I beg to move,
That this House notes that there are approximately 1,800 park home sites in England and Wales; further notes that current legislation permits a minority of park home site owners to cause great distress, damage to property and danger to health of park home residents; welcomes the Government’s intention to lay before the House secondary legislation to transfer jurisdiction for park homes to the Residential Property Tribunal Service; but calls on the Government to review the case for establishing a fit and proper person criterion for park home site owners and to bring forward relevant legislation at the earliest opportunity to prevent in particular park home site owners interfering with the sale of a park home without good reason.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for selecting the motion before us for debate today. I am particularly pleased that Back Benchers from across the country have the opportunity to put the case for more protection for a group of very vulnerable people. I also thank the noble Lord Graham for his unstinting support for park home owners over many years.
I particularly thank my constituent, Sonia McColl, from the Silent Woman park home in my constituency for organising and motivating park home owners from all over the country to speak out about their bad experiences. During this year, she organised a massive petition that was presented to 10 Downing street, after which there was a meeting here in the House. More recently, as part of her “justice for park home owners” campaign, well over 100 predominantly older people demonstrated in Old Palace yard with banners, photographs of park homes being torn down and some very good chanting. There was a mass lobby of individual MPs and the day culminated in an extremely well attended meeting in the House, when we sadly heard similar stories from people from all over the country. I thank the Minister for coming and listening on that occasion. I also acknowledge the help and support given by the park home owner associations and welcome the fact that so many MPs are here today to support their constituents. Many other hon. Members have expressed regret that they are unable to attend today. However, they wholeheartedly endorse the call for the Government to take more action.
If we look back over the years, the plight of some park home owners has been raised on many occasions and amendments have been made to legislation. However, some of the worst problems have not been addressed. I was interested to read the Adjournment debate initiated by the former Member for Suffolk Coastal in March 2009. He said:
“I have rarely been as angry about a matter as I am about this case…most of us came into Parliament to oppose bullying. Deep down, what we dislike most is those who are strong bullying the weak.”—[Official Report, 2 March 2009; Vol. 488, c. 701-704.]
The issue raised was the buying and selling of park homes, to which I shall return later. The former Member for Teignbridge secured an Adjournment debate in March 2008, which also covered the buying and selling issues and the need for a fit and proper person rule. I hope that today will be a landmark moment and that the Government will commit to do everything in their power to address these long-standing and well documented issues.
At the Lakeside park in Bridgwater, we are dealing with blackmail, threats and individuals who are determined to get these people out of their houses. Surely the hon. Lady agrees that the matter has become a national scandal? Right across the country, the lives and livelihoods of these people—in some cases the most vulnerable and needy in society—are being threatened because of this anomaly.
I certainly agree that the matter is a national scandal. If we consider the spread of constituencies represented by hon. Members here today, we can see that it truly is a national issue.
There are approximately 85,000 park homes on 2,000 sites in England, and 5,000 homes on 100 sites in Wales. Park home living can provide an idyllic lifestyle. Park homes are often located on the edge of open countryside and they provide a useful addition to the housing supply, particularly for many thousands of mainly retired people. In addition, they provide smaller homes with lower maintenance costs and lower council tax payments; they are on one level, and they occupy small plots within a larger site. There is the opportunity for a really good community to develop in a positive way in the vast majority of sites.
I commend the hon. Lady for championing this cause and securing the debate. Although the tribunal will deal with many of the unscrupulous things that those who live on these sites have to put up with, is not the real issue that of being able to dispose of, or sell, a park home? In such cases, is almost too late for the individual concerned by the time the matter goes to tribunal. Sonia and everyone involved must be commended for raising that over and above what the Government are doing on the tribunals.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I shall return to that in more detail, but today we are discussing the crunch of the matter.
Park homes can provide an idyllic community, but community strength can develop in a different way on the minority of sites where there is an unscrupulous operator, who may well bully, intimidate, harass and even defraud vulnerable people. People in adversity will often stick together. However, in some cases, that sense of community cannot develop because park home owners can become too frightened to be seen even talking to their neighbours. I must emphasise that the points that I shall make are directed at a minority of park home site owners. There are excellent, well managed park home sites in my constituency, and I do not wish to suggest that all site owners engage in bad practices.
I add my voice of commendation to those who have praised the hon. Lady’s excellent work. Even some of the bigger firms that run park home estates, such as the one I have in my constituency, are not above a bit of sharp practice. I shall give two examples that she might like to consider. There is a great reluctance to recognise residents’ associations—for example, there have been demands for lists of all the people who are going to sign up rather than merely requesting sight of a list and people not then being able to take it away, which I believe is the legal position. In one case, there was even a claim that a letter sent to the park home owner complaining about certain conditions libelled the park home owner. Of course, one cannot libel someone by sending a letter to that person if one does not publish it to anyone else. However, ordinary people might not be able to cope with such tactics without the assistance of their MPs.
I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend’s points. I endorse the point that residents’ associations can in principle be formed, but that they are in practice often obstructed. That relates to my point about people being frightened to be seen talking to others on the park home site.
There are good site owners. However, a minority of site owners make legislation difficult and I hope that the outcome of this debate will be a stiffened resolve to tackle the issues, rather than just saying that they are too difficult. I am extremely pleased that the Government have committed to bringing in secondary legislation to transfer jurisdiction for park homes to the Residential Property Tribunal Service. That will undoubtedly help solve some of the problems that park home owners have been faced with and will remove the need for an expensive court process in many cases.
A recent case I am trying to deal with could potentially be solved through that route. Let me mention it briefly. A park home was purchased in May this year. The new owner wanted to make improvements and applied for an insulation grant for her mobile home from the local authority, and the local authority granted it. There is a clause in the site agreement with the site owner of this particular site that any works to the exterior of a mobile home require the express permission of the site owner. Somewhere along the line, the site owner has requested that the park home owner agrees to her home being re-sited. She has refused to do that and the site owner will not give permission for the insulation to take place. The local authority has confirmed to me that there is no technical reason why the work on the home cannot be carried out in its current position. The tribunal offers the opportunity for both sides to put their case and for all aspects to be considered. Unfortunately for my constituency, this route is not yet open, which is yet another reason why we cannot delay.
Last winter, the electricity supply on a site was faulty on the coldest night of the year. It was not restored in a reasonable time, and an 84-year-old was taken to hospital with hypothermia the next day. Purbeck district council, bravely for a small council, took the site owner to court. The site owner was found guilty and fined £1,000 with £6,000 costs. We could say that we won the battle, but not the war. My worry is that more bullying may follow.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. The fact that so many Members are here on a day when Christmas is not far away shows the strength of feeling about this issue among constituents and their MPs. I entirely understand what she says about bullying following comments made by residents of Palma park, a park home site in my constituency. The hon. Lady talked about cold nights; in my constituency, the local site owner allowed the gas to run out, which meant that on one of the coldest nights of the year the residents did not have any fuel. The hon. Lady also mentioned the spirit of community in adversity. At the moment, the residents are having to get together to clear the cesspit because the owner will not do so. I entirely agree that this situation cannot be allowed to continue for the many thousands of park home owners across the country.
I add my congratulations to the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She and I work well in many other areas, and I pay tribute to her work on this. We need not only justice for park home owners in their campaign but confidence for people who may think about living in park homes in future but might be terrified of doing so. In my constituency, we often hear about the idea of affordable housing, whatever that means in practice, but these are, in many cases, truly affordable homes. Many people who could have the idyllic lifestyle that park homes can afford may be terrified about moving into that environment because of some of the things that are being mentioned. I hope that that will be one of the things that comes out of this debate.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. It is indeed the case that this should provide an idyllic lifestyle and a useful addition to the housing supply.
Somebody said to me that we could make a comparison with the employment of a warden at an elderly persons’ dwelling site, because such a warden would be required to have certain characteristics. I am not suggesting that a site owner equates to a warden in any way, but the fit and proper person rule should be taken into account.
I welcome this debate; I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing it and on her tireless work on the matter. Does she recognise that there are concerns about fit and proper person criteria given, for example, the utter failure of the Football Association to make them mean anything? Does she agree that the Government must spell out exactly what those criteria are?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am not pretending that this is easy to achieve, but I am trying to get a clear timetable to make progress on it. There is already work in progress. The previous Government had a statutory instrument ready to run, so some consultation has already taken place. We have the tribunal coming on board. That will provide evidence when people bring their cases about fit and proper persons and enable us to work together on all the issues that are arising.
I want to concentrate on malpractice in the buying and selling of park homes. In 2009, I presented a ten-minute rule Bill on this issue that aimed to prevent unjustified interference by a site owner when residents sell their park home. A park home site owner might reasonably wish to meet a prospective buyer, or at least to have a reference supplied, but an interview without the seller or an independent witness present can provide opportunities for rogue site owners to make misleading or untrue statements. Examples of such statements from across the country include: “The home is in poor condition”; “The home is not worth the price you’re paying”; “The home will have to be moved to another pitch next year”; “I have a right to ask the court to let me take the home off in five years”; and “The park is being developed and the home will have to be moved.”
Alternatively, the prospective buyer might be intimidated by real or implied threats and not want to be involved with the site owner in any way. The prospective buyer might understandably decide that he or she does not want to live on a park run in such a way, and/or by such an unpleasant person, and the sale will fall through. After that has been repeated a few times, the seller eventually sells the home to the site owner for a token sum. In each case, there are no witnesses and the prospective buyer is usually unwilling to give a witness statement, as he or she simply wants to get away from the park as quickly as possible. The seller does not usually go to court because there is no witness statement and the buyer is lost anyway.
The incentive for the site owner is to buy the home for a small sum, remove it from the park, site a new and possibly bigger home on the pitch, and sell it, thereby making a clear profit of perhaps £100,000. Rogue site owners currently have the ability to sabotage sales and can rely on the fact that many people who move to park homes are frail, vulnerable, elderly and easily intimidated. It seems reasonable for a site owner to be able to check out a prospective buyer, but how can we stop the abuse and possible fraud currently taking place? My Bill suggested that there should be an independent witness present at such meetings. However, that would not tackle phone conversations, so I can see that this is quite complicated.
