Published on Friday, February 7, 2014
Airbnb and other websites that enable home owners to let spare rooms to paying guests are putting Britain's many thousands of B&Bs at a competitive disadvantage, writes David Weston, chief Executive of the Bed & Breakfast Association.
"British B&Bs should be celebrated - not only are they at the heart of sustainable UK tourism, contributing billions to local (especially rural and coastal) economies, but the best are world class: last month, TripAdvisor's 120 million users effectively voted British B&Bs the World's best: we have the top two B&B in the world, and six of the top 10.
The B&B Association represents the 25,000 or so UK B&B and guest house owners - and we have made huge efforts to lobby Government and regulators to try to get common-sense and proportionate regulation.
The problem is that so many laws designed for bigger businesses (like hotels) also apply to B&Bs.
In 2006, for instance, the old "six bed rule" for fire regulations disappeared, and a new law introduced which applied to anyone letting a room to paying guests: even one room, for one night.
Many of our members have three or fewer guest bedrooms, but have had to pay several thousand pounds to install fire precautions to comply. We have been told: "the law applies to everyone".
Does it? Airbnb and similar websites have grown exponentially by enabling anyone with a spare bedroom to simply advertise for guests on their sites. Do they comply with the above fire regulations, have planning permission or public liability insurance? The websites say it is not their problem and they are not responsible. They say it is up to the "hosts" to comply and the regulators to regulate.
But the cash-strapped regulators seem to be asleep on the job - it is easier to check compliance with a "visible" B&B than its neighbour, which has no sign outside but may be (anonymousy) on a website. So in practice, there is one rule for "bona fide" B&Bs, and one for Airbnb users (ie, no rules).
We don't want more regulation - just a level playing-field: either the safety regulations should not apply to ANY very small property (for example, by exempting those with up to three letting bedrooms), OR they must be applied fairly and proportionately to all: to Airbnb hosts as well as bona fide B&Bs.
The worst of all worlds is what we have now: established, visible B&Bs with even one or two rooms have to comply (often at great expense), whilst their neighbour who offers two or three B&B rooms through Airbnb or Wimdu is untroubled by any regulators and can pocket the compliance costs his neighbour is bearing.
I'm not even going to get onto the issue of whether these private individuals are paying tax on the income they receive from guests.
These hosting websites are like those music "file-sharing" sites that only existed (and grew lucratively) because 99% of their users broke the law. The "file sharers" came close to crippling the music industry, costing it billions. Is something similar starting to happen in hospitality?
Is this a "ticking time bomb"? Thousands of guests are staying with "hosts" who may not have public liability cover, and may not reach the fire safety standards the law requires for paying guests.
Likewise many "hosts" may be blissfully unaware - until disaster strikes - that their household insurance may be invalid and their mortgage terms breached by taking paying guests.
Will our sleepy regulators wake up and do their jobs? Will the playing-field be levelled? Or will action only be prompted by a tragedy?"
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