Tourists walking around the streets. | EFE

Let’s say you’re a tourism inspector at the Council of Mallorca. You are one of a division that at present totals no more than the number of players in a rugby union team - fifteen. There will be some more to come off the bench, but for now you and the other fourteen are struggling to match your opponents. You are being pulled all over the pitch trying to tackle hotels and any regulatory misdemeanours, restaurants likewise not being fully compliant, agencies that are not up to the mark ... . The positive in all this is that you can at least normally line up your target, as you know where it is, who it is. Unfortunately, though, there are moving and shadowy targets, forever likely to elude the tackle. All of a sudden, however, you are presented with a potential new strategy. The playing field is being levelled.

The European Union’s Competitiveness Council typically meets four times a year. It has just had one of its meetings, and Spain is pleased with the outcome. The secretary-of-state for tourism, Rosana Morillo, who was the Balearic director-general of tourism until a few months ago, explains that there have been weeks of negotiation. This has been complicated by the fact that there are certain EU countries, Spain most certainly being one of them, that receive more tourists than they supply to other countries. Spain is therefore more sensitive to tourist matters than some other EU members. Not the likes of France and Portugal, for example, as they are fully on board in understanding the issues - those that pertain to illegal holiday lets.

An important point of principle was finally agreed by the Council, as was an important aspect of regulation. The first will allow Spain’s regions to continue to apply holiday rental regulation as they see fit. While there have been voices in Spain who have advocated a national approach, the government takes a different view, and it is right to when one considers the degree to which tourism activity varies according to region. The Balearic Islands are not Extremadura, for instance. The Balearics have powers that don’t end with the regional parliament. Individual town halls can legislate. In the case of Palma, the Supreme Court has recently ruled that its ban on all holiday rentals in apartments is legal. This principle has been reinforced by the Council; the rest of the EU “gets it”.

Then there is the new regulation (proposed regulation). This will require websites like Airbnb to supply member state administrations with details regarding those who advertise properties for rent. At present, it is quite common for websites to not have an address. They will quite probably have a name - the ‘host’ - but not all the information. For tourism inspectors, therefore, they can see that a property is quite clearly illegal, but they then have to try and establish where it is, whose it is. Similarly, if the tourism inspectorate is sent a complaint by a neighbour, it can be difficult to make verification from website information.

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There have been data privacy issues getting in the way of the supply of this information, but the Council has accepted the validity of making information - name, address - a requirement. Websites will have to demand it and make it available to administrations. This may not be foolproof, as false information could potentially be supplied, but it is a further step in tackling a problem, one, to follow the rugby analogy, that has needed to be tackled into touch for several years. And falsification of information could no doubt be subject to even heftier fines than those currently available for illegal holiday letting.

Where the Council was unable to reach agreement was on the demand by Spain, France and some others to insist on websites checking rental registration numbers against administrations’ databases, such as that which exists in the Balearics, where - in theory - all adverts should have a number. Not all do, while here is another situation where falsification is possible. It was agreed that websites should undertake random checks rather than check every single advert.

All of this is due to be taken to the European Parliament, and Spain intends approving the details during its presidency of the EU (the second half of this year). It comes hard on the heels of the Balearic government having stated, via the European Committee of the Regions, that there is “difficulty” in identifying the real owners of properties of holiday let. This, in turn, “makes their supervision difficult” - those moving and shadowy targets.

Legal judgement has supported the defence offered by websites that they are intermediaries and not responsible for illegal advertising - sanctioning procedures therefore apply only to advertisers. However, this is something that the committee will be pursuing, the director-general for the Balearic government’s foreign relations, Antoni Vicens, having stressed that websites should demonstrate their responsibility. He argues that sanctioning procedures should apply to websites where no registration numbers are presented with adverts. In this regard, there is support for the Balearics from elsewhere in Spain - the Basque Country, for instance.

Rosana Morillo says that she would love to have all these measures approved by the end of the year. There are many others who would love this as well. The EU finally seems to have woken up to the stresses placed on member states’ housing policies (and as importantly regions’ housing policies) by its previous inaction and toothlessness.