let companies are aware of councils’ limitations. Secret filming by the BBC in 2019 found Hostmaker encouraging landlords to keep properties on their site and to “feign ignorance” of the law if caught. And last week, The Times published an article in which ARLA, a letting agent body, claimed that landlords could “earn an average of £500 extra a month by renting their properties on Airbnb rather than to long-term tenants”. The article ignored the 90-day limit altogether. 

Things urgently need to change. With the mayoral election creeping closer, Londoners and local councils alike will be looking for candidates with solutions to the ever-growing short-term lets industry. The frontrunners have set out their priorities; Sadiq Khan has pledged to campaign for rent controls, Sian Berry has vowed to make tackling the housing crisis front and centre of her campaign, and Shaun Bailey has said he will build more homes. These measures are all welcome. But to improve Londoners’ lives we need a crackdown on rogue landlords letting out sham holiday lets and depriving people of homes. Councils need to be given the right tools to root these landlords out and improve standards.

This week, Generation Rent is launching a campaign calling for forced data sharing between short-term let companies and councils to aid the crackdown on landlords breaking the rules. You can sign the petition here.


Here’s how we plant 2 billion more trees in the UK

A tree in Northallerton, North Yorkshire. Image: Getty.

The UK’s official climate advisor, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), recently published a report outlining how to reduce the 12 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions that come from land use by two thirds by 2050. Alongside recommending cutting meat and dairy consumption by 20 per cent, the report calls for the annual creation of up to 50,000 hectares of broadleaf and conifer woodland for the next three decades. This would increase forest cover from 13 per cent to at least 17 per cent – a level not seen in Britain since before the Norman invasion.

Reforestation at that rate would mean creating roughly the area of the city of Leeds every year for the next three decades. At typical stocking densities of 1,500 stems per hectare, the ambition is to establish some 2.25 billion additional trees. Given that the UK, as with most of Europe, is in the grip of ash dieback, a disease likely to prove fatal for many millions of native ash trees, the scale of the challenge is massive.

On a crowded and intensively farmed island like Britain, unlocking a million and a half hectares of land will be no mean feat. But it’s not impossible – and is an unprecedented opportunity not only to tackle the climate crisis but also the biodiversity crisis that is every bit as detrimental to our wellbeing.

Trees and farms

One million and a half hectares is just 6 per cent of the mainland UK’s land area. To give some sense of perspective on this, 696,000 hectares of “temporary grassland” were registered in 2019. So if land supply is not the problem, what is? Often it’s cultural inertia. Farmers are firmly rooted to the land and perhaps understandably reluctant to stop producing food and instead become foresters. But the choice need not be so binary.

The intensification of agriculture has caused catastrophic declines in many species throughout the UK by reducing vast wooded areas and thousands of miles of hedgerows to small pockets of vegetation, isolating populations and making them more vulnerable to extinction.

Integrating trees with the farmed landscape delivers multiple benefits for farms and the environment. Reforestation doesn’t have to mean a return to the ecologically and culturally inappropriate single-species blocks of non-native conifers, which were planted en masse in the 1970s and 1980s. Incentivised under tax breaks to secure a domestic timber supply, many of the resulting plantations were located in places difficult or in some cases impossible to actually harvest.

Productive farmland needn’t be converted to woodland. Instead, that 4 per cent of land could be found by scattering trees more widely. After all, more trees on farmland is good for business. They prevent soil erosion and the run-off of pollutants, provide shade and shelter for livestock, a useful source of renewable fuel and year-round forage for pollinating insects.

The first tranche of tree planting could involve new hedgerows full of large trees, preferably with wide headlands of permanently untilled soils, providing further wildlife refuge.

Natural regeneration

Where appropriate, new woody habitats can be created simply by stopping how the land is currently used, such as by removing livestock. This process can be helped by scattering seeds in areas where seed sources are low. But patience is a virtue. If people can learn to tolerate less clipped and manicured landscapes, nature can run its own course.

A focus on deliberate tree planting also raises uncomfortable truths. Most trees are planted with an accompanying stake to keep them upright and a plastic shelter that protects the sapling from grazing damage. All too often, these shelters aren’t retrieved. Left to the elements, they break down into ever smaller pieces, and can be swept into rivers and eventually the ocean, where they threaten marine wildlife. Two billion tree shelters is a lot of plastic.

The main reason for using tree shelters at all is because the deer population in the UK is so high that in many places, it is all but impossible to establish new trees. This also has serious implications for existing woodland, which is prevented from naturally regenerating. In time, these trees will age and die, threatening the loss of the woodland itself. Climate change, pests and pathogens and the lack of a coordinated, centrally supported approach to deer management means the outlook for the UK’s existing treescape is uncertain at best.

An ecologically joined-up solution would be to reintroduce the natural predators of deer, such as lynx, wolves, and bears. Whether rewilding should get that far in the UK is still the subject of debate. Before that, perhaps the focus should be on providing the necessary habitat, rich in native trees.

A positive response would be to implement the balanced recommendations, made almost a decade ago in a government review, of creating more new habitat, improving what’s already there, and finding ways to link it together. Bigger, better, and more connected habitats.

But the UK is losing trees at increasing rates and not just through diseases. The recent removal of Victorian-era street trees in Sheffield and many other towns and cities is another issue to contend with. As the climate warms, increasing urban temperatures will mean cities need shade from street trees more than ever.

Trees aren’t the environmental panacea that the politicians might have people believe – even if they do make for great photo opportunities – but we do need more of them. Efforts to expand tree cover are underway across the world and the UK will benefit from contributing its share. Hitting the right balance – some commercial forestry, lots of new native woodland and millions of scattered trees – will be key to maximising the benefits they bring.

Nick Atkinson, Senior Lecturer in Ecology & Conservation, Nottingham Trent University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.