In one case, constituents of mine were offered £81,000 by a prospective purchaser on the open market. The site owner had made an earlier offer of £15,000. A meeting took place between the prospective buyer and the site owner, who wrote to my constituent on 4 October 2007 to say:
“Thank you for your letter...introducing the above young lady to me and seeking my approval for her to buy the above home. Since taking over the park in 1999 we have always promoted the location as a retirement one for people over the age of 55. With that in mind I am unable to agree to”
“purchasing your home”.
On 5 October, the next day, a letter was issued to all residents on the park that said:
“Since taking over the Park in 1999 we have always promoted the location as a retirement one for people over the age of 55. My legal advisors have informed that this should be formalised within the Park Rules and I now write to advise you of the addition of the following rule…The Park is for retired/semi retired persons over the age of 55.”
So the rule was introduced after the refusal. The letter continued:
“In the event of anyone disagreeing with this rule please let me have your written objection within 28 days of the date of this letter.”
Representatives of the residents association on the site tell me that the prospective purchaser was originally prepared to make a statement about conversations with the site owner.
While I entirely agree with the need to find a better solution for the buying and selling of park homes, we also need something to help with dispute resolution. In my constituency, I came across a situation regarding residents wishing to insulate their park homes, which was being resisted by the site owner on grounds of the aesthetics of the park. I looked at that and saw that there were arguments in both directions. I then discovered that there was a conflict of interest because the owner was supplying gas to the residents at a premium price. This raises enormous questions. We need a dispute resolution system to deal with such ongoing problems that will give confidence to park home owners and certainty to operators about how they can act with regard to the residents.
I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. As he says, certainty and a clear understanding of the rules, and a requirement not to change them overnight, would be a big step forward. The residential property tribunal will enable both sides to put their case. I do not believe that it will solve the problem with buying and selling, but it is definitely a first step, and this debate will ensure that the next steps go ahead subsequently.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Lady. There were debates on this matter in the Parliament before she was elected, which were secured by the former Member for Bridgend, Win Griffiths, who had Trecco bay in his constituency. She follows a fine tradition. The big problem is the conflict of interests. The main interest of many site owners is selling new properties. That drives every other decision and informs the way they deal with people. That is why they invent new rules every six or 12 months that make it possible for them to sell another property for £80,000, £90,000, £100,000 or £120,000.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It is probably time for me to be balanced. We must accept that the site owner needs a return on their capital to invest in the park and make it a good place to live. We need to get the right balance in the legislation that allows for investment, while ensuring that no extortionate demands are made of people. I think that the House has the will to make that happen.
May I add to the bouquets under which my hon. Friend is being buried for securing this debate? I also acknowledge the Backbench Business Committee for sponsoring the debate. We are bringing Parliament closer to the people by debating the issues that concern them. Does she agree that reasonable, respectable park owners have nothing to worry about in the extension of the rights of park home residents, because residents want to have sensible rules about their ground rent and maintenance requirements to ensure that their communities are strong and safe?
My hon. Friend not only has huge support today—all of us who attended the lobby pledged to help her take these matters beyond this debate—but if the motion is passed, there is a general will that the Communities and Local Government Committee should be asked to consider this matter. If it takes evidence, there is a willingness to help her and the Government to legislate on all the issues together, not just on the narrow matter that is in the pipeline. I want her to know that we want the law changed to cover all the abuses to which she has alluded.
I congratulate my hon. Friend and underline the comments that have been made by all hon. Members about her work. The shift from the county court to the tribunal is important, but many people will face difficulty in using the tribunal process, given that legal aid is not generally available for tribunal services. Does she agree that strong guidance is needed to provide understanding for those who want to use the tribunal process?
There was an enlightening presentation on the future tribunal service at the mobile homes all-party group. We were reassured that the process should not cost a great deal of money for the ordinary person and that the cases and outcomes would be published. It would be extremely useful if those were published on the internet, because that would provide evidence for the next stage of legislation. My main concern is that the right to go to a tribunal will not solve the fundamental problems, because potential purchasers will just disappear when the difficulties are raised.
I thank the hon. Lady for her great generosity in giving way to so many hon. Members in such a short space of time. The current court process can be prohibitively expensive and many unscrupulous site owners delay in the courts to thwart those who are pursuing them. Does she agree that it is fundamental and vital that the tribunal processes cases swiftly and mediates without delay in all cases?
The all-party group made that point clearly and we will monitor the issue. We do not need to wait for the Select Committee to do so.
I shall return to the example that I was giving. We went to the police, because it is a case of fraud. There were enormous difficulties in getting the police to accept that it was not just a civil matter. We now have a clear understanding with Dorset police and matters have moved forward. The case was eventually taken up, although not wholeheartedly. It was not pursued by the Crown Prosecution Service. Even though there are clear examples of fraud, it is difficult to deal with them as such.
I have been putting the case for long enough. I commend the motion to the House so that we can achieve justice for park home owners.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on bringing this matter to the House. I welcome and support her acknowledgment of the role of Lord Ted Graham, who has done magnificent work over many years on this difficult subject.
There are a number of park home sites in my constituency. I lost one and gained one as a result of the boundary changes at the last election. The one that I lost was in extremely good order, whereas the one that I gained is frankly a disgrace. The owner has persistently refused to maintain standards at a level that I regard as necessary for human safety. The electricity supply cabinets are his property, not that of the park home owners. He charges through the nose for the use of the meters, and yet they are unsafe. There has been a circular argument between the site owner, the householders, the local authority and various regulators about who is responsible. I have no doubt that the park owner is responsible. He provides the services at a rip-off price to residents, so he is responsible for ensuring that those services are provided in the manner that would be expected under any other leasehold arrangement. Many hon. Members live in properties that have leasehold arrangements and we should draw many parallels from the standards that we expect. That ought to be the point of guidance on which the law is based. I appreciate that there are differences, partly because the longevity of such structures is typically much shorter than that of brick and mortar properties, but the principle holds.
I like the notion of the fit and proper person, and think that we should work on it. There are some very responsible park owners, some of whom the all-party group has met over the years in their lordships House. We have met people who have had very good ideas about how to improve the relationship between tenant and landlord. We need to identify and build on best practice, and we should support and work with park owners who exercise it. At the same time, we must come down like a ton of bricks on the cowboys in the industry, who are not prepared to ensure that there is safe lighting so that people can get to their homes safely, and who enforce practices such as the hon. Lady described.
Selling scams, in particular, need to be examined carefully. If I own a piece of property and choose to sell it, the relationship should be purely between myself and the person who purchases it, although I appreciate that it happens to be parked on somebody else’s land.
I am pleased to see that my neighbour, the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr O'Brien), has just arrived. Following the boundary changes, he inherited a good park home site, although he has an interesting relationship with one of the tenants. I shall say no more about that. [Interruption.] It is one of his more challenging constituents, I think it is fair to say. Am I right? He is nodding.
If a property conforms to the existing rules of the park, the landlord should have absolutely no right to interfere in the question of who the seller can seek to pass the property on to. If it breaches the rules of the site, that is a different matter. That is the same in conventional leasehold arrangements, because if a property has not been maintained to the required standard—for example, in its external decoration—the landlord can put pressure on the individual living there. A few estate agent or lawyerly-looking people on the Conservative Benches are nodding in agreement with that. Those principles are well established in landlord and tenant relationships, so why do we seek to make the matter complicated?
I say to the Minister that in considering what revisions are necessary—I think all parties agree that revisions are needed—we should start by considering how conventional leaseholders in bricks and mortar properties are treated and ask ourselves what changes would bring about a set of rules that will work for park homes. At the same time, we need to protect the interests of decent park owners and address the challenges that the hon. Lady described.
On the site to which I referred, the owner calculates the electricity bill in quite an interesting way. One resident has written to me stating that the cost of electricity is generally between £2 and £3 a unit, which is pretty pricey. I know that the Government have driven up the price of fuel, but not by that much. It seems extraordinary that utilities can be charged at a price that is frankly exorbitant. If investments have to be made across the landlord’s property, it is perfectly reasonable that tenants should make a contribution in the same way that anyone else in that situation would have to. However, for them to be charged for utilities at not just a premium price but a rip-off price seems absolutely wrong. That is another matter that I ask the Minister to consider.
I was under the impression that electricity and mains gas were covered by regulations to be enforced by Ofgem. There is much more of a problem with oil and liquefied petroleum gas, on which there is no protection at all for consumers in park homes. I have been struggling to get an answer from Government Departments on that point. The matter that the hon. Gentleman raises is a real problem, and I hope that the Minister and his colleagues will consider it.
I am not sure about gas, because no gas is provided in the homes in question apart from bottled gas. In that particular case, the landlord has a central meter and one can see how much electricity is being used on the whole site, but each property has a sub-meter. That worries me intensely, because he appears—I do not know whether this is correct—to be able to charge whatever he chooses for the renting of the meter, which is a nice way of marking up the price. That may be how he gets away with the price, and perhaps we need to reflect on that detail.
Such little scams, added together, mean that people who are trying to live frugally in properties that are not worth a huge sum are being presented with bills that creep up and up. The House should be in the business of seeking to protect those people, because they are among the most vulnerable. The lady who wrote to me has put her head above the parapet and been prepared to take on the park owner, and I commend her for that. She gets every possible support that I can give her, including working with the local authority, trading standards and so on. However, people in such situations are predominantly those who do not have the capacity to take on landlords who make legal threats such as those that the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole mentioned. She talked about a rule being changed the day after a purchase was refused, and in such cases people do not have either the money or the experience to take on the case, so they need the House’s support.
I urge the Minister, and my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) in working with the Minister, to try to find a set of rules that commands the support of the whole House. I urge him to start his search by examining how the rest of the leasehold world operates and considering whether we can learn from the experience of changes in that sector over the past 20 or 30 years. We need to improve the lot of the particularly vulnerable constituents whom we are all seeking to represent this afternoon.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on securing the debate. I wish to speak in support of the motion, which provides us with an opportunity to raise the concerns of a group of residents whose needs are often overlooked.
Park homes provide an affordable alternative to mainstream housing. Quite often, park home owners are retired and have a limited income. Living on a park has the attractions of both security and affordability and provides the opportunity to build up a community spirit. That said, although it would be wrong to paint all park owners with the same brush as being unscrupulous and unsympathetic, there are concerns that home owners do not have a proper channel for voicing their concerns. They need to ensure that their contractual rights are honoured and that park owners provide them with a good service in return for the money that they pay.
