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Park Homes

Volume 536: debated on Tuesday 29 November 2011

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main.

As a new Member of Parliament in 2010, I did not expect park homes to feature large on my radar. I freely admit that I did not know a great deal about them and that, although I knew that a significant number of park homes were dotted around my constituency, there are more than 200 spread over seven sites. To some colleagues, especially those from the south-west, that will seem a tiny number, but in Romsey and Southampton North it represents a significant and at times vulnerable minority.

I pay particular tribute to my constituent, Tim Deacon, a member of the park homes residents association, who has made it his mission over the past 18 months to inform me of the issues facing park home residents. He has endeavoured to educate me and, along with many of his fellow residents—in particular, with another whom I will mention later—he has highlighted their issues and encouraged me to apply for the debate.

I am conscious of the fact that the subject affects a lot of hon. Members, many of whom will have far greater expertise than I do. I congratulate the mobile homes all-party parliamentary group on its hard work in drawing attention to the issue and on seeking resolutions to the problems of park home owners. I am also aware that this is only a 30-minute debate, which is a disappointment to some and will not allow all of those Members who have an interest to take part.

Many owners of park home sites are fair and upright, especially the deputy leader of my local authority in Test valley, who owns a site in Ampfield. Unfortunately, however, others are not.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. There are many good park home owners throughout the country, including in my constituency. Does she agree that they have nothing to fear from a fit and proper person test?

I entirely concur with my hon. Friend: good park home site owners have absolutely nothing to fear from a fit and proper person test. I certainly did not wish to criticise those who treat their residents fairly and with respect; it is the others on whom I wish to focus and about whom something needs to be done.

Last November’s mass lobby of Parliament brought several of my constituents to Westminster and they outlined in detail their prime concern—that they could not sell their homes freely, without the consent of the park owner.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Before she continues with specific details, will she agree that the unscrupulous practice of park owners vetoing sales so that they can, in effect, buy the properties at a knock-down rate and sell them on, while getting a commission of up to 10% on top, ought to be stamped out in any way possible?

That is exactly what I was about to come to—namely, park home owners not being able to sell their homes without the consent of the park owner. In the intervening 12 months there has been progress, not least by the all-party parliamentary group and, earlier this month, when the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) asked the Prime Minister an important question about the actions of unscrupulous park owners. However, I and many of the hon. Members present at the debate today believe that action must be not only robust but swift. Many park home owners are elderly, and they fear that they are running out of time.

I am extremely impressed by the phenomenal work of Sonia McColl, the leader of the Park Home Owners Justice Campaign, who has campaigned tirelessly for the rights of park home owners and worked unceasingly to collect and collate the national statistics on park homes, which the campaign presented to the Prime Minister in October. The statistics are sobering: 63% of residents reported living under unacceptable conditions, with 48% living under the regime of an unscrupulous park owner.

Does my hon. Friend agree, as my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) has already said, that there are a number of good park owners, such as in Great Yarmouth? An important feature of the problem is that the bad park owners give the entire industry a bad reputation, while negatively affecting the good park owners who deserve the credibility that they should have for providing a good environment in which people live.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The good park home site owners are unfairly gaining a poor reputation because of their less scrupulous counterparts, many of whom are reported to be not only dishonest in their dealings with park home owners but aggressive and abusive. It is sad that only a third of residents felt that their park owner was good. That clearly needs to change.

I represent an area containing a significant number of park home owners, with some 300 in one location. They are a very active group, with an active residents association, and have worked with elected representatives to help effect legislative change in Northern Ireland. Is the hon. Lady aware of that and, if not, perhaps the Minister will examine and investigate it to help in today’s study of the subject?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. One of our problems is the lack of a level playing field or of consistency in the different parts of the UK, which can lead to a measure of resentment when some residents see other parts of the UK treated differently from them.

Was my hon. Friend struck at the meeting of the all-party group by the relatively small number of names cropping up all over the country? The thickest file in my constituency filing cabinet is that for Beechdown Park, with its unresolved problems of water leaks and water meters. An owner has not only failed to deal with the leaks but collected money by holding people to ransom—holding up the sale of their properties unless they hand over money. We discovered that he has not passed any of the money to South West Water and has run up colossal bills. My constituents’ appliances have not been working, thanks to Mr Small, which I am sure is a familiar name.

