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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Tuesday, September 5, 2023


Topical Question Time

Short-term Let Licensing Scheme (Applications)

To ask the Scottish Government what percentage of short-term let operators have applied to be licensed in advance of the deadline for applications under the licensing scheme of 1 October. (S6T-01495)

The Minister for Housing (Paul McLennan)

The short-term let sector has grown significantly during the past decade and has changed in nature, bringing economic benefits but also causing concerns about consistency of quality and the impact on local communities.

Following two public consultations and independent research, Parliament passed licensing legislation in January 2022. All existing hosts have had 20 months in which to apply, and they must apply before 1 October in order to be able to continue trading.

According to local authorities’ public registers, 6,323 applications had been received as of 31 August and just over half of applicants had been issued with a licence, with none—none—having been refused. I will be writing to all members during the next few days to explain how they can encourage and support operators to submit applications.

Murdo Fraser

Operators of self-catering properties are rallying outside this Parliament today to highlight their concerns about the unintended consequences of the legislation. The Association of Scotland's Self-Caterers estimates that almost two thirds of those currently operating could give up their businesses as a result of the legislation, which would have a devastating impact on our tourism sector. What assessment has the Scottish Government made of the financial cost and of the jobs that will be lost as a result of this policy?

Paul McLennan

I have been negotiating and working with the sector for a number of months. I met with the Association of Scotland’s Self-Caterers on my first day as a minister; indeed, I have done so three times since March. I have also spoken to the Society of Local Authority Lawyers and Administrators in Scotland, which is the licensing body for local authorities.

Costs will vary depending on the size of the building and on what providers need to do, but a business and regulatory impact assessment suggested that costs will average between £250 and £450. That will vary, depending on the size of the property and the details required.

Murdo Fraser

There was no answer there about the number of jobs that might be lost or the cost to the economy. The legislation affects not only stand-alone self-catering units in city centres; it affects traditional bed and breakfasts, guest houses, home shares, house swaps and farm cottages, many of which have been operating successfully for years and provide an excellent service to visitors with no negative issues, but now face substantial additional bureaucracy and cost.

In a few minutes, we will hear from the First Minister, who will apparently tell us that he wants a better relationship with business. If this policy is not delayed to allow a proper review of the economic impact on our vital tourism sector, will the First Minister’s words be exposed as no more than empty rhetoric?

Paul McLennan

This Government listened to the sector, which is why there was a six-month delay. Any legislation must be balanced and licensing is always about safeguarding the quality and consistency of a sector. There were three public consultations before the Scottish Parliament passed the legislation in January 2022. The sector has brought economic benefits, but the consultation also raised concerns about the consistency of quality and the impact on neighbourhoods. The licensing scheme addresses those concerns.

Colin Beattie (Midlothian North and Musselburgh) (SNP)

Does the minister agree that 22 months’ notice, six months of which were a well-publicised extension in response to requests by operators, is more than enough time to prepare and submit an application, especially for the majority of short-term let hosts who already abide by high standards? Does he also agree that the Opposition should be encouraging operators to apply during the remaining time, instead of claiming that legislation passed by Parliament in January 2022 is being implemented too quickly?

Paul McLennan

I agree with what the member has rightly pointed out. Operators have had just under two years—two years—to ensure that they comply with the licensing conditions and I stress that they should already have been doing that under existing legislation. They have also had a year in which to prepare and submit their applications. The fact is that no one—no one—from among the thousands who have already applied has yet been refused a licence.

I have spoken to businesses and councils, and the messages I have heard are different from those being shared here today. What I have heard is that it is straightforward to apply for and obtain a licence and that councils are working with applicants when the information given is incomplete. The responsible and balanced course of action is for everyone to encourage and support existing short-term let operators to apply for licences before the 1 October deadline. The key thing is that they have to apply before 1 October. The local authority then has 12 months to look at the application and give the operator their licence. Licence applications have to be granted by licensing authorities unless there are good reasons to refuse them.

