26 June 2023

Licensing scheme risks stifling startups

By Aled Maclean-Jones

If you owned a dog in England in 1986 you’d have to queue up at the Post Office and buy a dog licence for 37p – or the equivalent of 7s 6d, a fee that had been fixed since 1867. The scheme was so famously ineffective that it was eventually abolished.

Licensing and registration schemes are often treated as a catch-all solutions – the policy-version of a swiss-army knife – but, if crudely drawn, they can end up penalising the responsible while doing nothing to reign in the irresponsible.

The latest group to catch the regulator’s gaze are those with properties that can be rented out on a short-term basis.

My startup, Ashore, works with homeowners across the UK to turn their places into the perfect spots for creative and focussed thinking – allowing companies to give their employees the opportunity to step away from the everyday and work somewhere new.

Whether it’s finishing a project, recording a new video series, or planning the next big step for their business, our users are able to easily harness the power of a new place to do their best work.

And we couldn’t do it without the homeowners we partner with.

From farmers who’ve made a big bet on diversification, to local entrepreneurs that combine their business with renting out a home, they are the ones who help our users – meaning money flows out of cities into local economies throughout the UK.

The Government currently has a consultation on the pros and cons of creating a registration scheme for short-term lets.

It should look to Scotland for what not to do – recently the Scottish Government created a licensing scheme for short-term rentals, arguing it was a necessary tool to stop bad behaviour.

Local authorities in Scotland can all set their own fees and licensing requirements – including planning conditions – making the rules often maddening to predict or understand. While fees and charges so far published lurch wildly from £125 to £17,000.

Worse, the practicalities of the scheme are – to put it mildly – pretty old school. Whilst other types of licensee, such as B&Bs, get to have a digital scheme which is streamlined to accommodate online certificates – the short-lets scheme is paper-based.

The Government’s current proposals for a central register of short-term lets are far preferable to a licensing scheme – but the homeowners we partner with are still waiting to see detail on how time or resource intensive complying with the scheme would be.

Today the Startup Coalition publishes a new report into the needs of startups in the Sharing Economy – a rapidly growing sector I’m proud to be part of and a timely report I was glad to contribute to – but it shows clearly that success means barriers to entry have to be low.

This isn’t just to ensure people can easily take part. A register will be functionally useless if we don’t end up with accurate information.

The Government is also mulling over whether local authorities should have to access and use the data a register would uncover.

But if our partners are going to all this effort, allowing councils to opt out and not have to factor in data in their decision-making feels a bit like allowing councils to blindfold themselves to the reality of what is going on in their constituencies.

It’s no surprise that short-term lets are starting to rub up against registration schemes and changes to planning rules – for too long it’s been a patchwork of approaches and moves to create a cohesive approach are welcome.

But it’s not just short-term lets – post-pandemic changes combined with the pace of innovation mean the way we think about the entire physical world is changing.

Whether it’s supporting rapid delivery infrastructure in cities, or making it easy for real estate to be repurposed to reflect the way we live now, the question now is do we embrace the future, or cast ourselves against it.

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Aled Maclean-Jones is co-founder of Ashore:https://ashore.io/.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.