As I said, I attended the mass rally last November and listened to many of the stories from around the country, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right that the same small number of names occur time and again at various locations—always, sadly, involving the same story and modus operandi.

Time is pressing and the issue is not new, although I am new to it. Media reports can be found going back 20 or 30 years, commenting on the difficulties of park home residents when selling their properties or gaining reasonable access to services without being charged over the odds for them. The single biggest issue, however, is the blocking of sales by site owners. If park owners refuse to approve a sale, the home owner is left in an almost impossible position. There are reports of owners of properties worth £100,000 having to sell to the park owner for as little as £5,000 as all other sales have been blocked. The home owner currently has recourse to a residential property tribunal but that not only costs the owner about £150 but has limited powers of enforcement and places no binding conditions on the park owner. The situation is being addressed by the Government, and I am eager to hear what assurance the Minister can give that it is subject to a rigorous timetable.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I am interested to hear what the timetable is from the Minister. The problem has been going on for a number of years, as my hon. Friend said, and has been raised a great deal since the 2010 election. We have waited some time now to hear what the Government are proposing for a licensing regime. We understand the Government’s reluctance to legislate on everything, but it is unacceptable that vulnerable residents, often in park homes, are left less protected than people in registered social landlord accommodation or in other social housing. Does she agree?

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend’s comments. It is not right that park home residents are left more vulnerable and exposed than those in many other types of property tenure. It is important not to forget that park homes can provide an important element of reasonably priced accommodation—I will not refer to affordable housing, using the technical term that we all understand from various connections with our local authorities, but to less expensive housing. Such housing is almost inevitably a choice for some of the most vulnerable people in our society, including the elderly, those who want to downsize, and those who find housing in other parts of our constituencies too expensive.

A further injustice facing park home owners is that of landlords imposing administrative charges for the supply of services such as water and sewerage. Those charges should be reasonable and not out of the ordinary for residents, but many find they are charged fees that are well over the odds, in addition to site owners taking advantage of a monopoly in supplying canisters of liquefied petroleum gas for heating and cooking. Some residents were subjected to dreadful intimidation and harassment when they challenged the prices, and had no choice but to pay up to heat their homes.

I have heard many horror stories of unscrupulous park owners overcharging for basic services. Some major LPG providers do very good deals with park owners and provide the canisters at a significantly cheaper cost than for those living in bricks and mortar houses. However, dishonest landlords often use that loophole to charge park home residents exorbitant sums to heat their homes. Residents are at liberty to buy gas canisters elsewhere without the risk of being overcharged, but the recurring theme is that many of them are elderly and more vulnerable, so they are less able to travel and to haul the heavy canisters into their car, if they have one, let alone to offload them at the other end and to install them safely.

One of my constituents, who sadly has specifically asked not to be named, contacted me to explain that he is fully reliant on purchasing gas canisters from his landlord at a significant mark-up. He thinks his lack of mobility and his vulnerability are being exploited so that the site owner can make a profit. Needless to say, he feels cheated, but helpless to do anything about it.

Consumer law provides protection for park home residents, and I encourage them to refer such incidents to Consumer Direct, which will invariably take them up with trading standards officers on their behalf, and ensure that they are reported. However, yet again, vulnerable and elderly residents need to know that they can go to Consumer Direct and have the case taken up on their behalf.

I congratulate my hon. Friend, who is making the case exceedingly well. The mainly elderly, vulnerable residents are often terrified of reporting some of the incidents that happen. More and more evidence, beyond anecdotal, is emerging, but I suggest that it is still the tip of the iceberg. Consumer Focus is doing a survey, and I believe that it will provide the Government with the ammunition to introduce strong legislation as soon as possible. Will my hon. Friend join me in urging the Minister to take back that message today? We must have not only proposals but time for legislation.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and she is right. We must have legislation, and we must have it soon. During a conversation with Consumer Direct earlier today, it told me that it is making progress in taking on cases. As my hon. Friend said, the problem is not just anecdotal because there is now evidence. It is crucial that we have time to legislate so that these poor, vulnerable residents receive the action and outcome that they have sought for so many years.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Park home residents are also dealt a harsh hand by park owners in their electricity supply. An electricity supply in my constituency breaches the Electricity Safety, Quality and Continuity Regulations 2002, but the problem is that compliance rests with the Department for Energy and Climate Change, whereas the safety issues rest with the health and safety boards. A further complication in the Welsh context is that other aspects of park homes legislation are devolved to the Welsh Assembly, making it difficult for residents to know who to go to with their complaints.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. There is complexity in knowing who residents should go to with their complaints. There is no consistency throughout the United Kingdom, and that is what people are calling for.