One husband and wife in my constituency have contrasted the service that they received in the 1960s with what they get now. Back then—in different times and with different standards, I admit—in return for £2 a week there were clean and well-kept lavatories, proper baths and a wash house with steaming hot water for the weekly wash. Now, in return for a site rent higher than the monthly council tax bill, the only service provided is street lighting and the occasional filling in of potholes.
I welcome the Government’s intention to transfer jurisdiction for park homes to the Residential Property Tribunal Service. That will provide home owners with a more level playing field for resolving disputes with park owners and give them an affordable opportunity to have a say on the management of their site, to ensure that maintenance work is carried out as and when it is necessary and that they get the service for which they have paid.
We need to improve the process for selling homes. Currently, that can take too long and can be drawn out over a long period, and site owners have an opportunity to interfere with sales for no good reason. We should bear it in mind that many home owners are elderly, and when it comes to a sale, they may need to move quickly to fund, for instance, residential care. The ability of site owners unreasonably to drag out the process must be addressed.
Home owners have also complained to me about the high rates of commission charged on sales—10% is a high figure when one takes into account that the homeowner and not the site owner finds the buyer. Quite often, the sale price on which the commission is based reflects the value of improvements such as porches, insulation and brick skirts, for which home owners pay. It strikes me that there is little justification for such high charges if they are in excess of the actual costs incurred by the site owner. It is said that reducing the commission will lead to higher site fees. My reply is that it is better to move to a transparent system in which fair charges are made for providing legitimate services rather one that relies on outdated practices.
In conclusion, I thank the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole for securing this debate, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister about the Government’s timetable for introducing the tribunal service, and their views on how to improve the sales process to make it fairer to home owners.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd). Although we share a first name, there are clearly some differences in our surnames. I am sure he will get a chance to speak later in the debate.
I add my plaudits to those of other hon. Members to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) for securing today’s crucial debate, and to the Backbench Business Committee, which chose it. The Committee is revolutionising the way in which the House works and allows us to respond to our constituents’ concerns in a timely way.
There are more than 700 park homes in my constituency. Thousands of people across the country are affected by this issue, so its importance cannot be denied or ignored any longer. It is beholden on the Government to move swiftly on some of the measures that hon. Members have outlined.
As the chair of the all-party group on housing, I am a passionate believer that every person deserves somewhere safe and secure to live, and that no one should experience extortion, intimidation or harassment in their own home, but that is the reality that faces many vulnerable people in park home sites. In my view, there is a serious gap in the legislation and a worrying lack of regulation, and perhaps most importantly, as has been mentioned, there is no fit and proper person test for site owners, who in effect act as landlords to communities of vulnerable people.
Of course, the majority of park home sites are well run by well meaning people. However, the House cannot refuse to take action just because the majority do well. One reason we are here is to look after, and intervene for, minorities who face difficulty.
Earlier this year, in the run-up to the general election, I conducted a survey of every park home in my constituency. Many of the responses were more concerning than those that hon. Members receive from average street surveys—they were distressing to read. One issue that came up time and again is the extortionate rates at which some site owners increase their pitch fees year on year. One constituent told me of an annual increase of 20%, which is clearly out of order—it was well above the rate of inflation for that or any year. However, that person was elderly and vulnerable, and had no one to act as their advocate. They were entirely reliant on the information that the site owner provided them on their rights.
A 2002 study by Shelter, the housing charity, suggested that
“in practice above-inflation increases or one-off charges may be levied to cover particular items.”
However, the problem is much more endemic. Clearly, above-inflation increases are the norm in sites across the country, and there is no added value for residents. I hope the Minister addresses that in his comments.
Another issue arises when we go back to basics. Under Land Registry rules, there is no requirement to register pitches, so although sites might be registered, individual pitches are not. That enables site owners to move the chalets around and provides no security of tenure for the people who have notionally purchased at least an interest in the pitch.
My hon. Friend uses the word “chalets” to describe park homes. Are there too many ways of describing such homes? They are variously called park homes, chalet sites, static homes and mobile homes, but they are not mobile homes or chalets. They are plumbed into the mains water system and have mains electricity and often gas. If I can put this sensitively, the people in them are very often the opposite of mobile. That should be recognised in the law and in how we describe such places. Such homes are not chalets or mobile homes; they are residential properties.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend—I was going to make exactly that point. In a written parliamentary answer to me, the Housing and Local Government Minister used the word “chattel”. My broader point was that people who live in these homes are trying to find a better way of life for themselves, but they purchase no interest in the land on which their homes are sited. They should have such an interest. The House needs to define what that interest is and to make it clear that the pitch comes as part of the package.
When we add to those problems utility provision and charging, and the above-inflation annual increases in the pitch fee, we can see how difficult it can be for park home owners to budget and plan their finances from year to year. Again, in my survey of my constituency, I heard horror stories similar to those told by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller). There are increases in charges for water, sewage, electricity and all the basics. Tenants and freeholders take it for granted that they get a fair deal from their suppliers, but park home owners do not have that certainty. Even if they know that they are not getting a fair deal, the vulnerable people we are talking about simply do not understand how to exercise their rights.
Indeed, the draft Mobile Homes Act 1983 (Amendment of Schedule 1) (England) Order 2006 clearly states that if requested by an occupier, the site owner shall provide documentary evidence in support and explanation of any charges for gas, electricity, water, sewerage or other services payable by the occupier, but that never happens. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole spoke of the difficulties that park home residents find in forming residents’ associations and making them into effective vehicles for making those points.
Many elderly and vulnerable people are caught in a very difficult position; as other hon. Members said, selling park homes can be a difficult process. Site owners can prevent sales by blocking a homeowner’s right to sell through a notice to terminate agreements on the basis that the home is having a detrimental effect on the site. However, site owners use that so that they can simply jump in with a bid at a knock-down price.
Even if a site owner does not block a sale, selling might not stack up financially for residents because of the site owner’s entitlement to take a commission of up to 10% of the sale price. Many residents who have tried to buy into a dream have ended up living something less than that, but they could be worse off if they try to exit because of the 10% rule. It is no surprise that the rule is resented by homeowners. Many of them have put up with increasing annual pitch fees, and many have added value to their homes because they are proud people who want to live in nice surroundings.
Finally, I have serious concerns about the harassment, bullying and general intimidation to which homeowners on park home sites are all too often subjected. Bullying tactics, threatening behaviour and even assault are not the norm, but they are not rare either. That is why this subject has brought so many Members to this debate, and it is why it is so important that the Government hear the House’s concerns.
I appreciate my hon. Friend’s measured language and his acknowledgment that most park home operators are responsible people doing the best they can for their residents. However, does he agree that, in the wrong hands, the system we have now for the operation of park homes is the nearest thing to feudalism that remains in our country? The introduction of sensitive, fair and well-thought-out legislation could enhance the situation by providing protection for both park home owners and operators, which could only be good for the industry, and, with markets being what they are, it would enhance the value of those properties for everybody.
My hon. Friend puts the point far more eloquently than I have been able to do: we are dealing with the remnants of a feudal system. I hope that the Minister has heard that point.
I want to be balanced, however, because I want to welcome the steps that the Government have already taken—in particular, the transfer of responsibility for on-site disputes to the Residential Property Tribunal Service. That is a helpful step forward, but it cannot be seen as the end game for the Government in their approach to effective regulation of park homes. I do not just want to help my residents to resolve disputes; I want to prevent them from having them in the first place. However, that will require a much stronger and transparent regulatory regime. I look forward, therefore, to hearing from the Minister about the work he has done with interested parties and the recommendations they have made to him.
I end with a call to arms: this issue bubbled away under the last Labour Government—and indeed the previous Conservative Government—but it is time that we gripped it, because we are talking about many thousands of our most vulnerable citizens.
Like my hon. Friends, I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on securing this debate.
I have been dealing with the issue of park homes for more than three years, and a number of years ago we wrote to the Minister then in charge of the problem about the fit and proper person test. We have to get to grips with this, because it is a scandal. My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) said that this has been a problem not just over the past 13 years but before that. If anything can happen in this new Parliament, please can this change be made? We have some superb sites in South Derbyshire, and some very bad ones too. I will not name names, notwithstanding parliamentary privilege, because there are court cases going on and I do not want to say anything that could prejudice them. But for goodness’ sake, this is a wonderful opportunity to show what a progressive Government this is. I wish I could say that we have the support of both sides of the Chamber. However, it is important that the pleas being made today by hon. Members from across the nation are heard and that the matter is taken forward.
I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak in this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on securing it.
I have been approached by a large number of my constituents who have highlighted to me their problems with residential mobile home parks. However, I first want to address the misconception that many people have when talking about mobile homes. As residents, these people are not on a weekend or summer holiday, but permanently living in one place—their mobile homes. These are substantial structures that are not, as their name may suggest, actually mobile. In the UK, we have always stood for the principle that a man’s home is his castle. Today we are talking about people’s homes. Although they may not be the conventional bricks and mortar, they represent the same ideas and sanctuary of the individual. With that in mind, I hope that we can encourage a debate that will lead to mobile homes being granted some, if not all, of the same rights that conventional home owners have.
The residents of Medina Park residents association in my constituency have contacted me with numerous complaints about the owners of their park, Leisure Park Real Estate, which runs several parks across the country. Their main complaint is the unfair level of power that the owners of mobile home parks have over the residents, especially when dealing with the buying and selling of mobile homes. An owner of a park is currently permitted to vet potential buyers of a mobile home. This seems reasonable enough, because it is important that they know whom they are letting into their park. However, this becomes a problem when the owner starts abusing this right—for example, by introducing extra clauses. That might include telling the resident where he can buy his supplies, what company can provide services for him or what homes he is allowed to buy.
I was told of one case in which a potential buyer was told that she could bring her pet dog on to the site only if she bought one of the more expensive homes. That is clearly an abuse of the original intention of this power. I have also been told that an unscrupulous park owner uses this power to interfere in existing owners’ attempts to sell their property. The constant interference by some park owners in the sale of mobile homes—be it through estate agents or private viewings—puts many people off purchasing mobile homes, ruining the opportunity of many residents to sell up and leave.
At the moment, the only solution is a tribunal, which does not give value for money, is not effective and puts people off finding a solution, leaving them at the mercy of park owners. I have been told of one instance where a family have been paying ground rent for more than four years while they try to sell their deceased relatives’ mobile home, but are constantly blocked by the park owner. We have also seen, in cases like these, park owners deliberately trying to force down the prices of existing homes, so that they can buy out all or some of the existing homes and replace them with more expensive, profitable homes and make more money. We have also seen that park owners are unwilling to co-operate with residents’ associations, often refusing contact with those who participate in such groups.
