Airbnb contends it follows the rules in London while others don't

For $220 per night, guests can stay in the clock tower apartment at London's St Pancras Station. Photo credit: Airbnb

It's getting a tad testy in London's home-sharing game. Airbnb is protesting that it is the only sharing platform to abide by the laws around short-term lets in the city, as calls have increased for data to be shared with the authorities to make it easier to enforce regulations. Observers note, however, that the impact of dealing with Brexit was likely to limit the chances of the issues being addressed. 

According to an analysis by Transparent, and quoted by Airbnb, other platforms, such as Booking.com, had a combined total of 40,000 listings in the city, without making efforts to adhere to the 90-day cap introduced in 2015. 
 
"Airbnb is the only platform that works with London to promote the rules and limit how often hosts can share their homes," said James McClure, northern Europe general manager at Airbnb. "We are proud to help Londoners share their homes responsibly and are disappointed others are failing to take similar steps to help make London stronger. London is strongest when it is shared. We encourage other platforms to step-up and do the right thing so more Londoners can keep sharing the best of their communities and the city they love with the world."

Booking.com said it had undertaken partnership initiatives with governments across Europe to work on solutions to the issue.

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A report by Airbnb found that in the year since the enforcement was introduced, between July 2016 and July 2017, properties booked for more than 90 nights had dropped from 21 percent of the total to 7 percent.

Despite the cap, London boroughs do not have immediate access to any information that confirms a property is being used for short-term lettings and there was no requirement to notify a borough of such an intention or use. Instead, the impetus was on boroughs to prove that a home was not only available for 90 nights a year, but had been booked and occupied.

"Airbnb's decision last year to voluntarily enforce the 90-day limit on short-term lets was a very welcome step forward, but they're no longer the only player in the market," said Tom Copley, the Labour London Assembly spokesperson. "It's vital that they and other short-term rental platforms continue to engage with local communities and city authorities. They should be looking to work with national and local government to help lay the right regulatory framework to protect long-term housing and build cohesive communities. 

"Let's sort out information sharing immediately—for everyone's peace of mind. Cash-strapped local authorities are struggling to enforce against people who turn their homes into hotels by the back door. We need home-sharing platforms to share data with councils to help them target the minority of hosts who abuse the system.

"Government should also legislate to require that short-term lettings hosts register with their local authority. This should be simple and free. None of this is rocket science—it's simply catching up with and effectively regulating new technology."

Copley called for a number of actions, including the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, continuing to put pressure on platforms to voluntarily share their data with local authorities to assist with enforcement activity. If voluntary measures were not effective, Copley said, then the Mayor should campaign for the government to change legislation to force websites to hand over the details of property owners suspected of breaking the 90-day-per-year limit on short-term lets.

Copley added that home-sharing platforms should consider creating an ombudsman paid for by the industry to prevent home-sharing fraud, help with enforcement, solve resolution disputes, investigate complaints and help redistribute the responsibility for enforcement away from councils.

There were doubts as to how much traction these demands would gain. Neil Baylis, competition partner, K&L Gates, told Hotel Management: "It is always interesting how the innovative companies ultimately become the norm and then the next generation of businesses seek to undermine them by operating with fewer controls. With the all-consuming Brexit in play, I don't see the government making legislative time for dealing with this market, which may well have peaked in any event."
 
The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics reported a 6-percent drop on the year in the number of overseas residents visiting the UK in October, to 3.2 million. With the pound strengthening since then, the Brexit bounce looks to be tailing off. The British authorities may not wish to clamp down on the sharing economy and risk deterring further visitors. 

Katherine Doggrell is an editor at Hotel Analyst, the U.K.-based news analysis service for hotel investors.

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