Ariane Burgess (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

As a Highlands and Islands MSP, I know the benefits that the holiday industry can bring to what are often fragile rural economies, but I also see the negative impacts of poorly-managed, high-turnover properties on many of the same communities. Can the minister say more about how regulation will offer reassurance to communities that are facing those negative impacts?

Paul McLennan

I thank the member for her question. This summer, I undertook a tour round lots of local authorities, and that same question was raised. I know from exchanges that we have had in recent years across all parties that members have heard from constituents who have been negatively affected by the significant growth of short-term lets and are worried about the inconsistency of quality and the impact on local communities. Independent research that was undertaken in 2019 identified those impacts in more detail and we acted, after public consultation, to regulate short-term lets in order to address the matter.

Licensing offers reassurance, providing protection and benefits for all—businesses, guests, neighbours and communities right across Scotland. It puts in place a formal framework with conditions that responsible businesses should already be functioning within.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

The minister knows that I favour sensible controls and regulation. That is why I favour the control areas. However, he needs to listen to the strength of opposition to the licensing arrangements—it is really strong. At a time of great economic strain, the regulations are, I think, heavy handed, and they have also been the subject of mission creep. Why does the minister not understand the strength of feeling and reflect on that?

Paul McLennan

I have done so. As I have said, on my first day in this role, I engaged with the sector straight off. I have met it twice since then, and I have also met numerous local authorities to talk about the licensing scheme. SOLAR thinks that it is a proportionate response to what came through in the public consultation in 2019.

We will continue to listen to stakeholders as we go forward, but the scheme is a proportionate response to what came through in the 2019 consultation.

Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (Public Buildings)

To ask the Scottish Government how many public buildings are currently at risk due to the exposure of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete. (S6T-01497)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

Survey work is under way across the public sector. Where the presence of RAAC is confirmed in a public building, we expect the owner to take appropriate measures to manage any risk that is identified. We expect risk assessment of buildings with a confirmed RAAC presence and recommendations for mitigation to follow the current guidance published by the Institution of Structural Engineers.

Returns from councils confirm some presence in 37 schools. Councils have reassured ministers that, in the small number of schools where RAAC is present, appropriate mitigation plans are in place.

Martin Whitfield

I am very grateful for that response. I must thank Scottish Liberal Democrats for freedom of information requests that raised the issue as early as May this year. However, the matter is, apparently, something that the Governments north and south of the border have been aware of for a number of years.

Can the Scottish Government confirm that, when it is aware of the list of public buildings that are at risk, it will publish that list, keep it updated and ensure that steps are taken to ensure that buildings are still safe to open?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Of course, this is an issue that the Government has been aware of for some time, which is why action is being taken—and has been being taken for some time. For example, way back in July 2022, Scottish Government officials made contact with the Scottish heads of property services network and the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland to share information on RAAC. That work has been on-going for some time.

I completely appreciate why there is public concern on the issue—in particular, given the way that announcements have been handled down in England. However, I reassure Martin Whitfield that we appreciate that that public concern means that we need to be as open as we can possibly be on the matter. Parents and staff are concerned about it.

It is for councils to publish information on schools alongside having communication with parents and staff, because it is important that we reassure them, at both national and local levels, about the mitigations that are already taking place. I confirm that we intend to be as open as—

Thank you. We will now move back to Martin Whitfield.

Martin Whitfield

I am grateful for the confirmation that the list will be published.

However, what support will follow from that for our local authorities in respect of the money that will be required to ensure that the surveys are undertaken properly, that the mitigation measures are correct and appropriate and, indeed, that they are supported, especially for certain buildings? I am thinking in particular of schools that have lost out because of the lack of publication of the learning estate investment programme.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As I mentioned, it is for local authorities to publish that information on schools. They should do so to ensure that parents and staff are reassured. I again reassure Martin Whitfield that Jenny Gilruth, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, and I are in regular contact with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to ensure that we offer support where it is needed, that we share good practice and information, and that we reaffirm the importance of looking at the professional advice that has come from the Institution of Structural Engineers. We will, of course, keep up that close contact with local authorities as the situation develops.

