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Newlands Park (Mobile Home Site)

Volume 587: debated on Wednesday 5 November 2014

It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mrs Riordan. The debate is very important for my constituents. There are more than 2,000 park home sites in the UK. They are often populated by elderly residents, with many sites having a minimum near-retirement age, so the residents on the sites are often at the more vulnerable end of the spectrum. It is a shame to say that in this day and age the spirit of Rachmanism—a synonym for the exploitation and intimidation of tenants by unscrupulous landlords—is alive and well and stalking some of the mobile home parks of the UK, and certainly the one in St Albans that is the subject of this debate. I suspect that it is not an isolated case, but it is what I want to focus on today. I sent the Minister a list of the points that I wish to raise. In this half-hour debate, I will come up with a shopping list of questions that I would like answers to, and I accept that the Minister may wish to respond to some of them in writing later.

The Government had the best of intentions when they introduced the new Mobile Homes Act 2013 as a result of concerns raised by hon. Members of all parties about abuse by park home owners. It was said that malpractice was widespread across the park homes sector, and that the law was inadequate because it neither deterred unscrupulous park home site owners from exploiting residents, nor provided local authorities with effective powers to monitor and improve conditions. I am still amazed that there are no restrictions on who can own a park homes site, and the issuing of a licence is often a mere formality. Having a long criminal record or even a record of malpractice on other sites does not necessarily bar someone from the industry. When a site owner fails to comply with the conditions of the licence, it is the responsibility of the local authority to prosecute.

Unfortunately, the Mobile Homes Act simply gave powers to a council to prosecute. It did not impose any duties. Today’s debate shows that those powers, if not used, might as well not exist. My residents were hopeful that the Act would deliver improvements for them. Sadly, that has not happened.

I will give the Minister a shopping list of issues that my residents face that they find it difficult to get redressed. The main problem is that the Newlands park residents are routinely described as troublemakers. The residents have banded together to form an association, and they have complied with all the residents association regulations in paragraph 28 of schedule 1, part 3, of the amended Mobile Homes Act 1983. They even sent a letter of their intention to form a residents association, believing that they had fully complied with requirements. However, the Golby family who ran the site, which they inherited from Mr Golby senior, had very different views as to the validity of the association.

On 1 September 2010, the secretary sent a letter informing the family of the association. It stated that

“The...membership list and constitution are available for inspection by appointment with the Secretary”

at the request of the family at any time. The association asked for a formal acknowledgment of its status, but the letter it received was far from a formal acknowledgment. It said:

“Please find...a copy of a letter from your so called Residents Association of Newlands Park.”

It then went on to talk about putting up rents and warned about people who did not pay rents. It concluded:

“We feel certain residents are trying to cause friction on the Park, so please be aware before thinking of joining any sort of Association because we, the Partners...are here for you to speak to...If you feel you need to speak to us in private you can always put a note into the office.

We would like to wish...all the residents at Newlands Park a happy and healthy New Year.”

I do not think that the residents felt healthy when their wish to join a residents association was not acknowledged, and they do not feel happy about their dealings with the Golby family. The letter was received after they sent a politely worded request to have their residents association acknowledged. The residents say they feel intimidated and harassed, and they have reported the matter to the council. The residents then got another letter warning them to disband.

The council says it received allegations that the site owner’s family had not been on site as often as they should, and also

“intermittent recurrent reports of bad language, arguments and intimidating behaviour”.

The residents have a lot of concerns, and the only way that they can get their opinions across is by going through the residents association, but it appears that Mr Golby and his family do not recognise the association’s existence.

I spoke to Mr Golby today. Again, he mentioned troublemakers. He said he did not recognise the residents association, did not know all the names, and did not have enough information, even though the residents association had said it was happy for him to have any names and information that he wished to have. The association did not get a response to its letter, and I do not believe that Mr Golby has ever asked to meet it.

