A bungled attempt by planning enforcement officers in Camden Council to stop illegal short term letting at a building in Charlotte Street ended with permission being granted for AirBnB-style use to continue on a permanent basis.

Front of flats.
Previous illegal short term letting of three flats at 68 Charlotte Street has now been given a certificate of lawfulness.

In a case which is believed to be the first of its kind in Fitzrovia, Camden Council have issued a “certificate of lawfulness” for three flats at 68 Charlotte Street to be used as short term letting, meaning the loss of potential permanent housing.

The decision by the Council was made last year, but the officers’ report describing the decision appeared to be withheld until Fitzrovia News submitted a Freedom of Information request asking to see the document. Camden later said the “information was not published by mistake and is now available on the planning portal”.

The council report describes an attempt by officers to take enforcement action against the owner of three flats. In response, the property owner claimed the flats had “been in use as an apart-hotel (Class C1) since 2005 and have remained in continuous use as such until the present”, and countered the enforcement notice by applying for a Certificate of Lawfulness.

The report which was seen by senior councillors on the planning committee’s Members Briefing Panel stated that on the “balance of probability” the three flats had been in use as hotel accommodation for more than 90 days in each year for more than ten years, and as such the council would have to approve its lawful use for short-term letting.

However the report also revealed that a previous attempt to take enforcement action against short-letting of the three flats was “closed in error” in 2015.

Councillor Danny Beales, cabinet member for investing in communities and an inclusive economy told Fitzrovia News:

“This case highlights the challenges involved in taking action against short term lets.

“We opened a number of enforcement investigations during this period, but each time was not able to obtain sufficient evidence that the building was being used as short term accommodation contrary to the legislation, which changed in 2015 to allow for up to 90 nights short term lets a year. The owners then proceeded to submit a certificate of lawfulness with evidence to demonstrate that the use had been operating for 10 years.

“Unfortunately, providing evidence of a breach is one of the most significant challenges for council’s like Camden, who have seen a rise in short term lets. Cases like this are disappointing, and have prompted us to take action trialling new technology and techniques to tackle the issue, whilst continuing to lobby Government for the introduction of a national registration system, that would allow for more effective monitoring and enforcement,” said Beales.

The case raises concern that properties used for AirBnB-style short-letting for more than the legal limit of 90 days a year could become permanent.

When short letting takes place illegally the business running the letting only pays council tax rather than the more expensive business rates which hotels have to pay.

The Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Association and the Charlotte Street Association have both raised concerns about the amount of short-letting in the neighbourhood and have submitted evidence to Camden where whole buildings are being used illegally as short-lets.

They fear that all these properties could be granted a certificate of lawfulness if enforcement action is not prompt and successful.

Residents affected by the nuisance of illegal short-letting are required to submit large amounts of evidence to planning enforcement officers before action can be taken.

A recent investigation suggested that 11 percent of the residential properties in Fitzrovia East and Bloomsbury are being used for short-letting, but it is not clear how many of these are exceeding the 90-day limit. But Camden Council estimates that around half of the short-lets in the borough are exceeding the 90-day limit.

Camden says it is difficult for all London Boroughs to enforce properties in short term let. Avoidance tactics such as listing a property across multiple sites, using different locations and different photos make it harder for local authorities to locate short term properties whilst demonstrating a breach of the planning rules.

Camden says it was the first London borough to trial new software to assist in the fight against the loss of permanent residential properties to holiday lets on sites such as Airbnb. Its research with Talk & Code has helped with understanding not just the amount of properties being used as holiday lets but the extent of properties breaching the 90-night allowance.

The council has a Short Term Lets task force to target the loss of permanent residential accommodation.

Camden says it is working with London Councils, the GLA and other central London boroughs to lobby the government to introduce a self-funded statutory register/licence system to give local authorities greater controls.

“We are also introducing a pilot this year within Bloomsbury to work with residents to identify short term lets, raise awareness of the 90-day limit and trial different ways to tackle short term lets. Bloomsbury is one of the most affected wards by the rise of short term letting. We will be reaching out to local groups to engage in our pilot and urge local residents to report any suspected short term lets,” says Camden.

You can report any short term lets by email to: planning@camden.gov.uk

Documents:  Officer Report to Members Briefing Panel ; FOI Response FOI13786.