Bill Kidd (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)

In recognition that any repairs will result in additional spending commitments for the responsible bodies, what discussion has there been with the United Kingdom Government on capital funding to remediate situations in which the material is found in buildings?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

In her letter of 3 September, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills asked the United Kingdom Secretary of State for Education to clarify the public commitment by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to “spend what it takes” to make schools safe. That statement was welcomed, and early details are sought about the financial support package that would follow to devolved Governments. That follows an earlier letter, on 16 August, from the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Finance, to His Majesty’s Treasury regarding further financial support to help to deal with the consequences of RAAC, to which we have yet to receive a reply. It is essential that we receive early clarity on the matter.

Craig Hoy (South Scotland) (Con)

In Preston Lodge high school in Prestonpans, 20 classrooms are closed and secondary 1 pupils are being taught off-campus. East Lothian Council has already spent more than £300,000 to maintain education standards—a sum that has not been budgeted for at a time of extreme financial pressure for the council. Will the cabinet secretary therefore commit to reimbursing councils and health boards that have incurred significant non-construction and inspection-related costs due to the discovery of RAAC?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I refer Craig Hoy to the answer that I have just given. Clearly, the issue affects Administrations across the United Kingdom, so it is important that the UK Government and the chancellor take cognisance of that.

The cuts to our capital budgets make it difficult, across Government, to fulfil the obligations that we already have. We are, of course, committed to working with local authorities, but, frankly, there is an obligation on the UK Government also to step up and to ensure that everybody is supported on the issue.

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

It has now been months since I first brought the issue to the attention of the very top of the Scottish Government, but there is still no central register of affected buildings, no strategy for swift wholesale replacement of this potentially deadly concrete, and no national fund for cash-strapped schools, health boards and others that have been landed with it. Mitigation and monitoring offer little reassurance, given the collapse of a concrete beam that was marked as being safe, which prompted the closure of schools across England. Can the cabinet secretary say with confidence today that pupils, patients and staff do not have RAAC in the ceilings above them? Is it possible that that problem concrete is still in use in classrooms and wards right now?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

With the greatest respect to Alex Cole-Hamilton, I note that it was not he who brought the issue before the eyes of the Scottish Government. We had been well aware of it for some time and already had plans in place, which is why discovery methods are in place right across Government and the public sector.

I urge Mr Cole-Hamilton to have some caution about what he is advising. I urge him to respect the advice of the Institution of Structural Engineers, which has not changed over the past week, despite what has been happening in England. Let us listen to that professional advice. Let us, of course, also pay close attention if the advice changes. However, it has not changed. Let us ensure that we listen to the professionals and the experts, and that we take action where it is needed. That is exactly why mitigation measures are already in place where RAAC has been identified and measures have been required.

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

In December 2021, the Government told the Parliament that it would publish in 2022 the schools that would form phase 3 of the learning estate investment programme. It failed to do so. In May, then in June, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills said that there would be an announcement by the summer recess, but she failed to deliver that announcement. How many schools—such as Dumfries academy—are at risk due to RAAC, and how many schools’ refurbishment or rebuild is being held up because of the failure of the Government to announce the funding that it promised to announce months ago?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

With the greatest respect, I note that there are two different issues in that question. Yes—we are, of course, working very closely with councils where RAAC has been identified, as I said in my previous answers.

On the announcement of LEIP phase 3, I hope that everyone across the chamber recognises the very difficult circumstances that exist for all capital projects at the moment—in particular, because of increasing capital costs and construction costs and their implications. It is quite right that the Government takes longer than people would perhaps like us to take to ensure that we are getting the maximum out of that project and are looking at it very seriously. The cabinet secretary will make an announcement on that in due course, when they are ready to do so.