A large number of residents in mobile home parks are elderly, with many parks seen as an ideal venue for retirement. However, the activities of unscrupulous park owners may disrupt this. Furthermore, many residents face continued intimidation from park owners. The elderly are in the worst position, because they are unable to stand up to such owners—many do not have the required energy to do so. These issues are not just restricted to my constituency—that is evident from today’s debate. I know that many mobile home parks suffer from the same problems, often from the same people, who may own numerous parks.
I also know that the solutions that residents’ associations want are very similar. We need to change the law so that the principle of vetting a buyer to ensure that they are a fit and proper person also applies to park owners. That is the only way to sort them out. Those owners about whom no one has any complaints will have nothing to lose and everything to gain by being a respectable park owner. We would then need to increase powers to councils to remove licences for park owners who abuse their power. It is most important that we recognise that mobile homes are homes and no different from any other house in the country, and that they should be afforded the same rights as we give to home owners.
A few Members in the Chamber may know that I am rather hard of hearing, but I have discovered since being elected that in politics there are some advantages to being hard of hearing. However, I will leave that to those in the Chamber to determine.
Like everyone else, I would like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on bringing this debate to the Chamber. Christmas has come 35 times this afternoon, with so many compliments being paid, but I really mean it, because we are talking about a real issue. It is a fascinating thing, but I did not know that it was an issue until I got involved in politics and met a number of people living in mobile homes either within my constituency or just outside it. It was only then that I discovered what a complete lack of any kind of level playing field there is. It is quite shocking. We are talking about basic things, such as park owners buying mobile homes off the original owners at anything up to a 25% discount and then selling them on. Like other hon. Members, I have even had constituents tell me—I cannot prove this—that their utility bills were ramped up considerably. It is absolutely incredible. Others have talked about trying to form residents’ committees. Similarly, people have been leant on and have not even been able to put together a tenants’ committee through which they could put their points of view. It is quite extraordinary.
In preparing for this debate I did some more research, and, having spoken to my hon. Friend and listened to other hon. Friends today, I know that there has been a problem for quite a while. Indeed, there are people in the House who have been fighting on the issue for quite a while. I pay tribute to them. I am confident about the complete universality of where we are coming from today. I am confident too that the Minister, who is a good hon. Friend of mine, will take that on board and no doubt do all the miraculous things for which he was well known well before he reached the coalition Front Bench—no pressure there, but I look forward to that. We all know what needs doing; we all know that something needs to be done. I look forward to joining my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole in what I hope will be a victory on this issue in the new year.
The really interesting thing about this debate is the huge variety. There is one park home—or however we want to define it—in my constituency called King’s Park that is absolutely outstanding. The sense of community in King’s Park is absolutely fantastic, and that applies across the piece, from people who have been there a short time to those who have been there a long time. To be perfectly honest, if I had lost at the last election and gone broke, I would probably have moved there myself. It looked so good and there was such a sense of community. That shows the variety that exists, and that is a good thing. However, if all park home owners were similar to those at King’s Park, we would not be having this debate. The sense of quality, community and responsibility there is so strong that we might all want to move there—with the agreement of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, obviously.
The challenge is that the lack of regulation means that unscrupulous people have been abusing vulnerable individuals and families for far too long. It is the old story, but I was having a discussion with one of my Conservative colleagues yesterday on the very issue of regulation—the regulation of banking, as it happens, or, to be precise, the regulation of independent financial advisers. The conundrum is that we need x amount of regulation to prevent disreputable people from taking advantage of vulnerable individuals, but the same thing always happens, which is that the regulation gets so strong and heavy that it puts off businesses from getting involved. We end up in a chicken-and-egg situation, and this issue is a classic case in point. In one sense, the regulation is pretty light-touch, because 90% of park home owners—or whatever the proportion is—are, I am quite sure, reputable individuals who do not need heavy regulation. They get on with things, they earn an honest buck and they look after the people who live in their mobile homes. There is not a problem with them. However, because the regulation is slightly weak, the remaining 10%—or whatever the proportion is—are completely unscrupulous people who have driven a coach and horses through that regulation, abusing numerous families and couples, who are often elderly, in a most disgraceful way.
I know what is going to happen, and I agree with it, unfortunately. We are going to need to toughen up the regulations, in exactly the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole proposed in her speech. I will support that 100%, but I find it so frustrating sometimes. The 10% tail is wagging the 90% dog. It is absolutely infuriating. I can think of some ways in which we might deal with that 10% of society, but they might be a bit illiberal and The Guardian will not like me—which it does not anyway since the election, so I will move on. I would urge the Minister to listen to everything that we are saying, and to come through with some support and some suggestions in the new year that are a little more robust than what we are talking about at the minute, because it is quite clear that this issue has gone on a long time. It has obviously become perfectly acceptable for a pretty large number of mobile home owners to behave in a shocking and disreputable way, and it has to be stopped.
My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head, not least because—this is the conclusion that I have come to—a fair number of disreputable home owners know each other. The practice has been going on for years and, bluntly, it is a scam. Therefore, I am afraid that, as a light-touch, business-wing Liberal, I am going to ask the Minister for more regulation, and I would urge him to come forward with it sooner rather than later, so that we are not having the same debate in a year’s time. We are talking about people who deserve better, and I am absolutely confident that the coalition Government, with cross-party support, will deliver on that. Finally, I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole on securing this debate.
Hon. Members will be interested to know that there is a blog on which one can follow some interesting debates concerning the residents of park homes. Let me quote from one which asks,
“are the government going to sit up and take notice of us the residents, or are we to remain”
the forgotten lost? That is the challenge for us today, and the forgotten lost are not few in number. As the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) pointed out, there are 80,000 such homes in England, and I would guesstimate that these contain slightly under 150,000 people. That is a large army—indeed, several times the army that Wat Tyler took to London bridge in the peasants’ revolt of 1381. There is a sense in which the residents of park homes today are the equivalent of modern serfs, under arbitrary landlords; or, as the Housing Minister put it more gently, there is an issue about exercising their rights.
I would like to join the many other hon. Members who have paid tribute to the hon. Lady for securing this debate today, in which many people on this side of the House, and one hon. Gentleman on the other side, have spoken for this large community of some 150,000 people. My hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) commented that the hon. Lady had been buried under a sea of bouquets. I hope that she has all her bouquets, but that she is not buried, because we need her very much above the ground and kicking in order to take the motion forward. I should also like to pay tribute to Lord Graham of Edmonton. He is no relation, and I think that he holds different political views from mine, but I know that he has done some very good work on this subject.
We welcome the Government’s commitment to the transfer of responsibility from the county courts to the residential property tribunals in February, although we recognise that that will not in itself solve everything. I would like to develop a few themes on certain issues and potential solutions that the Minister might like to consider. The first is the recognition of legal residents associations, to which one or two other Members have alluded. There are two park home sites in my constituency, one of which is Woodlands Park in Quedgeley. It has a residents association, which has been admirably chaired by Mike Morgan for many years, but the association is not fully recognised by the owner of Woodlands Park. It is high time that it was, and the same is true for all park homes.
In the motion, the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole rightly calls on the Government
“to review the case for establishing a fit and proper person criterion for park home site owners”.
I believe that the best way to take this forward would be for the Government to approve the licensing of park home sites by local authorities. This would have the additional advantage of the licensing authority being able to overview the documentation—sales documents, in particular—to ensure that any buyers of park homes were fully aware of the system of remuneration for owners, which is based on the sale price, the commission and the pitch rent. Those details need to be clarified and spelt out extremely clearly, so that anyone who buys a park home can be aware of what they are doing.
The motion also proposes that owners should cease to interfere with the sale process. I agree with that, but we also need to consider how the loopholes in section 207 of the Housing Act 2004 could be tightened up. In relation to the sale commission, in particular, there is a case for licensing authorities to look at whether a sliding scale could be established, which would vary according to the length of residency by the people who buy park homes.
I should like to highlight some further points that have arisen in relation to Woodlands Park and that could also be reviewed by licensing authorities. The first relates to utilities, and I should like to quote from a recent e-mail on this subject:
“Any resident changing to natural gas from bottled gas has to pay £6.50 a week extra for the privilege. Note this figure is added to the monthly pitch fee and continues for life!”
That cannot be justifiable, and charges for utilities should be brought under the licensing authorities’ review.
The second issue relates to pitch fees, and I quote again:
“One of our residents who moved to the site was paying £106.72 per month pitch fees. This was confirmed in writing…in March 2007…and a letter followed in December 2007 stating that he had underpaid therefore the pitch fee was increased to £140.38 per month. This equates to a 31.5% increase.”
That was entirely arbitrary; it was done after the sale, and there is no way for the resident to challenge it except through the very expensive process of going to the county court. That, too, needs to be reviewed.
On the point about seeking legal recourse, my own experience of dealing with the challenges faced by the residents of Blunsdon Abbey Park is that they often have neither the financial nor the health capability to engage in a long legal battle.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. The financial costs of such proceedings are prohibitive, even when residents are physically and mentally able to take the process forward.
In the review of the process sales cost, sales commission and pitch fee in its 2001 study, Berkeley Hanover said that there was no evidence of excessive profits as a whole, but that the process could not be described as
“perfectly fair, flexible and transparent”.
I think that that is putting it mildly, and that the issue needs to be tackled.
Today there has been a call for action—for what the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole called a stiffening of resolve. I think that all of us who have spoken so far today feel the same. I ask the Minister and the Government to consider making local government licensing authorities responsible for approving, monitoring and licensing park homes, for clarifying the sales process and in particular the commission, for ensuring that the correct documents are issued before the sale of homes, for reviewing the charges for utilities, and for the collection of rubbish and environmental health—a subsidiary issue which, although sometimes overlooked, needs attention in many park homes at a time when we are all keen to drive up recycling rates.
Today the Government have a chance to help 150,000 British citizens without having any impact on the ghastly budget deficit. I hope that they will seize the moment, and will give our constituents a very happy new year in 2011.