The residents are trying to fight back and assert their rights. They say they are a qualifying residents association, and the park owner is not entitled to discourage or stop any residents who wish to belong to an association. That should be the case. Elderly, vulnerable residents should not be warned against joining associations by the landlord. I cannot think what he has to fear if he is a responsible landlord. Perhaps that is why the few who are interested in having an active residents association and dialogue with the owners are labelled troublemakers.

“Dialogue” is a loose word. There are two lines of communication on the site. Three telephone numbers are posted on a notice board: mobile telephone numbers of family members. The council knows that those numbers are available and believes that that is adequate communication. When residents call, the phones are rarely answered, or the conversation is terminated by the call being cut off. There is also an office, but it acts merely as a drop-box, so letters often go unrecognised or unanswered for a considerable period. When residents raised that point with the council, it said that it was aware of complaints about correspondence:

“We currently await responses to some test correspondence that we sent there and will be taking this up with the owner in due course.”

Three Rivers council, which covers this area of my constituency, looks spineless, as far as I am concerned. It seems to take any assurances given by Mr Golby and his family that everything is absolutely fine. It is not. The council sent test correspondence; Erle Jackson, the officer dealing with the matter, says that the correspondence was sent a month ago and has still not been acknowledged by the partners. That is exactly what my residents experience.

I went to the site and there is a tiny shoebox of an office. Things are not collected regularly. There are no opening times on the office door. If I were a resident and went along at 10 o’clock on a Tuesday, I would not know whether somebody would be there to talk to me about any issues. That should flag up something to the council, which, as of today, has still not had a response to its communication. The lines of communication are not as adequate as the Golbys assured the council—and me, today—they were. It is obvious that they are not adequate, and I am told that Mr Golby and the other partners, who I believe are his sisters, cut off the conversation if it is not to their liking. Today, Mr Golby could be heard by my staff in an adjoining office. He was rather voluble and agitated at being pressed on some of these matters, and he said, “Thank you very much”, and cut off the phone call. I understand that that is common treatment for my residents, and they are at their wits’ end, which is why they came to me.

We should do better by park home residents. The council’s standards state:

“The name, address and telephone number of the site licence holder or their representative...should be prominently displayed.”

Well, there are three mobile phone numbers displayed. The standards also state:

“details must be sufficient to facilitate emergency contact at any time.”

I do not call putting the phone down and taking a month to respond to a letter being in compliance with that licensing detail.

Residents tell me that when they have discussions with Mr Golby, it is often at a volume that they find oppressive, and includes language that they find insulting and harassing, and one elderly lady told me that Mr Golby even burst into her unlocked caravan one day, mouthing foul expletives—

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. Can she say whether she has more than one mobile park home in her constituency, and if so, is that a common way for the owners to treat people?

I have several mobile home parks in my constituency. I have two in the area that I am talking about, which is covered by Three Rivers district council; the other one is perfectly well run. I have three others in the St Albans city and district council area, and they are absolutely fine as well. The one that I am talking about is an example of bad practice in running a park home, as far as I know. I cannot say that I have been to visit every park. There was one park site in my area that had some trees that needed pruning—it was a council site—and eventually those trees were pruned.

As I was saying, one elderly lady at the site said to me that this gentleman—Mr Golby—burst into her caravan, which was not locked, and uttered foul expletives because she had dared to raise a concern. The council acknowledges that there have been recurrent reports of bad language, arguments and intimidating behaviour, but it goes on to respond—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

I spoke to the Minister during the Division, and he is happy for me to exceed the 50% of the debate that would normally be allotted to me, to ensure that I can outline as many of my residents’ complaints as possible. Hopefully, he can think about them and respond to them later. I am grateful to him for that indulgence.

As I said, communication is key to this issue. I hoped that when the new Mobile Homes Act 2013 was passed, residents would no longer feel oppressed by the worst examples of site management. However, if councils are too weak to take action, those residents are no better off now than they were before the Act was passed; in fact, they may be worse off. If the owner of a site knows that a council is unwilling to act because it lacks resources or is worried about costs, they can act with impunity. They know that the council, having been tested, does not intend to do anything on behalf of the residents.

