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As I See It

Airbnb has its place, but hotels need more help

Brian Monteith portraitThere really is a lot of contradictory nonsense talked about threats to the Edinburgh Festival and its tourism industry from people who should know better – or at least would gain more credit for saying nothing.

No sooner am I hearing from the head of the Festival Fringe that rising accommodation prices risk killing the event by leaving it affordable to only the wealthy that I read how Airbnb success in the city makes it a target for regulation.

Then the director of the International Festival wades in saying Brexit (of course!) could result in visitors and audience numbers plummeting.  Well, the Festival luvvies can’t have it both ways. 

Given the amount of advance planning cultural festivals require (top performers are booked many years in advance) it is right that the official International Festival and also its larger Fringe offshoot look over the horizon for problems that may arise.

That does not absolve them from recognising the existence of the economic cycle and allowing for some flexibility in programming.

Rather than railing against factors they cannot determine or influence (but might make them well received at dinner parties) they would be far better publicly defending the ability of Airbnb to provide much needed accommodation across all price points and levels of quality such as exclusive apartments while also giving the market greater flexibility for when visitor numbers fall or climb. 

Property owners using Airbnb (and other similar business models) can go to market almost overnight, while gaining planning consent, constructing and opening hotels – of whatever type – is a far riskier and lengthier process.

Two political responses are required, the first is to simplify and speed up the ability to consider and grant hotel planning consents; the second is to recognise that Airbnb has its place and not force customers to dismiss Edinburgh and choose Salzburg or Spoleto because they could not get a room in our capital.

Should the Scotland Office be abolished?

Is it time to wind up the Scotland Office – recently re-branded “UK Government Scotland” or the Cabinet-titled “Office of the Secretary of State for Scotland”?  

A new report by the cross-party House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, chaired by Conservative and well-known Brexiteer Sir Bernard Jenkin has said the current inter-governmental machinery is flimsy and needs to be reformed.  

Abolishing the individual UK departments covering Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is very much back on the agenda. The report dismissed Whitehall’s culture as requiring retraining to take account of devolved arrangements that have been in place for 20 years.

The alternative, which has been suggested in various parties’ manifestos over the decades, is to have only one UK department for constitutional relations, which would represent the UK government’s positions to the national parliaments or assemblies. It could also include a role with the growing number of English metropolitan mayors.

The Committee also called for a clearer statutory underpinning of relations between Westminster and the nations, to avoid misunderstandings in future, although the current case before the Supreme Court over the redistribution of EU competencies will give some much-needed clarification. 

What is not known is if abolishing the UK government’s ‘Scottish office’ will only weaken the union further by removing a seat for Scotland (and Wales and Northern Ireland) in the cabinet. Conversely, will the ambassadorial role from Westminster to Scotland be demoted and taken as a slight? 

No matter how good or bad David Mundell’s handling of Brexit as Secretary of State (and there are widely varying views about this even in his own party) his department’s future should be about the role, not the person. If we had one UK department to cover all the devolved nations I would see it as no insult towards Scotland’s place in the UK, but care would be required for it not to stoke more grievance-based nationalism.

Fergusson is deserving of the praise

The untimely death of Holyrood’s retired third presiding officer and former MSP of seventeen years, Sir Alex Fergusson, has brought many tributes from across the political divide. From my own experience they are undoubtedly deserved, for ‘Fergie’ was one of those rare things, a politician whom everybody liked as a person and still respected when there were differences.

Offering courtesy and charm with a wry smile behind the beard, he was a gentle giant rather than a intimidating firebrand, who listened intently to his opponents arguments and treated them with a dignity they might not have shown him or his party. 

Within the Conservative group he was a always a useful barometer for testing what might be the right thing to say or do; if Fergie thought something sounded sensible, or would back a difficult position on a point of principle, it gave you the confidence to go ahead feeling neither foolish nor extreme.

His innate civility and sense of public duty meant he could both champion the unpopular minority view against the hunting ban and land reform yet be universally accepted as a fair convener of the rural affairs committee, for everyone knew he would treat all members and their views equally irrespective of party or opinions.

We cannot expect every politician to be like Sir Alex, that would be too much to ask, but Holyrood would certainly benefit from having far, far more like him.  There is much that can be achieved by identifying what people have in common and working with the grain of that, and as Presiding Officer Fergie used that to good effect.

My fear is that today’s party candidate sifting systems look for applicants who combine being utterly shallow crowd pleasers with ticking the politically correct boxes and the likes of Alex Fergusson would be fortunate to pass through such vetting. I do hope I am wrong.

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