So far Members have concentrated on park home owners who have all-year-round occupation, but we should not forget those who have restricted occupation rights and who also have different problems. I want to address some of those problems.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler), I need to be careful about what I say, because there is a court case pending involving a particular site owner. The basic facts are these. One of the residents of the park alleges that the owner sold a mobile home for £80,000 under a leasehold agreement. I have seen a copy of the agreement, and it clearly states that the resident is entitled to all-year-round occupation. However, the resident has now been told to leave the site because it is allowed to open for only eight months of the year.
Order. I realise that the hon. Gentleman wants to make his point, but I remind him that he needs to be very careful about what he says in order not to venture into current court proceedings. I am sure that he was going to do that, but I thought that I would remind him just in case it had slipped his mind.
Thank you for your advice, Madam Deputy Speaker. I appreciate that the matter is sub judice, and I will be extremely careful. If you listen to my words, Madam Deputy Speaker, you will understand why I am using some of them.
Naturally, the resident has refused to leave the site, and has commenced legal action against the site owner—who, it is alleged, has responded with a campaign of harassment and intimidation. If that is true, such action is simply—
Order. I am very sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman again, but I am afraid that he cannot make that allegation in the context of a current court case. I am really trying to guide him, and I am being advised on this. I ask him to be very careful.
You will be delighted to know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I was about to end that section of my speech, but I thank you again for your advice. You will have noted that I have mentioned no names at all. However, I will take your advice and move on to another aspect of park home sites that I think should be included in any future legislation, namely periods of occupation.
On Sheppey we have nearly 7,000 park homes, 4,000 of which are mobile homes and 3,000 of which are chalets or bungalows. Those homes provide sufficient accommodation for 28,000 holidaymakers, but it has been calculated that, given the change in holiday patterns, accommodation for a number closer to 10,000 is probably required. Some of those sites have permission for 10-month occupancy, while others have permission for only eight months. Many park homes are freehold properties, and some of them are of the very highest standard and built to full building regulations. They are no longer holiday homes, but are occupied by their owners for 10 months of the year, yet their owners are made homeless for two months of the year by the current planning laws.
One such site is Parklands village in Minster, where the residents of 76 dwellings have this week received a letter from the local authority reminding them that staying in their home between 3 January and the end of February will be a criminal offence. Somewhat bizarrely, these potential criminals were advised to contact the housing services department if they have any difficulty in finding alternative or temporary accommodation.
To add to this ludicrous situation, the reason given by planning officers for refusing a planning application for all-year-round occupation of Parkland village is that it is at risk from flooding. Setting aside the fact that a full risk assessment of the site has shown that the risk from flooding is minimal, and also setting aside the convoluted logic that refuses to allow occupation of the homes during January and February when the risk of flooding is at its lowest but allows occupation in March and April when the spring tides are at their highest, it is madness to force people out of perfectly good dwellings because of a supposed risk of flooding when those dwellings are located slap-bang next to a single-storey hotel that has permission for all-year-round occupancy. These residents are being forced, under threat of prosecution, to leave perfectly good-quality bungalows that have full building regulations and energy standards approved by the local authority’s building control section, and are being encouraged to move into hotel accommodation, such as that offered by the hotel situated on the same site as the bungalows they own. Such a policy is beyond parody, but I do not blame my local authority; I blame a planning system that has allowed such illogical action. It is time that that system is changed.
Like the constituencies of many other Members, the area I represent has a lengthy housing waiting list, yet we have over 3,000 surplus park homes on Sheppey. In 2006, Baroness Andrews was an Under-Secretary of State in the late unlamented Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, and she made a speech in which she said:
“We all know that this country has a real challenge to meet the need for homes from a rapidly growing household population, as people live longer and more people choose to live alone. Park homes have a real part to play in expanding the choice and diversity in the housing stock and in providing affordable energy efficient homes.”
Let me categorically state that park homes are a part of the solution; they can help us meet the need for homes. They provide choice, quality and market-price affordability, and they can add environmentally friendly homes to the housing market. They provide a setting for stable, mixed, sustainable communities of all ages and household types.
I might address that point in my final comments.
I agree wholeheartedly with Baroness Andrews, and I am only sorry that the Government in which she served did not follow up her fine words with action. I hope that the current coalition Government do a lot better in tackling the housing shortage. One way in which they can start to do that is by taking note of the motion and introducing legislation to prevent park site owners from interfering in the sale of park homes without good reason, and using the opportunity actively to encourage local authorities to look much more sympathetically at planning applications that seek to convert holiday park home sites into permanent residential dwellings, conditional on those dwellings meeting full building regulations standards. That would be a way of providing extra homes to the people who need them in my constituency.
I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate, and I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), with whom I campaign assiduously as a member of the all-party group on mobile homes. As the House has heard, the group has received a number of delegations and deputations, not just in recent months, but in the period prior to my election as a Member of this House. My interest and concern in this area dates back to my days as a parliamentary candidate, when I met and discussed issues relating to park homes with the residents of the Brook Meadow park, which is in the village of Wroughton, where I live in my constituency. A number of residents, some of whom are elderly—they will forgive me for saying that—are not frightened to write to and lobby their Member of Parliament, or to come to the precincts of this House to make impassioned speeches on behalf of not only their own interests, but those of all their friends and neighbours.
An old principle in property law is the right of quiet enjoyment. That principle is well known to English law. It applies to people who live in bricks and mortar, so why does it not apply to people who live in park homes? The reason is simply that there has been only a gradual acceptance among law makers and opinion formers that park homes are not just goods or chattels, but places where people live. That acceptance means that the rights of property—the rights that we automatically assume apply for not only people who own homes, but those who rent bricks and mortar—should now apply for people in park homes.
Interestingly, amendments to the Mobile Homes Act 1983—I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) for his proper intervention pointing out that that term can lead to a lot of misunderstanding—were made by the Housing Act 2004. Perhaps that was an implicit acceptance by the then Government that we were no longer talking about mere chattels, but about places in which people live. Whether that was a Freudian slip or a deliberate intention, I welcome it. I suggest that our new Government should adopt that philosophy when dealing with park homes, treating them as houses and places where people live. The Government should allow those people equivalent rights to those that property owners or tenants enjoy under the protection of not only the 2004 Act, but the range of housing legislation that has evolved in this place since the latter part of the 19th century.
The issues and problems raised with me by my local residents are similar to those echoed by other hon. Members, and I do not seek to repeat them. They boil down to a few key areas. There are serious issues relating to the sale of park homes, there is a lack of resolution relating to agreements about the pitch fees to be charged every month and there are problems with utilities. I wish to deal with those in reverse order.
My hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) rightly reminded us in an intervention that gas and electricity utilities enjoy the protection of Ofgem, and water utilities enjoy the protection of Ofwat, and that various guidelines and directives have been issued. The problem arises when electricity and water supplies are administered via the site owner; in other words, they come through a wholesale agreement via the site owner, rather than to individual pitches. Therein lies a great problem. It does not allow domestic users in each park home to benefit from domestic tariffs, for example. A wholesale business-related tariff is charged to the park that is not as advantageous to residents as it might be.
Another problem is that the lack of direct contact between the utility company and the resident can lead to all sorts of complications. One local example occurred in Brook Meadow a few years ago where there was the awful case of residents being written to by the electricity company and told that their electricity was about to be cut off because the company was in dispute with the site owner. The site owner had allowed matters to develop to the door of the court before he finally relented and paid the bill that was overdue. That is not a satisfactory position for residents to be put in. They were thoroughly innocent third parties who were literally terrified at the thought of not having electricity supplied to their homes. That is an inconsistency that needs to be resolved, and it should be resolved via a system of licensing and regulation.
The same can be said about the water supply. Site home owners experience a lot of problems with water pressure. It is far better, in my view, for the site owners to withdraw from the supply issue and let residents deal directly with water companies. That would be far more transparent and easier to administer.
I have mentioned the difficulty with pitch fees. In the case that I am dealing with, the dispute about pitch fees remains unresolved. That has an unpleasant knock-on effect because, in direct breach of the regulations, the site owner has been in the habit of, in effect, threatening prospective sellers of pitches with the fact that the pitch fee has been unpaid, saying that he wants resolution of the unpaid debt before he will permit the sale. He is putting an entirely discrete issue in the way of the sale of a home. That is wholly wrong and in breach of the current regulations, but it is happening.
I use that example to make the more general point that it is now time for local authorities, which exercise a range of powers in other licensing areas, to take on the responsibility of licensing the owners of park home sites. The phrase “fit and proper person” has quite rightly been put under the microscope. It needs very careful definition, but perhaps one can draw a comparison with taxi licences and licences for public houses and clubs. In such cases, local authorities look carefully at each application, gather information about previous convictions and other such relevant information, and make a judgment based on all the evidence.
I am not a person who likes to call automatically for more regulation, but such is the gravity of the situation that faces so many park home residents that there is sadly no alternative.
My hon. Friend said at the beginning of his speech that many park home residents are not frightened to come forward, but we all know that many park home residents are frightened to come forward. I am sure that he would agree that many of these people do not have assets. In fact, the only assets they have are their park homes and possibly their cars. They do not have the wherewithal to seek justice, so the law must be extended to protect them.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who allows me seamlessly to move on to my final point, bearing in mind the need for other colleagues to have their say.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) made some cogent points about the provisions of section 207 of the Housing Act 2004, which amended the schedule that applies to the procedure to be adopted on the sale of park homes. That schedule has been subject to several amendments and it is sometimes difficult to follow the path that allows one to work out precisely what is in force and what is not. I understand that from the moment a request is made by the occupier—the owner of the park home—the owner of the site has to respond within 28 days to
“approve the person, unless it is reasonable for him not to do so, and…serve on the occupier notice of his decision whether or not to approve the person.”
I am afraid that is far too honoured in the breach, than in the observance. When it is honoured it is being used as a mechanism to delay sale for reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) has set out very carefully.
I also see examples in which site owners are trying to get long-term residents out of the site and new tenants in on temporary contracts so that they can ultimately try to put the site up for sale for potential residential development at huge profit.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point, which has not been made before. We know that unscrupulous site owners will drive down the value of a park home, buy it at that low value and, sometimes, re-sell the same home to make a fast profit. That is an unacceptable abuse of the current situation.