Some of the most vulnerable residents in my constituency fear that their residents association will be bullied and intimidated by the Golby family. As I say, Mr Golby does not recognise the association. I rang the mobile phone number and spoke to Ms Fitzgerald today—I believe she is Mr Golby’s sister. She said that there was some troublemaking on the site, but she would let it pass. She said that I can visit her to talk about these matters. I said that I intend to take up her offer, because the residents cannot get hold of the owners except via a mobile phone number, which means that the owners can terminate a call if it does not suit them or if it becomes difficult, and that nothing is recorded. Many residents say that if their number is recognised as belonging to one of the so-called troublemakers, their calls may not be answered.

The fact that reports have been made to the council should surely raise a red flag that something is thoroughly wrong on the site. An earlier incident in 2012 was reported to the council’s legal services team, which responded by saying that

“the Council’s power to…prosecute is discretionary”,

and that

“other remedies were more readily available to the victim and the Council had no staff or resources”.

My staff have been looking into this issue for the past few days, and the phrase “We haven’t got the staff or the resources” has arisen frequently. Councils are ducking their responsibility to vulnerable residents by saying that they have no staff, no responsibility and no legal obligation to do anything, so it is no wonder that residents are approaching their Members of Parliament.

My residents sought legal advice, but sadly even one meeting made it obvious that it is beyond the means of the elderly people living on the park home site. One resident told me that people live on the site for various reasons, one of which is a lack of money. The homes are a relatively inexpensive way to live—although my residents might beg to differ, given some of the practices on the site.

The council is aware of those issues. It reported that the

“recurrent reports of bad language, arguments and intimidating behaviour”

are

“nearly always…anecdotal, of something that happened to someone else.”

I wonder why that is. I wonder whether it is because the residents do not want Mr Golby turning up in their sitting rooms telling them in no uncertain terms—“effing and blinding”, as it has been described to me—that if they do not like it, they can get out. Perhaps that is why people say, “I heard that—”. It is difficult. The spirit of Rachman is haunting those residents, who are no more protected by the Mobile Homes Act 2013 than they were previously.

It is amazing that, although Mr Golby does not recognise the residents association, his sister does. She gave me a very different version of events. The site agreement states that

“the details must be sufficient to facilitate emergency contact at any time”.

If nobody takes the residents’ phone calls, no office number is provided, the office is rarely manned and it operates as a drop-box from which even the council must wait more than a month for a response, there is a serious problem. What rules govern communication on the site? I ask the Minister whether anything more can be done to give residents the right to have a residents association and to have a better form of communication than three mobile phone numbers pinned on a notice board.

There are rules governing the sale of park homes, but residents on my site find it difficult to sell theirs. A letter from the site office states:

“To all residents of Newlands Park…No sale may take place without the full consent of the park owners.”

Interestingly, not only does the owner of the site require written notice of any prospective purchasers, but they require notice to arrange to meet with the prospective purchaser. It is my understanding—I would like the Minister to confirm this—that a park home owner has no right to request to meet the prospective purchaser. They can check the purchaser’s references, creditworthiness and age, if there is an age condition on the site. However, meeting the prospective purchaser seems overly onerous. Unfortunately, my residents are telling me—this has happened on more than one occasion—that it is difficult to sell their homes to anybody other than the Golby family, and they are sold at a very low rate. I have been told that, particularly if people go into care,

“They force a purchase for about £1000”

for a park home

“on them, or their relatives, when the home is valued at considerably more.”

They then either replace the home, having secured the site for a small amount, or, if the home is in good condition,

“re let the old home at an exorbitant rent.”

That practice is denied to the residents of the site, but the park home owners do it regularly and buy up those properties cheaply.