My constituent, Tim Deacon, like many other park home residents, has been party to establishing a park home residents association. Such groups must meet several requirements to qualify as a residents association, the last of which is to obtain the park owner’s acknowledgement. Even when park home residents have completed all the required steps, park owners may refuse to acknowledge a residents association and thereby deprive the residents of the rights that becoming an association provides. A last resort is recourse to the county court, but many residents are scared or do not have the will, the energy or the know-how to do that.

In an era of localism, when the Government are seeking to disseminate power downwards, I hope that they will look favourably on the growth of residents associations on park home sites. Such associations can seek to resolve issues locally without having to turn to the courts. However, the situation at the moment leaves too much power in park owners’ hands, limiting accountability and the community’s ability to exert sufficient pressure on their landlord.

Statistics published by the Park Home Owners Justice Campaign show that the majority of park home owners are in their 70s or older. It is clear that unscrupulous park owners are taking advantage of elderly and vulnerable people, many of whom in my constituency live on their own. I thought it would be interesting to see exactly how many of the 200-plus park homes in my constituency are occupied by single people, and it transpires that it is the vast majority of them. The electoral roll shows that 250 residents in 212 park homes are registered to vote. That clearly shows that those people are mainly not living as couples or families. Sadly, in many cases, they are living alone, and my argument is that that increases their vulnerability, and susceptibility to feeling intimidated by unscrupulous park owners. It is vital that the Government establish robust measures to protect residents because current legislation is clearly failing them.

I would be grateful to hear the Minister’s comments on how his Department is addressing the problem of sale blocking—a prime concern of park home residents in my constituency—and preventing unscrupulous park owners from wielding disproportionate power over this part of the property market. That would be unacceptable in an ordinary residential community. I would welcome steps being taken urgently to prevent overcharging for basic services such as electricity and water.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) made a valid point about different parts of the electricity market having responsibility for safety, and it is truly terrifying that some park home residents may be receiving an electricity supply that is less safe than we would want. It is important for the establishment of residents associations to be made as simple as possible, and to ensure that they receive proper recognition. I welcome the Department’s consultation on this important issue, and hope that the timetable for action is suitably short. As I have said, many park home residents are elderly and feel that they have been waiting far too long.

I fully acknowledge that there are many honest and excellent park owners, and I emphasise that, as my hon. Friend said, those who are not acting responsibly are giving the others a bad name. It is wrong that all should be tarred with the same brush. But some people live in parks where that is not the situation and where an unscrupulous landlord seeks to exploit the vulnerability of park home residents, to take a percentage of the proceeds of any sale, or to block a sale. Those people deserve greater rights, and a future free from exploitation and abuse from dishonest landlords. I hope that the Minister will outline at least a partial timetable to assure us that any proposed legislation will be forthcoming as soon as possible, and that he will tell us what action the Government are taking. I know that they are taking action, but it is important to understand it clearly so that we can give our constituents some reassurance.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) on bringing this important subject to the attention of the House this afternoon, and I commend the many Members who have contributed to the debate. I hope that it is not out of place if I mention that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) has played an active part in the all-party group and has met my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government to talk about these matters.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North that a park home is an affordable choice for many people. She described it as less expensive housing, which is how estate agents describe it. It is an economical and very successful choice for many people, and there are 85,000 such households in England. Fortunately, only a minority of households and site owners give rise to the anxieties that we have heard about today. Many sites are properly managed and maintained, and decent, honest and professional site owners deliver a good service for people on their sites. Unfortunately, the good work is masked by the unacceptable conduct of others. If one reads the debates held in this House, one would get the impression that this form of tenure and these sites are collectively completely unacceptable. I do not think that it is right for us to leave that impression unchallenged.

Rogue site owners certainly cause misery to communities by not maintaining their sites properly. We have heard reports about the bullying of residents and unreasonable and sometimes unlawful interference when residents try to exercise their statutory rights, and we have heard about problems when residents want to sell their homes. The park homes sector needs to be cleaned up. There is no place for such behaviour. It is not right for the sector or the residents, and it is certainly not right for a minority of site owners to exploit the situation that they find themselves in. The Government share the concerns that have been reflected in previous debates and in the work of the all-party group.