A concrete proposal that the Minister could consider is whether we should adopt a system of deemed acceptance by an owner after a certain period. My experience locally and more generally is that there is often a disastrous combination of indifference and incompetence mixed with cynicism and a wish to make an illicit profit, but why should we allow sites where there is that cocktail to benefit from the current regulations? We should punish incompetence and indifference by adopting principles such as deemed acceptance. Currently, the onus is on the park home owner to seek from the court—I welcome the fact that it will soon be a tribunal—a declaration that the person to whom they wish to sell their property has been approved. Many hon. Members have asked whether that is the right balance. Are we asking too much of people, many of whom are vulnerable, or of the dependants of people who have died and left their park home as part of their bequest? Should we not redress the balance and put the ball back in the court of the park home owner when it comes to sales? I urge the Minister seriously to consider the principle of deemed acceptance and whether it can be worked into a revised schedule. That would be a better way of dealing with the legislation than tweaking it as we have in the past few years.
Let me put to the hon. Gentleman a point that I tried to make in my speech. If the park home owner has maintained the property within the site’s rules, why should the site owner have any say about whom the sale should be made to? I have not heard a rational reason why there should be any blockage at that point.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that there is a balance to strike. The site owner owns the land and the property, and we have to accept that there are many good, decent and proper site owners. That is why I am talking, as he did, about striking a delicate balance. We have to be careful of the age-old problem of using a sledgehammer to crack the proverbial nut. None of us wants to punish good site owners, but hon. Members the length and breadth of the land keep coming up against the rotten apples that are damaging the reputation of park homes, undermining their viability for the future and, potentially, starving the country of a useful source of housing supply. I regret that I see no other alternative than for park homes to fall under the ambit of proper regulation by a local authority.
Involving local authorities at the beginning, when the site owner wants to purchase the land, is a good way of engaging them throughout the process. Many colleagues will be aware that one of the problems is that local authorities are involved only reactively, when they are faced with a particular challenge or problem, or a prosecution, as the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole said, so they are psychologically on the back foot. There is a good case to be made for local authorities taking a proactive role, which is why I commend the approach that Members want the Government to take.
The time for tinkering has passed; it is time for a wholesale root-and-branch look at the regulations. If there is no time for new legislation, I urge the Government at the very least to look at the entire ambit of the schedule to the amended and re-amended Mobile Homes Act. Let us get things right for future generations and give current park home residents peace of mind. Let us allow them the principle of quiet enjoyment.
I support the motion and, like many other Members, I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on moving it.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) pointed out, there are many park home sites up and down the country and many park home owners. In England alone, there are 85,000 park home owners, spread across 2,000 sites. In the main, as the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) eloquently stressed, the sites are run well; they are good places to live. Park homes are comfortable and relatively easy to maintain. They are relatively low cost and affordable. Most of them—certainly those in my constituency—are in pleasant locations. They are nice places to live. Whether park home sites are well or poorly run, they have a strong sense of community.
On a minority of sites, residents face many great problems. In my constituency, the spectrum of problems ranges from sites that are somewhat poorly managed to those where there are blatant breaches of health and safety regulations, many along the lines highlighted by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller). In my constituency, at the uglier end of the spectrum, there are examples of intimidation, particularly of vulnerable and elderly people. Intimidation often affects the mental health of elderly residents and can, on occasion, result in great financial loss, as we have heard from many Members this afternoon. I echo the comments made by many Members, and congratulate Sonia McColl on her justice campaign, on pressing so firmly on this important issue and on the work and energy that went into arranging the lobby of Parliament on 3 November.
There are a number of challenging issues, many of which have been raised this afternoon, relating to the operation of park home sites. We have heard much about the importance of the approval of the buyer stage, when an unscrupulous park site owner can put people off and use the rules to make sure that the park home owner does not achieve fair value for their property. In 1990-91, a Department of the Environment survey showed that 25% of park home owners expected problems with the sales process in the future. Of that 25%, some 51% felt that the site owner or the owning company would be the cause of the problems.
Mrs McColl is particularly keen that the approval of the buyer stage should take place in the presence of a solicitor or at a solicitor’s office. I think we should be slightly cautious here, because I am not convinced that that requirement, in and of itself, will solve the problem, and it will add to the cost of the transactions. But where a wrong has been done there should be quick redress at low cost, and substantial damages should be available to those pursuing unscrupulous site owners.
The second area of sale that I wish to address is that of what I would term the forced sale, in which the unscrupulous site owner intimidates and pressurises a resident off the site. The reason for that is clear; as many hon. Members have said, once that home is gone, perhaps a larger home can be placed on that site and profits will follow. My understanding is that some of the problems relate to the Mobile Homes Act 1983, whereby site owners can sometimes claim that an existing home has a detrimental effect on the amenity of the site. That point was raised by Shelter, whose mobile home unit looked into the issue. I therefore urge the Minister to pay careful attention to that aspect of the Act.
Several hon. Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Waveney (Peter Aldous) and for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert), have raised the issue of sales commission on park homes that are sold. I know that many park home owners feel it is inherently unfair to have to pay 10% of the value of their property on sale. They will argue that the site owner may have contributed nothing to the sale, and in many circumstances the owners of those homes have enhanced them at their own expense, adding to their value.
We should proceed with caution, however, because in order to make a profit a park home operator will look at all the revenue streams that go into the business, of which commission on sales is but one. It is quite conceivable that if that were reduced or removed, pitch fees would be higher, as the consultants Berkeley Hanover suggested in its 2001 report. It suggested that pitch fees might go up by 20% to 32% if commission was removed altogether. It is the case that where commissions have been reduced in the past from 15% to 10% due to legislation, there has been evidence that pitch fees have increased.
The second danger of removing commissions is that it might inflate the price of what at the moment are relatively—I stress, relatively—affordable homes, and that would be a detrimental move. It is very important that we keep the up-front affordability of these homes for individuals who may wish to buy them in the future. Indeed, the Shelter report did not recommend any reduction in the commission rate.
Several hon. Members have spoken about site conditions and licensing. Licensing was introduced under the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960, which gave local authorities the ability to impose conditions on site licences, and also the power to enforce those conditions. But it did not confer on local authorities any duty to enforce conditions on recalcitrant site owners. Those conditions, on which enforcement action can be taken, would include requirements not only on the spacing of the homes across the site, for example, but on the provision of—sometimes vital—amenities on the site. So it is very important that the Minister looks closely, as I am sure he and his colleagues are doing, at licensing and whether we should make it a duty of local authorities to intervene where there are significant breaches of those licences.
We should also look closely at local authorities’ right to refuse or revoke the site owner’s licence if there is good cause, as my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) said. In those circumstances, if there were a revocation, we would need to ensure that the local authority had a clear strategy for providing the services and ensuring that the site continued to run in a safe, decent and reasonable manner.
I urge the Minister to look at giving local authorities the ability to take emergency remedial action when things do not happen appropriately on a site, and to charge the site owner for any remedial action that is taken. Local authorities could be given the authority to charge for licences to cover some of the costs of them, and, when there are appeals in the system on such matters, they might be handled by the residential property tribunal.
Much has been rightly said in this debate about the fit and proper person qualification, which was a strong recommendation of the park homes working group. There is no doubt that the park homes business is distinctly different from many others. It is not like running a shop or a pub, whereby, if one is rude to customers or runs the business badly, one can expect to see profits diminish and to go out of business. Site owners effectively have captive consumers and people whose lives they can and, as we have heard in many instances this afternoon, do make a misery.
Given how the economics of the business work, we should not be surprised by such abuse. There is a premium to be gained by bullying people and by pushing somebody out of their home inappropriately, because there are profits to be made as a consequence. The whole market has built into it the dynamics for abuse of one form or another.
I know that the Housing Minister is thinking about the issue very carefully, but I urge the Minister before us to consider seriously a fit and proper person qualification. One objection to the approach is that it might be complicated and difficult, but we already apply it to people who own houses in multiple occupation, so some local authorities already have experience in exactly that area.
Some Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), have said that residents associations have been quite effective in dealing with difficult situations on park home sites, and I welcome the Mobile Homes Act 1983 (Amendment of Schedule 1) (England) Order 2006, which permits such associations to be set up and, indeed, requires site owners to recognise them, subject to certain conditions, including one whereby more than 50% of residents on a site must become members. The Government would do well to encourage at every turn, with whatever legislative changes they bring in, such residents associations and to give them authority wherever they possibly can.
I thank the hon. Lady for that helpful and informative intervention. I am grateful and pay tribute to Buckingham Orchards Residents Community Association in my constituency, which has done a great deal and fought hard to improve conditions on its site. I shall certainly take the hon. Lady’s suggestion of a forum and such activity to that association to see whether it might benefit from that.
Finally, dispute resolution at the moment typically means going through the county courts, and doing so not just at great expense, but often in the face of numerous delays, because unscrupulous site owners are adept at stringing things out and making things difficult at every turn. We have all heard the stories in which site owners fail to turn up, give a reason and there has to be a re-hearing. They just wear people out, which is why I particularly welcome the Government’s commitment to a residential property tribunal. However, it is absolutely essential that such a tribunal is quick to deal with grievances, that there is a minimum of delay involved and that it is not expensive to use. On 14 July, in referring to residential property tribunals, the Minister for Housing stated:
“This will mean that park home residents will be able to take action to resolve disputes with site owners, without being restricted by the prospect of facing large legal costs.”—[Official Report, 14 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 28WS.]
That is absolutely critical. We are dealing with people who are among the least advantaged in our society and cost must be driven down to give them a route to justice.
We should also toughen up on fines and give the tribunal real teeth. At the moment, a breach of a site licence carries a maximum fine of £2,500. In many cases, that is simply not enough to deter the kind of activity that we have been debating this afternoon. I urge the Minister to consider whether there should be an escalation of fines for repeat offences, because we are aware that some site owners do the same things over and over again. Those people should be penalised more heavily each time around.
Many of the things I have raised and that other hon. Members have touched upon may not be achieved simply through secondary legislation. We may need primary legislation. I hope that the Government and the Minister have the political will to ensure that the time required to push forward these changes is made available. We need to act to remove the last refuge of Rachmanism in this country, because that is what we are dealing with; we need to act to stand up for the vulnerable and the elderly who suffer in the circumstances that I and many others have described; and we need to act for the many self-reliant, proud and decent park home residents, who ask nothing more than that they are treated with fairness, dignity and respect.
Order. Before I call the remaining speakers, by way of information, I point out that the wind-ups are due to start at around twenty-five to 4. The remaining contributors might want to reflect on how they can ensure that their colleagues get in as well.