When somebody had the temerity to display a notice on a board outside their park home, it was ripped down and they were told that they are not entitled to have notice boards on the site. There are other structures on the site, such as gazebos, benches, bird baths and other things, but a small notice board, on which somebody might have the temerity to display something that is not allowed on the official notice board, was not permitted. I asked the council about that, and was told that the Golbys will not allow anything on the notice board that is not of their choosing. That means that, yet again, the residents’ lines of communication are substantially diminished. The residents association is not allowed to put up its own notices anywhere on the site. I find that practice unfair, as it seems designed to isolate people from their ability to communicate.

When I visited the site, I discovered a litany of ongoing problems, such as leaking water pipes from a van that an elderly gentleman was renting from the Golbys. There is a dispute about a water bill, but I will have to leave it there. The water had been running for a considerable period, causing some nearby vans to be on soggy bases. Some of the bases are crumbling away. The council recognises that the Golbys must repair the concrete pitches that are heavily broken up; some of them are only the size of a paving slab. The Golbys refused to do so, although I was told today that they will do it. I have seen letters that attest to the fact that they believe that if they do the repairs, the vans may be damaged due to their age. They feel that that absolves them from having to repair the park home bases. Some of the vans are now propped on bricks or wooden blocks because they are off-level. I am concerned that some people’s vans may be blown over or collapse because they are on such a lean.

Some councils have got more backbone, and perhaps more resources, than Three Rivers. In 2006, Torbay council took Hatchmere Park Ltd, which owns Falcon Park in Totnes road, Paignton, to court. It did not do any ground repairs to the site in 2006, and the caravans were on leaning banking and were shown to be unstable. There was a risk to health and safety, so the council took action against the company. It turned out that the same people had been prosecuted in 2008 and 2010 for similar offences. My council seems not to wish to invoke health and safety, although there are elderly people in caravans that are clearly on a lean. Will it take one of them blowing over or collapsing, or somebody being killed, for somebody to get the backbone to use the powers that have been given to them, although they are not duty-bound to do so?

There is, unfortunately, asbestos on the site. It is in a broken-up shed that is not in the Newlands Park site, but is within the curtilage of the site. It seems that nothing is being done about it. When my staff pressed Three Rivers council, they were told that Mr Golby said he was dealing with it, and that the council did not have the resources to do anything. I find it amazing that the council’s correspondence on 3 November said:

“Water supply and drainage…only requires their provision.”

However, the licence states:

“All parks should be provided with a water supply in accordance with appropriate Water Byelaws and statutory quality standards.”

If my council is not inspecting anything, how on earth does it know whether complaints about leaking pipes and drains, and sewage, are reasonable?

The Golby family accept that they have the responsibility to fix the bases, and the council has accepted that, but no one is making them do it. The residents do not have the money to ensure that it is done, so we have an impasse. The partners—the Golby family—have claimed that they are not required to do any maintenance on the park, because the rent has increased under retail prices index inflation. As I said, Torbay council did not agree that not doing maintenance or making improvements on the park was acceptable. It is not acceptable simply to say, “We will not threaten to put up your rent, which means that we can get away with leaving you with a shoddy site.” Are there any rules governing this issue?

The last electrical certificate for the site was from October 2010. It was acknowledged by the council, and it was recommended that there be another inspection in 2013. The council have yet to see a certificate, and it has taken my prompting to get the council to ask for a copy of the updated certificate, which it now has. Speaking to Mr Golby today, I challenged him on that. He said that a recent electrical certificate was sent to the council for inspection. However, the council confirms that it has not had one. He also said it was on display in the office, but when I went there, the office was locked and people cannot see the certificate, if it is even there. Officer Erle Jackson said that as yet no certificate had been seen.

The council confirmed that the last inspection of the site was in 2011, but in the intervening time, there has been only one visit per year. It is not aware of the concerns about the electricity supplies. The meters are ancient. Someone described them to me as being like Methuselah. The site is not up to date and not up to standard. It seems that park homes are outside a lot of laws. One of the things that I found most amazing was that it is not one circuit breaker per van; they are shared between two vans. At one point, the circuit breakers were shared with the street lighting. A resident who switched off his electricity when he was going away on holiday noticed that the street light went out as well. He tried it a few times and realised that he was providing electricity to light the site as well as his home. When an adjacent park home that shared the circuit breaker had a fault, it switched off all the electrics in the adjoining park home, leaving its residents without freezers and heat. If the weather was cold, that would have left their pipes to freeze.