Sale blocking, to which several Members have referred, leads to the unjust enrichment of site owners. That is not an acceptable practice, and the Government are committed to eradicating it. We propose to introduce sanctions for those who continue, without good reason, to try to prevent residents from selling their homes in the open market to people who meet the appropriate rules. That is why my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government proposes to consult on a range of measures that will prevent such practice. We are also committed to improving residents’ rights more generally and to closing loopholes in the legislation that allow unscrupulous site owners to exploit residents or deny them their rights.

We are also determined that local authorities should be adequately resourced and have appropriate powers to allow them to protect the health and safety of residents through robust and enforceable site licensing.

While the Minister is on his list of things that he is determined to make happen, may I make a plea that he works with his colleagues in the Department of Energy and Climate Change? Now that we have established that the green deal is applicable to park home owners, will he work with his colleagues in DECC to make sure that park home owners—and indeed many other home owners—many of whom are trapped in fuel poverty, are aware of the green deal and are in a position to take advantage of it? It could revolutionise their fuel poverty.

I will certainly undertake to write to my hon. Friend and other Members when I have had the opportunity to discuss the matter with my colleagues in DECC. Members will be aware that the Energy Act 2011 has now passed into law and the green deal is due to start next autumn. Some of the necessary statutory instruments to support that are currently under consideration. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government will be publishing the consultation early in the new year. I hope that it will provide a timetable and framework for the debate. Following that, we will bring forward the necessary legislative measures at the earliest opportunity.

On the calls for a fit and proper test for site owners, the Government are not convinced that the protection of park home residents requires a complex and costly national licensing system. We have to strike a careful balance that protects the vulnerable and targets the worst in the most effective way. That is what our consultation seeks to achieve, and I look forward to Members’ responses when that consultation is published.

We have already begun the process of enabling residents to enforce their rights and to challenge unreasonable behaviour through the residential property tribunal. Since it started dealing with park home issues in May, it has received 31 applications up to the end of October and it has determined 13 of them. Not everyone will be satisfied with the outcomes of those cases, because in judicial proceedings there will always be a winner and a loser. However, the number of applications shows that residents have been empowered to challenge unreasonableness on the part of site owners, something that few were prepared to do previously through the regular courts. I am certainly not suggesting that the residential property tribunal is the solution to all the disputes, but it is a first positive step, and, I hope, an earnest of our good intentions.

Several Members have raised the issue of service charges for gas, electricity, water and sewerage. It is important to put on the record that existing rules already strongly limit the powers of site owners to impose unreasonable charges. They are not allowed to charge an illegal rate of VAT or to control the service supply. I want to make it clear that if site owners provide services, they will be entitled to recover the cost from residents under the agreement. Sometimes that cost will be recoverable only through the pitch fee. In that case, any charges will be limited to the retail prices index at the next rent review, regardless of the actual charges that the site owner has incurred. For that reason, pitch agreements will often contain a provision permitting the site owner to levy a separate charge for the provision of services. It is important for Members to be aware that the charges are governed by orders made by Ofwat and Ofgem respectively. Under the rules, a site owner cannot charge residents more than the cost he incurs in purchasing water, electricity or gas from the supplier.

In some cases, the site owner can charge a reasonable administration charge. How that recharge is calculated and apportioned between the homes has to be fair and transparent, and residents are entitled to see the bills on which the recharge is based. It is also important to be aware that the site owner can recharge only for the supply to the home and the pitch and cannot include any amount relating to his own supply—for instance, for street lighting or heating of offices or communal buildings. VAT is payable by the home owner at the 5% domestic rate for electricity and gas, not the 20% business rate, even if the supply to the site owner is commercially rated. Water, of course, is zero-rated.

If a resident believes that they have been overcharged for the resale of the services, they can recover the charges in the small claims court. Administration charges on top of the actual cost of energy are also strictly limited. In the case of water, administration charges cannot exceed 1.5p per day for non-metered supplies and 2.5p per day for a metered supply. That effectively means that £5 or £10 per year is the maximum administration charge. I hope that all those measures give some comfort to Members that home owners have some protection. Our next step following the consultation will be to bring forward, when parliamentary time allows, the legislative measures needed to tackle the abuses that have been so eloquently set out today.