Graham Chainey: Time to rein in the holiday-let industry

Georgian houses in Brighton
Georgian houses in Brighton

From my window, I see a row of Georgian houses – all bow windows and mathematical tiles –that stand in darkness for most of the week. Desirable residences, they used to be occupied by families. Now they’re all “party houses”.

Come Friday evening, the lights go on, crates of booze and food arrive, and then you see the hen hordes (they’re more often hens than stags) swarming out. In summer, if you venture past late on a Friday or Saturday, you practically have to fight your way through a hedonist throng.

One of these houses, sleeping up to 22, costs up to £800 per weekend night. Another, sleeps up to 28 and costs between £1,295 and £3,295 for a weekend. Another, opposite, sleeping 22, costs up to £2,495 per weekend. Inside, these Grade II 1790s houses, given inappropriate new names, have been tricked out in generic party-house décor.

They’re far from unusual. In the last few years, most of the streets in this area of Brighton have been colonised by holiday-let profiteers. Whenever a house comes up for sale, you can bet it will be converted. There are now hundreds of such houses in the city.

Additionally, there are hundreds of smaller holiday properties rented through agencies or online sites like Airbnb. A flat in my own block, until recently a family home, is now let through Airbnb. Two others are agency-managed holiday lets. Looking from my window again, I see an entire block above a club that used to be student flats. Maybe 30 people once lived there. Now they’re all party flats, and their windows also stay dark for much of the time.

Airbnb, one of the internet successes of recent years, began in San Francisco in 2008 when a couple of hard-up guys offered airbeds and breakfast for temporary guests. It now has listings in 65,000 cities in 191 countries and is worth $31 billion. And all over the place – Barcelona, Majorca, Berlin, Sydney, Vancouver, London, Cornwall, the Lake District – the complaint is the same, that housing accommodation is being inappropriately converted into holiday pads.

Belatedly, local authorities are trying to curb the creep, to impose restrictions on what has hitherto been an unregulated grey-area industry. (In July 2016, a balcony collapsed at an Airbnb property in Montpelier Road, seriously injuring four people.) The Mayor of London has expressed concern over the loss of long-term rentals. Peers have called for a ban on such lettings in residential blocks, and restrictions on how many days per year a property can be let out in this way (it’s supposed to be 90 days in London though apparently 61 percent of the 40,000 London Airbnb properties are let out for longer than that). In Barcelona, where such apartments must be licensed and included in a tourism register, the authorities last year imposed the maximum fine of €600,000 on Airbnb and HomeAway for the “thousands of apartments operating illegally without a permit, not paying tax, and causing a nuisance to neighbours”.

Brighton and Hove council looked into the issue in 2014 without coming to any firm conclusion, apart from initiating a voluntary agreement with the Brighton and Hove Holiday Rental Association for some noise patrols. Despite the fact there were 18,000 people on the council’s housing list, and a desperate shortage of affordable accommodation in the city, the panel declared itself “in support of the holiday rental business provided that the properties are managed responsibly”.

It’s time to rethink this and take a tougher line. It’s unacceptable for hundreds of homes to be lost in this way, and for residential swathes to be turned over to influxes of often antisocial visitors who stay just a night or two in such bunkbedded travesties as those I see from my window.