The park homes fall outside normal building regulations, and it cannot be acceptable that unscrupulous park home owners can link up anything to the meters. The one I looked at was pretty ancient and had a bit of blue tape inside. The meters are not changed as regularly as recommendations require. The park homes do not have their own circuit breakers because they do not have the same status as a home, but these are homes. These are not temporary caravans used for holiday lets, which people may go into regularly to see whether there is a problem; these are people’s homes, and I find it amazing that this is allowed to happen. It is dangerous. Dangerous electrical circuitry in one van could well result in another van setting on fire. I hope the Minister will look into the anomaly.

On energy bills, residents have no confidence that they are paying the correct amount. How on earth do they access age-related discounts such as the warm home discount? The industry recognises that the majority of people on these sites are elderly, but if they are not able to get those discounts, a huge tranche of people are being abused when it comes to the amount they are paying for their heating.

Transparency would go an awful long way in this matter. I hope the Minister will say that there should be an obligation on site owners to do better than my site owners are doing. I ask that the family who own this site—they happen to be a Traveller family—show the same concern for residents that my council shows to Travellers and Traveller sites. I find it amazing that we have a Traveller liaison officer speaking up for concerns about Traveller sites, yet a Traveller family can run a park home site and no officer in Three Rivers feels the need to speak up for the ordinary residents who do not happen to have Traveller minority status. Those residents do, however, have minority status: they are poor, elderly and live in homes that fall way outside any obligations in the law.

In the four minutes or so that I have, I will try to answer as many of the points that my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) made as I can. Right at the beginning, she said that she had a shopping list, and she certainly raised a huge range of issues in the course of her speech. I thank her for the note that she gave me, which had some detailed questions. I undertake to write back to her and answer them all. They cannot possibly be done justice in the course of a half-hour debate.

First, I reiterate that the Government are committed to improving the sector so that those who run a professional, honest business can prosper without unfair competition from the rogues. From what she has said, it sounds like the family concerned may fall into the latter category. We want home owners, some of whom are vulnerable—my hon. Friend mentioned the plight of many of her constituents, some of whom are with us this afternoon—to be assured that their rights are respected, that their health and safety is properly protected and that they will not suffer the bullying and harassment that seems to have been a characteristic of the site’s management.

The Government are determined to root out continuing bad practices in the industry. Local authorities and other agencies should be using their powers effectively to protect home owners. That is why we will be bringing together representatives from across the sector to identify evidence of poor practice and investigate how best to raise standards further and tackle abuse. The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), responded to a debate in the Chamber last week and said that we would look further at these issues. We are hoping to convene a round table of various interested Members and other representative groups shortly, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans will receive an invite to come along and take part. The work we are doing will significantly help in shaping the review of the Mobile Homes Act 2013 that will be undertaken in just over two years’ time. We are making a start on that now with the round table, and I hope that she and other colleagues from throughout the House who have concerns will participate in that.

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government were pleased to support the 2013 Act, which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), and ensure that it passed through both Houses. The objective of the 2013 Act was to put in place measures that will enable the park home industry to develop on a sustainable footing, so that site operators who run a decent and honest business can prosper while those who abuse their home owners and have no regard for health and safety issues on the site will no longer be able to profiteer. The 2013 Act is the biggest shake-up in park home legislation in 30 years, and it marks our commitment to ensuring that park home owners are protected and their rights respected.

My hon. Friend asked several questions, so I will try to deal with those now rather than continue to refer to my prepared remarks. She specifically asked what would happen if a residents’ association is not recognised by the owner. I understand that if that is the case, the residents have a right to go to a tribunal to ask for that association to be approved. There should be a proper address for home owners to communicate—