Photo: tell tale key safe
It was the soiled mattress pushed up against the outside of his kitchen window which was the last straw for long term Whitstable resident, Ray Sutherland.
After years of suffering anti-social behaviour, noisy parties, lack of parking and rubbish strewn streets, Sutherland and his wife, Lisa, have had enough. They are selling up and leaving after 16 years because of what they regard as the curse of Airbnb.
“The main problem with Airbnbs is the loss of community,” says Sutherland and he has promised his elderly neighbours that when he sells his house, he will endeavour to sell to new residents not to those wanting a holiday let or second home.
Walking down Bexley Street and Sydenham Street the Airbnb houses are easy to spot. The proliferation of Airbnbs in Sydenham Street was featured in Whitstable Views two years ago and there are many more now. The black key safe by the front door, obligatory horizontal white blinds and the exotic nautical house names that read like an extract from the Admiralty manual of seamanship, reveal them as the holiday lets. And they now outnumber resident’s homes in this part of the town.
“I do some taxi work and if I have to be up at dawn for a Heathrow run, the last thing I need is party music blaring out at 1am,” says Sutherland.
Monday morning is bin day and Albert Street is not a pretty site. Sutherland points out the rubbish strewn across the streets, torn black bin liners dumped in alley ways and contaminated recycled rubbish He even points out an old sofa dumped in an alleyway and ignored for weeks despite his repeated calls to Canterbury City Council. Holiday guests don’t always know which bins are due for collection or where the designated collection points are. Often, they just leave plastic sacks out for the seagulls and urban foxes to tear open, creating a mess which Sutherland describes as resembling a “war zone”.
His neighbour, John Crawley is picking up discarded rubbish left around the bin collection point. Crawley spent several years staying in Airbnb’s in Whitstable before moving to the town 18 months ago to live permanently. He thinks a small minority of selfish guests and negligent owners, give the Airbnb brand a band name.
“Some off the holiday guests just don’t know how to behave,” he says, citing up to 20 guests crammed into nearby two-bedroom terraced houses, noisy parties and illegal parking.
The government is currently calling for evidence as part of an official review into the effect of short-term holiday lets in popular tourism destinations, like Whitstable. The review will seek to improve the holiday letting market for those living nearby and as part of this process, the local Green Party is holding a public meeting at Whitstable Umbrella Centre on Friday 16 September at 6.30pm to allow people to air their views and to gather local evidence.
One local resident likely to be attending the public meeting is Brian Hitcham. Most mornings Hitcham cycles or drives from Herne Bay to Oxford Street Whitstable to open the charity parking at the Primary School. He says he was unable to find a suitable rented property in the town where he has lived for more than 60 years.
A quick look at the Airbnb website shows that for a one-week stay in the town in September 2022 there are currently 571 options. The total number of holiday lets in the town is not known but it is thought to easily exceed a thousand. By contrast the RightMove website lists just 21 rental properties available across all price bands, as landlords cash in on the local holiday let boom. Hitcham says that when he was house hunting, it was not unusual for 80 potential tenants to be competing for one property.
“Airbnb and second homes mean there is a reduced stock of housing for local people—the number of properties is reduced and it means I have been displaced,” says Hitcham.
Of course, Airbnb is not all bad news and for some locals it has proved to be a blessing. Many people in the town use it to generate much needed revenue and even stay with friends or travel while they let out their own homes. Airbnb say they have helped to create valuable new income streams for UK residents, to make travel more affordable and they encourage traveller spending to filter in to lesser-known destinations. Between July 2017 and July 2018, hosts and guests using Airbnb contributed an estimated £3.5 billion to the UK’s economy, with approximately 8.4 million inbound guests travelling over this period. Since the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, the numbers have been rising faster.
Airbnb reports that the average guest travelling with Airbnb spends £100 per day in the UK and 43% of this is spent in the neighbourhoods in which they stay. Of course, that only applies when the homes are occupied and on winter week-days, some parts of Whitstable resemble a ghost town.
One Whitstable Airbnb owner prefers not to tell people about his business and declined to give his real name for fear of a hostile reaction.
“We are very mindful of the negativity and don’t tell local people what we do for a living,” says Philip Kirk (not his real name) who has used his own home for Airbnb since 2017 after his media business experienced a slowdown. It is now his family’s main source of income.
“Our guests spend a huge amount of money in the town, and we always encourage them to use local shops and businesses and always point them to the local farmer’s market,” he says. He insists that he keeps in close contact with neighbours, takes rubbish away and works hard to maintain a high review rating.
And there are several reputable and locally-owned holiday let businesses which are fully regulated, pay tax, employ locals, and make themselves available to residents to sort out any problems.
Even Sutherland admits he likes to use Airbnb, when he goes on holiday to Cornwall, but he says tourism is better regulated there with clear instructions from the local authority on how to make a minimal impact with noise, rubbish, and parking. Many are critical of Canterbury City Council for what they regard as their apparent total indifference to the impact of tourism on Whitstable.
“Overall, Airbnb has a negative impact on the social quality of Whitstable—I am sure it needs properly regulating,” says Hitcham who is also Chair of the Chamber of Commerce.
The scheme, proposed in the new government review, could involve physical checks of holiday let premises to ensure regulations in areas including health and safety, noise and anti-social behaviour are obeyed.
Some locals are demanding that the number of holiday lets in the town should be capped, though with inflation and mortgage rates on the rise and a cost-of-living crisis approaching, any over-supply might sort itself out, as demand shrinks and costs increase for Airbnb operators.
All agree that Airbnbs and holiday lets make a huge impact on Whitstable. The 64-thousand-dollar question is how to reap some of the benefits without it becoming the curse that kills off the town.
The Airbnb in Whitstable Public Meeting is organised by the Canterbury and District Green Party and will be held on Friday 16 September at The Umbrella Centre in Oxford Street at 6.30pm. All are welcome.
About Stuart Heaver
Former naval officer and entrepreneur, Stuart Heaver was born and educated in Kent and moved to Whitstable some twenty years ago. He is a full-time freelance writer and journalist who specialises in maritime issues and these days splits his time between Whitstable and Hong Kong.
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