The All Party Parliamentary Group on Tourism recommended that all visitor accommodation, including that in the sharing economy, face statutory registration.
In an interim report, the group of MPs said that growth of platforms such as Airbnb “must not be at the expense of consumer safety”.
The group first called for submissions on the sharing economy in 2016, but the study was delayed by the EU Referendum and a General Election. The final report is due in May.
The study said that all businesses offering accommodation, new or existing, should be registered, “regardless of the type of accommodation provided”. It added: “The benefits of such a scheme being that it would provide transparency regarding the location of all visitor accommodation premises and allow enforcement authorities to target what resources they have towards inspecting those that they deemed to be the highest risk.”
The MPs suggested: “The problems and discrepancies around regulatory compliance stem from a failure of enforcement. Leading sharing economy platforms do not check if hosts are compliant with regulations such as gas and fire safety before allowing them to post a property on their site. A checklist provided to hosts does not reach the standard expected by current regulations and sharing economy businesses do not currently undertake checks.”
The study suggested that both the host and the platform be liable for the safety of consumers, noting: “If traditional booking agents for self-catering properties can be held liable for not checking the safety of properties on their books, we see no reason why sharing economy platforms cannot be held liable under the same duty of care.”
The group also drew attention the issues around locating accommodation providers, as the platforms do not provide data on the exact location of a property until a booking is made. This makes it difficult to implement an effective inspection regime.
It added: “The London Fire Brigade does not have the data or resources to deal with the large increase in tourist accommodation. There has been a mushrooming of sharing economy properties in coastal or rural tourism hotspots where the capacity of regulatory authorities to monitor let alone regulate is very thin.”
In addition to a call for transparency, the report added that it recognised the need for a proportionate and light-touch approach. It also said that there was evidence to suggest an increasing number of professional operators are using online platforms as a low-cost route to market.
“It is also difficult to distinguish between a person running a traditional B&B in a three-bedroom house and a person running a similar business through a sharing economy platform, or between a person letting a self-catering unit through a company such as Wyndham and someone advertising a self-catering property through Airbnb.”
Chair of the group, Gordon Marsden MP, said: “We have endeavoured to look at the evidence, guided by the principle that there should be a level playing field in standards for both traditional models and the distribution innovations of the sharing economy.”
Neil Baylis, competition partner, K&L Gates, told us: “I think the APPG will have sway on these issues. It is undoubtedly influential and reflects a broad swathe of opinion in Parliament. The real issue is that with Brexit to the fore the likelihood of government time and resources being put into reviewing and then following up on the issues raised by the APPG must be slim.”
The ‘level playing field’ comment echoed calls made by Airbnb in February, when the platform protested that it was the only sharing platform to abide by the laws around short-term lets in London.
James McClure, northern Europe general manager at Airbnb, said: “Airbnb is the only platform that works with London to promote the rules and limit how often hosts can share their homes. 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.”
HA Perspective [by Katherine Doggrell]: Airbnb, with its IPO expected next year, has been going to great efforts over the past couple of years to prove to all that it is whiter than white, invest your money here, folks. In February this saw it issue a report ratting out competition such as Booking and proclaiming itself as the fine-upstanding face of the sharing economy.
While the UK, and in particular London, was initially welcoming to the sharing economy, that has become more nuanced when it became apparent that the 90-day limit in the capital wasn’t being adhered to by all players, with evidence that some hosts were hitting the limit on one platform, only to move to another. Just not cricket, you might say, but then given that cricket is no longer cricket either, thanks to certain national teams, you can’t blame them. What was lacking was a method of monitoring the listings – or the staff to do it.
The proposed registration plan may help, if anyone can be found to run it and it does not appear terribly onerous for hosts. But it will not deliver what hotels want, which is to outlaw Airbnb and its frenemies. Should the long-demanded level-playing field actually be delivered, the sharing economy will be legitimised and hotels will have to acknowledge the competition.