I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I thank the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Peter Burke, for taking this debate. I also thank the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, who contacted me earlier today as a courtesy to let me know he was unable to be present. However, as the Bill relates to a planning matter, it falls within the Minister of State's portfolio, so the right man is here for the day.
As the Minister of State knows, in 2017, the Oireachtas committee on housing completed a report on the need to regulate short-term lettings. There was strong cross-party support for the introduction of a regulatory regime that would facilitate genuine peer-to-peer home sharing, particularly for people who wanted to let a room in their property for a number of weeks each year to supplement their income, support their mortgage payments, pay for school or college fees or even to pay for a holiday. The committee was strongly of the view that we needed robust regulation for commercial short-term lettings, those letting their property for more than 90 days or those letting second, third or fully commercial properties. That report received widespread public support and in 2019, the then Minister with responsibility for housing, Eoghan Murphy, introduced regulations that were broadly in line with the recommendations of the committee.
While we broadly welcomed the regulations when they were introduced, a number of us highlighted a weakness, namely, that while their broad outline was correct, enforcement of the regulations would be a challenge. The regime the then Minister introduced was over-reliant on the planning enforcement of local authorities, which is slow and cumbersome and ultimately requires legal action. For this reason, we believed an additional layer of enforcement would be required for estate agents and letting platforms. It was my strong view at the time, and remains so today, that if somebody engages in the commercial activity of advertising a short-term letting, for example, an estate agent or online platform such as Airbnb, and profits from those advertisements, there should be a penalty if they advertise properties that do not have the exemption required for the genuine short-term letters or the required planning permission.
It is important also to emphasise that the original regulations made a clear distinction. Short-term letting in rent pressure zones where there was a high demand for long-term lets would be discouraged, but beyond that, particularly in the more scenic parts of our tourist economy, it would be encouraged. Several years on, we know from the enforcement data that we were proved correct. The overwhelming majority of properties that are today listed, for example, on Airbnb, are illegal. They do not have planning permission. They do not have exemption certificates. Therefore, they are operating outside of the law, a law that had unanimous support across the House.
The Bill I am introducing today is a small, simple, but I think effective, tool to address that. Very simply, it will require any estate agent or short-term letting platform to require the host to give evidence that they have the exemption or the planning permission before they are allowed to be advertised. If any estate agent or online platform like Airbnb advertises properties and potentially profits from properties that do not have planning permission, they should be hit with a spot fine. I think the spot fine is the best way to do it, because the Minister could set a rate for a spot fine that would come in at or above the amount of money the platform would accrue if that property was let short term on a particular day. Spot fines could also be increased incrementally for serial offenders.
I wish to acknowledge the fact that in August 2021, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage did indicate he was working - or his hard-working, underpaid and undervalued officials in the planning section were working - on new regulations. He did not indicate at that stage that it may be a licensing regime by the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB. I would be interested to see if that is the case. I am sure that is probably not the direction of travel, and not the best one. I think enforcement is the key. Given that these companies, Airbnb in particular, are very large, wealthy global companies, the Oireachtas today should have a very clear message, namely, they should not be allowed to profit from, or facilitate, the advertising of properties that do not have requisite planning permission on the short-term letting market.
I wish to acknowledge the fact I understand the Government is not opposing the Bill. That is very welcome. My preference, of course, is that this Bill does not see the light of day. My preference is the Government accelerates its own changes, works collaboratively with us in opposition, and we get a speedy resolution on this. We did so with the USI student accommodation Bill both in this Dáil and in the previous Dáil. The commitment I give to the Government in exchange for its non-opposition to this Bill, if we can call it that, is if it works with us, we will assist it in speeding the passage of an appropriate and effective enforcement mechanism, crucially so that at this time, when the private rental sector is shrinking, we can ensure that properties should be in the long-term rental market are where they should be and not in an unregulated and illegal short-term letting market.