March 11, 2015
Mark Field: Sensible, pragmatic regulations exempting the Greater London area from a short-lets free-for-all are, as we know, under acute threat. I appreciate that the Minister has to put his ministerial duties at the forefront today, but he will know that his mentor, the noble Lord Tope, was one of the leading lights in the House of Lords in trying to get a more sensible and pragmatic approach towards the issue. I hope that even at this 11th hour we can have some comfort on an issue about which a number of London MPs on both sides of the House feel strongly.
It is recognised that our capital city is a place of particular hyper-mobility and hyper-diversity, where housing shortage is a perennial long-term problem. That lies at the heart of the regulations, which have now been in place for more than four decades. Unquestionably, the world has changed since 1973, but the big new idea behind the so-called sharing economy is being vigorously promoted through ferocious lobbying by commercial interests whose business model requires the sweeping away of these long-standing public interest safeguards.
The creation of a new trade body, the so-called Sharing Economy UK, is essentially a front for that commercial campaign. Frankly, it is akin to setting up a trade body of payday lenders to dictate financial services policy. I am sorry that the wool is being pulled over the Minister’s eyes as these self-professed independent voices dictate a commercially advantageous landscape. Meanwhile, scant regard is being paid to the interests of residents, particularly in central London. If this was really all about allowing home owners to undertake short-term holiday housing swaps, as the Government suggest, it is highly unlikely that a local authority would even be aware of such a brief arrangement and no enforcement action should be taken against the owner in such instances, as it would clearly be disproportionate.
Enforcement action in the City of Westminster is, at least, reserved for those situations in which the council becomes aware that properties are being let on a short-term basis all year round. The number of such properties is significant, as the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) pointed out, and the impact of this activity is hugely detrimental in our locality, leading to a diminution of housing stock, reduced security, increased antisocial behaviour, a breakdown in community cohesion and giving a green light to what can, at its worst, be fraudulent activity. Without the current safeguards, many social housing properties, for instance, are likely to be sub-let given how lucrative the short-stay market can become in central London.
I have spoken in the House about all these concerns before as the Bill has gently wended its way towards the statute book, so I shall not go into the specific detail again. However, I want to raise two further issues. First, flats in blocks in which short-term letting is taking place might find that the insurance policy of the entire building becomes invalid. Secondly, and most worryingly in many ways given the geopolitical problems we face, which are particularly acute here in London, national security concerns have been raised by the Metropolitan police about the absence of checks on those who can live in central London for up to 90 days a year through short-term lets. That is three months in which people can come and reside in London completely under the security radar. The provisions contain no prior notification process, so local authorities would be literally clueless about who was letting their property on a short-term basis and for how long.
Of course, a question was asked on this subject in another place to which we did not get a proper answer, so I will ask it again of the Minister. We have been told by the Metropolitan police that they rely heavily on article 5 of the Immigration (Hotel Records) Order 1972, both in proactive intelligence-led activity and in retrospective investigations, but that that power would be superseded by unchecked short-term letting. What assurances or safeguards have the Government sought from the police and Home Office that the legislation will not inadvertently create a grey area that can be exploited?
I fear that this will all end in tears, and I regret that. Even at this late stage I ask the Government carefully to assess the impact the changes to short lets will have and to consider some more robust safeguards. At the very least, I want to see owners having to notify the local authority of a short let and its length. Councils believe that they can set up an online notification system pretty easily, but that without such a system controlling short-term lets would be utterly impossible. I would also ask that the premises concerned must be the principal London residence of the owner offering the let. More importantly still, councils should also be able to request that the Government provide local exemptions to the provisions when there is a strong amenity case for doing so. I know that proposals were made in the other place and I regret that more thought has not been given to that practical safeguard. I hope that the Minister will give some thought to it, even at this late stage.
I should also like a provision that states that the total period of short lets in any one calendar year for a specific property should be no more than 30 days, as that should be sufficient for a bona fide residential property owner seeking the flexibility that many of us would like in this so-called sharing economy.
If the Government are unwilling to see sense, I hope that at the very least we will get an assurance today that if the effects of the operation of these changes over the next 12 months prove to be as detrimental to the permanent resident population as many in central London fear, the Minister will review the situation with some urgency. I regret that it has come to this, because some practical discussions have taken place and one would have rather hoped that amendments would have been made in the other place. The Government appear to have been wowed by the whole idea of a sharing economy in developing many of the provisions, many of which I wholly support, and that has meant that this has become a Christmas tree of a Bill, particularly as regards short lets. It has been suggested that we can simply throw out with the bathwater something that has worked for the past 40 years. I speak with less knowledge and authority than many on the Opposition Benches, but perhaps our housing problems, concerns and constraints in this capital city are more acute today than they have ever been in the past four decades. In many ways, if we had not already had the 1973 order, we would perhaps be looking to impose it today, rather than enacting this deregulatory measure.
I hope that the Minister will pay serious attention not just to what I have said but, more importantly, to what we will hear later in this debate and to the contributions made in the other place by members of all political parties. As a London MP, he will know that these problems are becoming increasingly acute. Carshalton and Wallington is a very different place today from 20, let alone 40, years ago. Short-term lets will be a much bigger issue for him in the years to come if we do not have some safeguards along the lines I have suggested.