I will not detain the House long. As many other hon. Members did, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on tabling the motion. I will happily support it on behalf of my constituents who live at a number of sites in Cheltenham—Sunnyfield lane in Up Hatherley, The Reddings and Harthurstfield park in west Cheltenham. Having named those locations, I emphasise what other hon. Members have said: it is a minority of site owners who are involved in many of these abuses. However, as other hon. Members have also pointed out, the power relationship that exists under the current system between site owner and home owner is so uneven that it almost invites some of these abuses.
Park home living can be a wonderful lifestyle, as it is for many thousands of people. Generally, it involves smaller homes with low maintenance costs that are on the lowest council tax band, on one level and on small plots in parks that engender a strong sense of community. Knocking on doors in the places I have mentioned is certainly a cheerful experience—not least because of some of the wonderfully quirky ornamentation and individual decoration that is often on show
A leading insurer tells me that the incidence of crime on parks is very low. Such homes have low insurance costs and represent a very safe lifestyle. Affordability and safety are key because, as has been pointed out, many residents are elderly and very few are well off. It is unfortunate that the industry is plagued by a small number of unscrupulous operators who, frankly, make their residents’ lives a misery. I shall not repeat the issues of fees, charges and services that many hon. Member have mentioned. Instead, I will highlight again the issue of buying and selling, particularly the approval-of-the-buyer stage, where the park owner meets privately with the prospective buyer. That represents such an obvious conflict of interest that I cannot imagine even the most angelic of site owners not being tempted at times to talk down the value of a park home in order perhaps to make a killing at some stage in the future. It is clear that in many cases the owner, out of desperation, ends up selling back to the site owner, often for a derisory sum, and the site owner then has a vacant plot to develop at a huge profit. At that point they have, in effect, stolen the homeowner’s equity, which sometimes represents the homeowner’s life savings, so it is a very serious issue.
I very much welcome the Government’s intention to transfer jurisdiction to residential property tribunals—a positive step that should address many of the broader issues of fees, charges and so on that crop up from time to time. However, I am not absolutely sure that it will solve the central problem of sales, because often by the time a residential property tribunal process has been completed—evidence has been presented, the tribunal has ruled, and a decision has been communicated—the buyer will be long gone. As one expert professional constituent of mine said:
“I cannot think of a more appropriate sector for there to be some sort of fit and proper person test, some of these owners are merciless.”
A fit and proper person test would be a strong supplement to the residential property tribunal policy that the Government are proposing. That is one of the reasons I strongly support the motion.
I should like briefly to mention the parallel issue of owners of mobile holiday homes. The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) has already referred to this, but I have a slightly different concern that has been raised by several constituents of mine who are permanent residents of Cheltenham but own static caravans or mobile homes in Swanage bay in Dorset, which I suspect is near to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole. Once again, these owners are not wealthy and are at the mercy of site owners who stand accused of reducing the market price of mobile homes artificially and then buying them themselves with the potential for a tidy profit. Again, we have the issue of fees, with the site owner apparently seeking an increase of nearly 50% in one year, in contravention of existing licences and Office of Fair Trading guidelines.
I, too, have a constituent who has a pitch in the Swanage Bay View holiday park, which may or may not be the same as the park that the hon. Gentleman is talking about, where pitch fees have been increased by 22.5% over the past 12 months. There is a huge amount of pressure on older residents to sell up, with a lot of very commercial tactics being used to abuse their position.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. We are certainly talking about the identical issue, if not the identical park, and once again we are talking about people’s life savings being at risk, often vulnerable elderly people. This is an almost entirely unregulated sector, and unless it is included in Ministers’ plans for residential property tribunals, it will remain so. Does the Minister have plans to include mobile holiday homes in any of the moves that he is making to establish residential property tribunals? If he cannot answer me now, perhaps he will write to me with his intentions or the Government’s view on that issue.
I am proud to support this motion. Since a minority of site owners apparently cannot be trusted to be fair to often vulnerable and elderly homeowners, it is vitally important for Parliament to step in.
This afternoon we have heard from Members tales of fraud, neglect, intimidation and vandalism. For me, this is not a complicated issue. As a doctor, if I committed any of those crimes I would very quickly be declared not a fit and proper doctor and struck off. I call on the Minister to consider seriously the ability to designate people not fit and proper site owners.
It is obvious from attending the all-party group that the same names keep cropping up. It is evident that we are talking about probably fewer than 10 owners who commit these crimes across the country. Many of my constituents have relayed shocking tales of crime and fraud, but are genuinely too intimidated to go to the police.
We have heard excellent suggestions—I will not repeat them—from my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) and I join in the congratulations for the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on initiating this excellent opportunity for debate. I call on the Minister to take action, because we have waited long enough. I hope that he has listened to what all hon. Members have said.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for trying so hard to decipher my signature so that I could catch your eye. I think that I am the last Back Bencher to speak in this debate, so I add some final congratulations to the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on raising this issue, which is so important for many hon. Members.
Like many hon. Members, this issue was first brought to my attention while I was a candidate. It was important to meet the Heathcote Park residents association and its chairman, Mary Hulett. Many park home residents feel unfairly treated and ignored, and are frustrated at the slow pace of reform and regulation. I am sure that Members from all parts of the House will welcome the transfer to the residential property tribunal, which will reduce the cost of resolving disputes and empower residents. I am sure that it will be a positive factor for the sector.
I agree with the notion of fit and proper person criteria for park home site owners, and that there should be regulations that can be used against site owners who interfere with the sale of individual park homes without good reason. However, the problems are far wider than that and much more needs to be done if we are to have a fair and well regulated park homes sector. I believe that the primary way in which the Government can assist is through the creation of a strong licensing regime. I believe that “Park homes site licensing reform: The way forward and next steps” laid out the pathway for that.
We must also tackle the disreputable practices of some site owners. That could be done through capping increases in pitch fees to the retail prices index, or by preventing consecutive increases above RPI. That would prevent site owners from suddenly springing large pitch fee increases on owners, which is particularly important in these difficult economic times.
We could also empower park home owners by allowing them to petition their site owners to agree to a framework for developing a sinking fund for repairs and maintenance. For example, if 75% of park home residents petitioned the site owner, the owner would have 12 months to develop a framework that was acceptable to the majority of residents. If site owners did not comply, an ad hoc tribunal could be set up to force a settlement that was reasonable and fair to all sides. Although some hon. Members may feel that that would be too harsh on site owners, I believe that for too long the law has been weighted on the side of the site owner, rather than that of the resident.
If residents put forward reasonable proposals and there is a degree of consensus, I do not see why a site owner should be able to refuse their requests. Well maintained park homes are in everyone’s interests. I appreciate that interventions should take place only when absolutely necessary, but we must not allow site owners carte blanche to do whatever they want. There must be a relationship of trust and co-operation to create sustainable communities. In my constituency, all residents want is a bit of fairness.
More must be done to myth-bust the idea that park home owners should not form residents’ associations. It is important that park home residents have a forum in which to air their grievances and to discuss them with their neighbours. Although the vast majority of site owners are happy for that to occur, some are keen to break up such important associations. It is vital that we give residents proper protection, and through the use of petitions and residents’ associations I believe we can go some way towards doing that.
I have one final point to make before I conclude. Park home site owners have to do more to name and shame owners who are not operating in a fair manner. The British Holiday and Home Parks Association should, where there is evidence, be willing to publish lists of site operators who are not responsible in their dealings with park home residents, and so warn individuals who are considering purchasing park homes. Ultimately, if incidents involving disreputable site owners continue, it will only further damage the sector. It is in everyone’s interest to do what they can.
All hon. Members who have had to deal with constituents’ problems with park homes know how distressing they can be. We have to remember that we are talking about something extremely personal—people’s homes. Our homes are central to our way of life and our quality of life, and people care a great deal about them, as we can see from the 10,000 signatures that were delivered to Downing street. We have to work towards finding more innovative ways to settle the problem for the benefit of park home residents, and to ensure a sustainable future for the park homes sector in general. I look forward to the Minister’s contribution and to seeing how we can move forward accordingly.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who has been an indefatigable champion of park home residents for a number of years. I pay tribute also to Members from both sides of the Chamber who have contributed to a very good and powerful debate. They have highlighted some appalling abuses of the situation in which many park home residents currently find themselves.
I do not presume to match the hon. Lady’s expertise on the subject, but I am aware from representations that I have received from park home residents that they feel the current legislation is inadequate. They have told me that it does not go far enough in safeguarding their rights and offers insufficient protection against the small number of unscrupulous site owners who can and do exploit loopholes in the law, as we have heard today.
One of the main complaints of residents is the ballooning pitch fees demanded by site owners, because they say they are powerless to resist unreasonable increases. We have heard from the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) and others about distressing examples of such abuse that they have come across in their constituencies. It seems that the standard agreement drawn up by the National Federation of Site Operators, which is now the British Holiday and Home Parks Association, leaves a lot to be desired.
I am aware that about 20 years ago a survey was commissioned for the then Department of the Environment. Residents were asked whether they were consulted by owners on any increase in pitch fees, as they were supposed to be. Only 3% said that they had been. It seems that, 20 years on, there is still a lot to do. I think that there have been some improvements, but the situation has not improved enough.
Mobile home owners have told me that they have sometimes run into problems when they have wanted to sell their homes. Members have referred to those problems during the debate. Site owners often find ways to block sales from going through. Shelter’s mobile homes unit found that some owners served notices to terminate agreements, claiming that the homes involved were
“having a detrimental effect on the amenity of the site.”
The hon. Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) referred to that. Although that move is legitimate in some cases, in others it is not. It has been claimed that it is often used to bully park home residents into selling up at knock-down prices, as the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner), who is no longer in his place, pointed out. The hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole has described that as a massive scandal, and it is certainly a cause for considerable concern for many people. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) pointed out, it is a real problem throughout the length and breadth of the country.
In 2006, the previous Government removed the ability of site owners to attach conditions to their approval of prospective purchasers. Since then, the only factor that they can take into account is the suitability of an incoming resident. However, the Park Home Residents Action Alliance says that site owners can still abuse that test.
