Sharing economy and safety issues.

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If anyone needs a reminder of why it is important that safety standards are rigorously applied to all premises used for short-term holiday lets and hotels, guest houses and all other forms of commercial accommodation you need look no further than the recent hotel fire in Eastbourne:

Despite the fact that the hotel was destroyed in a breakfast time fire, all c 130 guests and staff were evacuated from the large 4 story building with only a handful of minor injuries. Regardless of the cause (still under investigation), the safe evacuation will be in no small part due to the provision of: appropriate fire detection and alarm systems, fire escapes, fire protection and retardation measures and fire planning and familiarisation among the staff and critically the local fire services. These are all life saving measures typically put in place, albeit to a differing degree appropriate to circumstances, in properly regulated and, where the level of risk dictates it, officially inspected visitor accommodation.

Commiserations to colleague in Eastbourne; a sad loss of an important property but still in many ways a notable success. Properties can always be rebuilt; lost lives and resulting damaged reputation can’t be rebuilt.

Current arguments that such regulation shouldn’t really apply to some or all categories of sharing economy accommodation provision are groundless. The commonly used loopholes that allow hosts to merely self-certify their own provision, or worse still, that allows some platforms to exempt themselves from any responsibility for the product they promote on the basis of caveat emptor, by using wording like, “The host hasn’t reported smoke detectors on the property”, are in our view, totally unacceptable.

A recent data scrape suggests that such caveats on smoke and carbon monoxide detectors were in use in over 42k Airbnb listing in the UK. Not all properties will require a CO detector (all electric properties, for example) but even the most basic risk assessment would dictate that fire/smoke detectors are an essential item in almost all but the most basic forms of accommodation.  Even then there are strong grounds for their usage in simple single units like shepherd’s huts, caravans, tents, (cars!) etc.

The law in England and Wales is explicate: “If you have any paying guests, even in your own home, you must comply with the law on fire safety and carry out a risk assessment. A fire in small premises is just as dangerous as one in a larger property. Nearly all the people who die in fires in this country are trapped in domestic premises”. This is a direct quote from the Q&A section of the Government guidance for accommodation providers:

Safety regulations not only apply to all commercially let accommodation but the premises used should also be easily identifiable to the responsible agencies and thus liable, where it is deemed necessary, to appropriate checks and inspections. If there is no credible threat of enforced checks and balances, abuse inevitably creeps in.

Currently properties available for let on sharing platforms are not easily identifiable, indeed the presentation of detail like property address are, arguably, deliberately opaque unless and until a bookings are made. Consequently, we believe that it is only a matter of time before a death or serious injury of guests and/or neighbouring residents will occur as a result of a combination of a lack of public transparency, the current laisser-faire attitude of the sharing economy sector towards the application of appropriate regulation and standards and the platform’s current avoidance of any moral or legal responsibilities to ensure that the host they are commercially promoting are actually complying.

Our joint experience suggests that the vast majority of guests simply assume that any accommodation promoted will meet the minimum legal standards or it wouldn’t be allowed to be promoted by the, “authorities” or by any responsible commercial operator. Currently that is a heroic assumption. It is also nonsense to claim, as supporters of the current approach do, that user reviews will pick up on and report anything but the most alarmingly obvious failings in gas, electric or fire safety. The two are interlinked in a chicken and egg scenario.  If I think accommodation has to have been checked and inspected and therefore it has to be safe, I am hardly going to notice it’s not and raise it unless it is something so glaring obvious, like exposed wiring, antiquated gas appliances, or a petrol can stored under the stairs!  Even in these extreme examples it is not the customers duty to act in place of those who’s actual duty is to maintain and, if necessary enforce, appropriate standards.

Government are now fully aware of the wider tourism industry’s concerns about safety. If they now fail to act, then they too are arguably equally culpable for any death or serious injury that may occur due to a failure to ensure that the appropriate standards are being universally applied.  This is not an issue about new technologies and the balance of commercial advantage, or the demise of unnecessary red tape; far from it. The sooner “officialdom” and the major sharing platforms realise this and take voluntary or statutory remedial action the better.



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