Different communities, in two different countries – one being Scotland the other Italy, and how one corporation is rapaciously damaging them both.
Robin McAlpine is founder of the Scottish think-and-do tank Common Weal
Cross-posted from Common Weal
Let me tell you the story of two communities. The first of them is a long-standing community which at times has been one of the most powerful on the planet and had its own very distinct language and cultures and customs which are used to this day – but these indigenous peoples have been forced from their homes by a rapacious corporation which has taken over their ancestral land.
The second is a much newer community, a diverse community bound by shared cultural interests who are being hounded by a vicious bureaucracy bent on destroying not only their human rights but their ability to maintain any viable way of life at all.
These are both heartbreaking stories. But underneath each of these stories is a quite different story than the one you think I’m telling you. Because the first of these stories is about Venice and the rapacious corporation is AirBnB, and the second of these is about Scotland’s army of landlords who are basically all subcontractors for the same corporation. The story this tells is important.
I first understood the true scale of destruction of communities because of the AirBnB takeover of cities when I was invited to speak at the Venice Festival of Politics about five or six years ago. Three of the people who ran the organisation that invited me were historians or anthropologists specialising in Venice and its history. They took a day off to show me round.
Let’s just say that that turned out to be comfortably the best city tour I’d ever done. What hit me first was the fact that I didn’t really know anything about this city at all. I’d visited two or three times before and obviously anyone who knows anything about European history knows something of Venice’s history.
But it was passing a cafe early on that change my perspective. One of my hosts told me ‘now listen as you pass the window and tell me what language they’re speaking’. The one thing I knew for sure was that it wasn’t Italian or some dialect of Italian. It was a Romance language, but I honestly thought it sounded more like Flemish.
It was Venetian. I didn’t even know there was a distinct local language. It was the beginning of my education about a City I knew nothing of beyond tourism. The last thing to learn though? It is being killed stone dead by tourism. Even five years ago there was barely a business left in Venice (at least what you think of as Venice) because you couldn’t stack up the numbers.
No web developer or accountant or consultancy could justify the property prices based on economic output. Every spreadsheet said ‘leave Venice old city for some of the industrial developments onshore that are basically now Venice as a living city, and rent out any building you have as AirBnB’.
Last week a threshold was crossed; over half of all the dwelling houses in Venice have now been converted to AirBnB properties. There is only one of two things you can conclude from this; either it is natural evolution for Venice to be turned into a theme park, or AirBnB is a clear and present threat to the viability and existence of communities anywhere.
What puts this in perspective is the quite insane lobbying campaign that is being run by AirBnB in Scotland. But you don’t know it’s being run by AirBnB, because AirBnB is a platform of subcontractors. It’s the subcontractors who are the convenient face of this campaign, like it is always a vulnerable child who is the face of a campaign to have an extremely expensive drug provided by the NHS and never the pharmaceutical corporation which is actually behind the campaign.
Rule number one of defensive lobbying is generally ‘don’t be seen’. Keep it private, and if you need to campaign, never do it in a way that shows who is really campaigning. The second rule is look for weakness and exploit it. For a decade the SNP ran an economic policy which was really only there to provide photo opportunities. This rather left Scotland’s domestic industry base out in the cold (the corporations had all the good photos).
This means the Scottish business base feels deeply unloved by this government – so the corporations are exploiting that sentiment with all the energy they can. They are pretending that having enough money to buy up a property and deny it to a family so it can be rented to a stag do per weekend is the same thing as a business. It isn’t. It’s pure speculative asset investment.
But because it’s a big corporation it can ‘buy’ coverage. To be clear, it doesn’t pay newspapers for coverage, it has the resources to pay a team of people to do the sometimes significant amount of work that needs done to create news stories. I can never emphasise enough to you how stinking the whole corporate lobbying sector is, the economic consultancies that exist to launder their lies, the media’s willingness to run their stories without explaining where the story comes from, the Scottish Lobbying Register which is carefully designed not to catch them.
So they go on and on about how the tourism sector will take a massive hit if they’re regulated, despite what they really mean being ‘a few bars and cafes mostly owned by overseas corporations will sustain a few of the worst paid jobs in the economy based on tourists buying coffees’.
The bulk of this tourism revenue though? That goes into the pockets of landlords who create no jobs, airlines which benefit us not a lot and AirBnB. We need to get over this idea that a lobbyist shouts ‘damage to industry’ and we take that at face value. This is a get rich quick scheme.
What they never point out is the counterfactuals. It would take a bit of time and patience (things they have the money to buy in but I don’t) but I’m pretty sure that the overall economic drag on the whole economy created by the inflationary impact AirBnB has on housing prices probably more than counterbalances any of this tourism revenue gain.
And it’s worth being quite clear about what they mean when they complain about having to register these properties. It goes something like this: “I’m a really important business, but I want to be able to operate my business without telling you I have a business and I want the right to take residential assets and convert them into commercial assets not only without permission, but without you knowing”.
Of course they’re not against regulation in principle. Big corporations are never against regulation in principle. It’s only any regulation that might ever actually exist they hate. I mean, I’m not against rain at garden parties – so long as it’s not wet rain.
People who buy properties to short-term let on AirBnB make a killing from it. They will usually get well more than the cost of the mortgage in income and so they are getting a valuable asset paid for them. All they have to do is have enough money in the first place and then pay a cleaner. That’s their productive input to the Scottish economy.
I’m not asking for them to be penalised for this, I’m asking for them to be regulated like any other business is regulated where it has direct social harm for the communities in which it is based. I’m not asking for no consultation or negotiation over the terms of the regulation (I’m the first to recognise the Scottish Government is capable of making a mess of anything), I’m asking that this be done during consultations and for lobbyists to be ignored a lot more afterwards.
I’m not asking for no public debate, I’m asking for responsible media outlets to make clear when they are running corporate propaganda fronted by the least unpleasant front person a corporate can find. I’m not asking for landlords to be jailed, I’m asking for them to comply with the law like the rest of us do, like it or not.
I’m not asking for Scotland to be different from the rest of the world, I’m asking for Scotland to stop being so pathetic that if some corporation tells us we’re an outlier we wet ourselves and run away. We’re not an outlier; the world is regulating the danger that is AirBnB. We’re late to the game.
Corporations don’t need to be big mining conglomerates with giant earth-gouging machines to destroy communities. They do it every day, all the time, simply by tilting every playing field in their favour and away from the communities they claim to serve. Scotland’s regulation of short-term lets is nothing more than a really small step in rebalancing things in favour of communities over faceless corporations.