There was a proposal to transfer the jurisdiction on appeals and applications from the county courts to the residential property tribunals earlier this year, but Parliament was dissolved for the general election before the necessary approval was given. The Opposition therefore welcome the new Housing and Local Government Minister’s intention to introduce the secondary legislation that will transfer jurisdiction to residential property tribunals and urge him to press ahead as soon as possible.
However, it is clear that despite the improvements introduced by the previous Labour Government, more needs to be done to protect the rights of caravan and park home residents. Let me assure the hon. Members for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) and for Gloucester (Richard Graham)—the former is no longer in the Chamber—that there is cross-party support for stronger measures. All official Opposition Members want them, and Opposition Front Benchers are united. We want to work with the Government to ensure that appropriate protection for such vulnerable people is introduced.
Much of the groundwork on identifying what legislative improvements need to be made has already been undertaken. The Department for Communities and Local Government consultation paper, “A new approach for resolving disputes and to proceedings relating to Park Homes under the Mobile Homes Act 1983 (as amended)” was published in May 2008. In May 2009, the previous Government published a further consultation document, “Park Home Site licensing—Improving the Management of Park Home Sites”. A further paper, “Park homes site licensing reform: The way forward and next steps” was published on 30 March this year.
As I pointed out, the Opposition want to work constructively with Ministers, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) requested. We want to build on the good foundation that we left to secure a thriving and well-run park homes sector that provides sites where people want to live and, indeed, invest. We believe that a licensing system that raises and maintains standards on sites, and one that ensures that sites are safe, well planned and well managed, with appropriate facilities and services, will help to achieve those objectives.
Such a scheme must operate fairly, and it must be proportionate, cost effective and enforceable. An effective scheme must deliver improvements in the management of park home sites where improvements are necessary while continuing to secure a vibrant and healthy sector.
It is a pleasure to respond to this Back-Bench debate and to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke)—I always have to get my norths, souths, easts and wests carefully organised when I refer to her constituency. The debate, which featured 14 contributions from Back Benchers, has been well informed, wide ranging and sometimes passionate—hon. Members have given a real sense of the injustice that some park home residents are forced to suffer—and it has come at a good moment, because as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government already told the House, he will make a statement on this matter in the new year. I will ensure that all the contributions and the many and varied suggestions and ideas come to his attention as he works on that.
Rightly, many Members acknowledged the broader context. The sector provides homes for 85,000 families and perhaps as many as 150,000 residents, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) said. The very large majority of those residents enjoy peace and quiet, and are happy and satisfied where they are. Many sites are properly managed and maintained by decent, honest and professional site owners who have regard to the welfare and rights of the communities in their parks. It is a pity that their good work is often overshadowed by the unacceptable conduct of a minority, about whom we have heard some telling stories this afternoon. That minority can cause misery to a community in many ways; for example, by not maintaining sites properly, by bullying residents and by interfering unreasonably, or even unlawfully, when residents try to exercise their lawful rights. The House has also heard significant allegations of criminal behaviour and even blackmail. However, I do not want to dwell on the specific allegations, except to say in plain terms that the Government believe that the park homes sector should have no place for these people. I want good site owners to thrive and bad site owners to be taken out of the sector.
It is important to note some of the themes that have come out of today’s debate. We have heard the stories and anecdotes, which I do not dismiss, but Members on both sides of the House have also recognised that there has to be a balance between the powers and responsibilities of site owners on one hand, and of home owners on the other. We need to reflect on the fact that every home owner, in becoming a home owner, will have had the opportunity to look at the terms and conditions of the sale and purchase. I hope that we might also reflect on how we can make those terms and conditions more transparent to prospective purchasers, and ensure that once signed they are adhered to by both sides.
We have heard contributions about the degree to which regulation should be light or tough. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd), who declared himself to be a deregulatory Liberal, has come to the conclusion that we need to toughen up regulation, and that was the message, I think, from hon. Members throughout the House. I will ensure, therefore, that that view is conveyed clearly to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government.
The Government are committed to targeted reform that does not place unnecessary burdens on site owners, who ought to be allowed to thrive. We will not solve the problem if we drive well-run sites out of business because of an overburden of regulation or control. Our first priority, therefore, is to make it quicker and easier for residents to challenge unreasonable behaviour by site owners who disregard residents’ rights. My right hon. Friend announced in July that, under the Mobile Homes Act 1983, jurisdiction in the settlement of most disputes will be transferred to the Residential Property Tribunal Service.
I can assure the House that subject to parliamentary approval we intend those tribunals to become operational from next spring. That has been a priority for park home residents for many years, and I am committed to implementing it as quickly as possible. It will enable residents to resolve disputes much more quickly and easily, and act as a deterrent to unreasonable behaviour. I can also assure hon. Friends that access to the tribunal is normally free, although in some cases there may be a fee of £150. However, legal representation is not necessary, so the cost is much less than for court proceedings. That is a major step forward. It will give residents quicker and easier access to justice, provide an opportunity for rapidly resolving disputes and deter unreasonable behaviour.
That is a sensible proposition, but I ask the Minister to reflect on the history of other tribunals that started in a well-meaning way but gradually became more and more bureaucratic and legalistic. As time passes, there will be the risk—starting perhaps with the site owners—that more lawyers will enter the process, so we will need to reconsider the situation after a year or so of running the tribunals to ensure that we have got the balance right.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important and interesting point, but if I may say so, perhaps we should focus on introducing tribunals before we start to evaluate them.
The aim is to improve site management and deter bad practices. That will benefit not only residents, but the industry as a whole. It does the sector no good at all to develop a reputation for bad behaviour. As they pursue their work, the tribunals will provide evidence in an open and transparent way—through a body of cases, involving case law and decision making—which will benchmark good behaviour and identify unacceptable behaviour, thereby playing a standard-setting role.
The motion calls on the Government to review the case for establishing a “fit and proper” licensing system. There is certainly no role in the sector for unscrupulous and criminal operators, but they are a minority. That brings us back to the balance between regulation and the burden of implementation. The Government’s general approach is to reduce top-down regulation and minimise the involvement of central Government in local decision making. However, we are committed to protecting the most vulnerable, and I know that some park home residents are among the most vulnerable members of society, as has been well pointed out in this debate. We are not convinced that the protection of park home residents from the minority of unscrupulous site owners requires a complex and costly national licensing system, which would apply across the sector and place burdens on all site owners, good and bad, with that cost ultimately being passed on to residents too. We have to strike a careful balance—one that protects the vulnerable, targets the worst and minimises the regulatory burdens on the law-abiding majority.
On the blocking of sales, I have every sympathy with residents who are unreasonably thwarted when trying to exercise their lawful right to sell their homes. I know that those concerns are shared by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State. The park home justice campaign is to be commended for bringing this important matter to the forefront. Ministers are now well alert—if we were not before—to what the issues are. However, we need to look at what the remedy is. The premise is that unscrupulous site owners might be less likely to make false representations or deter potential buyers if an interview with a prospective purchaser took place in front of a solicitor. However, it is a little hard to see exactly how that would work or who would appoint the solicitor, let alone who would pay for him or her. There is no reason to believe that an unscrupulous owner is likely to be any less dishonest because there is a witness present.
There is also a wider question about whether interviews are required at all, because there is certainly no statutory or legislative reason for them. The Mobile Homes Act 1983 permits the site owner to approve the purchaser, but that could be done in a number of ways, not necessarily through an interview process; for example, by providing relevant documents. If there is no legal requirement for an interview, it would be burdensome to introduce a formal regulatory process for conducting one. However, that is not to say that we believe it acceptable simply to let unreasonable behaviour be tolerated. We see improving access to justice through the residential property tribunal as the first step towards ending abuses in such cases. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State is only too aware of the problems, and he intends to announce in the new year a package of measures that will curb the excesses of the minority of unscrupulous owners, while not placing undue burdens on the majority who manage their sites effectively and in the best interests of the community.
I will certainly take that request away, and we will certainly consider it. It is worth reminding the House that where mobile homes are used for full-time residential purposes, they have a number of tax and regulatory advantages, as compared with what we might call “normal” homes. That is because of their status as residential homes of a particular type. Holiday homes are in a different category, and have all sorts of other regulatory frameworks relating to them. However, I will ensure that that point is taken into consideration.
This has been an important and timely debate. It has certainly highlighted important areas of concern to Members, and it is a tribute to the new Back-Bench debating system that it has come before the House today. It has been helpful to me and my ministerial colleagues and I hope that, when the announcement is made in the spring, hon. Members will feel that their contribution to the debate today has had an influence on the way in which the Government are approaching the problem.
I shall make a brief concluding statement. I should like to thank all the Members who helped to secure the debate, because we had to convince people that we would have enough speakers today. I have been having sleepless nights about it, and I thank everyone for turning up today, especially at this time on this Thursday afternoon. I welcome the cross-party support for the motion; it is absolutely vital and it makes me feel positive that we can move forward. I hope that it will also make the campaigners feel positive. We have talked about our proud and dignified home owners, and about the fact that park homes are homes, not just chattels. That is incredibly important. Those people deserve better; the words “the forgotten lost” summed up what we have been debating this afternoon.
I am all too aware that we need a sustainable, flourishing industry, but it cannot flourish or achieve its full potential for providing this much-needed housing unless we have a way of addressing the many issues that we have been talking about today. Speed and transparency have been referred to, and they are both important, because time is running out. I welcome the first step of establishing the residential property tribunals, but I want to see concurrent planning for the next stage, because it is clear that we need more.
I wavered as I listened to the Minister’s response. First, I thought, “Oh, that’s good”, then I thought, “Oh, that’s not so good.” It is a pity that we could not have delivered a Christmas present to our park home campaigners today, and that they will have to wait until the new year for the Minister’s statement. I trust that they will not have to wait until the spring, and that the statement will be made early in the new year, because we need a response to these long-term problems that have now been raised so many times in the House. I accept that we need to strike the right balance, but that is no excuse for doing nothing. We must have action!
Question put and agreed to.
That this House notes that there are approximately 1,800 park home sites in England and Wales; further notes that current legislation permits a minority of park home site owners to cause great distress, damage to property and danger to health of park home residents; welcomes the Government’s intention to lay before the House secondary legislation to transfer jurisdiction for park homes to the Residential Property Tribunal Service; but calls on the Government to review the case for establishing a fit and proper person criterion for park home site owners and to bring forward relevant legislation at the earliest opportunity to prevent in particular park home site owners interfering with the sale of a park home without good reason.