On a point of order, Sir Christopher. In view of the fact that the debate is starting just over two minutes late, are you, as the Chair, prepared to give yourself injury time?
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered legal protection for residents of park homes.
Thank you for starting the debate, Sir Christopher. I hope I will soon be able to resume my place and that you—you were originally going to move the motion—will be able to pick up and give the speech the House is looking forward to.
May I first pay tribute to you, Sir Christopher, for leading the all-party group on park homes? This is one of those areas where, for far too long, there was too little publicity and too little Government action.
I pay tribute to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, which looks after park homes, for the way it has picked up the initiative by Nat Slade, an officer in Arun District Council, and his colleagues, who have worked with the Ministry to get the Government to come forward with measures to deal with some of the appalling abuses. If I were a tougher Member of Parliament, I would name some of the rogues and crooks—some have left the park home business, but others continue. My belief is that, with publicity, they will be shamed into stopping the exploitation of some of the most vulnerable people in our communities.
Few people choose to live in a park home as their permanent residence if they have better options, but the fact is that many do not. Too often, people have taken on a home that is, in theory, licensed only for holiday use, but everyone, including the freeholder and owner and the operator, knows that they are there to make permanent use of it. If, by chance, the operator manages to get the licence changed to permanent, the innocent park home owners and residents are then told to pay a fortune to convert what was, in effect, a permanent residence into another permanent residence.
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
Is not one of the problems that, unlike purchasers of freehold property or those who take on the long lease of a flat, many park home occupants have not had the benefit of legal advice before signing up?
That is certainly true. Too often, the operator or owner has encouraged the park home resident to use a lawyer who works for or is recommended by the park home operator.
I shall now resume my place so that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch can start his debate.
I am grateful to you, Sir Peter, for moving the motion. I shall call Sir Christopher—it is his debate—but for the avoidance of doubt I should say that I am not late; I am the replacement.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I hope that in due course you will be correctly described on the nameplate that currently refers to the missing chairman.
I thank my hon. Friend Sir Peter Bottomley for moving the motion and ensuring that we got under way as quickly as possible, and I thank you, Mr Hollobone, for coming along at very short notice to fill the vacancy.
I welcome our new Minister. When he looks back at his career many years hence he will recall that his first debate was one with procedural irregularities that, with a bit of help from the Clerk, had to be overlooked.
When this debate was selected, I had the privilege of being able to speak to the Housing Minister, my right hon. Friend Ms McVey, who told me that she would have liked to be able to respond to the debate because the subject is close to her heart. She is, however, in Manchester doing a lot of other debates, but she said that in her absence her new junior Minister would be well briefed and able to respond, and she offered to meet me to discuss my concerns and would attend an early meeting of the all-party group to discuss our concerns.
Sixty years ago, in 1959, Sir Arton Wilson produced a report for the Government that found that the legislation applying to people living in caravans was both unclear and insufficient. The Government’s response was quick, enacting the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960. The Act stipulates that occupiers of land must acquire a licence from the local council before using the land as a caravan site. The Act defines a caravan site as,
“land on which a caravan is stationed for the purposes of human habitation and land which is used in conjunction” therewith. Section 29 defines “caravan” as including,
“any structure designed or adapted for human habitation which is capable of being moved from one place to another”.
Over the years the term “caravan” in relation to permanent residential accommodation has been replaced by the expression “park home”. In law and practice, however, park homes—and mobile homes—are caravans. They are chattels rather than real estate. Section 1(1) of the 1960 Act provides that
“no occupier of land shall...cause or permit any part of the land to be used as a caravan site unless he is the holder of a site licence”.
Section 1(2) provides that any occupier of land who
“contravenes subsection (1)...shall be guilty of an offence”.
Section 3(3) provides that a local authority may issue a site licence only if
“the applicant is, at the time when the site licence is issued, entitled to the benefit of a permission for the use of the land as a caravan site granted under Part III” of the 1947 Act.
Local councils have the power to refuse, revoke or impose limitations on a site licence if it is deemed necessary. The conditions that can be attached to such licences are set out in legislation. The most recent addition was the Mobile Homes Act 2013, a private Member’s Bill facilitated by my right hon. Friend Grant Shapps when he was Housing Minster, which was brought before the House and ably carried through to enactment by my hon. Friend Peter Aldous, whom I am delighted to see in his place today. He used his place in the ballot to ensure that such an important issue would be the subject of private Members’ legislation in the absence of parliamentary time for Government legislation.
The 2013 Act contained a power for the Government to introduce a fit and proper person test for anyone applying for a site licence. That provision has been the subject of a recent public consultation, to which I am sure my hon. Friend will refer in closing. There has therefore been extensive and growing regulation of those who own or operate sites for residential park homes, but none of the legal protections afforded to residents of such homes by the 1960 Act and subsequent Acts applies if the site on which the park home or caravan is situated is unlicensed. The main purpose of this debate is to raise public awareness of that issue, and to highlight the failure of local authorities to enforce the requirement for site licences.
The unwillingness of local authorities to protect vulnerable residents is leading to a proliferation of unlicensed sites on which residents are at the mercy of unscrupulous site owners. The problem has become even more widespread because of recent controversial planning decisions that have enabled many caravan parks that were previously used and licensed only for touring and for non-residential purposes to be reclassified as year-round fully residential sites.
One such decision is that of
Paragraph 49 of the appeal decision in respect of Matchams Drive, which is now being renamed Silver Mists, referred to the fact that the site licence conditions would protect infrastructure with respect to issues such as hard standing and drainage. The inspector said that the council retained control
“by virtue of the manner in which the licence is framed. This might include the need for planning permission for certain works, as set out in the licence”.
He went on to say, in paragraph 58:
“Trees on the site are the subject to a Tree Preservation Order…and that would apply irrespective of the outcome of this appeal.”
In paragraph 45, he stated:
“The site is secluded with a perimeter fence and gates. When entering the site it is surrounded by mature planting. There is nothing in the LDC application that would lead to a finding that this would change.”
If you visited that site today, Mr Hollobone, you would see that it is more like a moonscape—devoid of vegetation, with monumental earthworks having taken place and most of the trees and vegetation having been removed, despite the site being in a protected heathland habitat. These issues should have been controlled by the local authority through the site licence process, but there has been a reckless failure to take action. One of the park homes that is currently being advertised on that site is 50 feet by 20 feet, with two bedrooms and two bathrooms, and priced at £379,950, but it does not say anywhere that it is on an unlicensed site.
Silver Mists is within 400 metres of protected heathland. Under the severe restrictions in the habitats directive it would never have been given planning permission as an ordinary residential development, but there will now be 45 new permanent dwellings on the site, making a mockery of the protections that Natural England seeks to enforce on environmental grounds. Paragraph 3.4 of the supplementary planning document, “The Dorset Heathlands Planning Framework 2015-2020”, states that
“caravan and touring holiday accommodation” is
“likely to have the same effect” on the heathland as residential development. That is not the opinion of Natural England, but that organisation seems unable to enforce its own rules against caravan sites, even though it imposes the same rules with total inflexibility and rigour on any new proposed residential development, however small.
Although the issues relating to Silver Mists are matters for the new unitary Dorset Council, the largest number of unlicensed sites in my constituency are in the new Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole unitary authority area. The property section of the current edition of the Christchurch Times, a popular weekly newspaper, contains two full pages of advertising that promotes park homes provided by RoyaleLife. These include New Forest Glades in Matchams Lane and New Forest Glen, currently known as Tall Trees, in Matchams Lane. Despite their names, both sites are well outside the New Forest. What is more serious, however, is the description of the homes, which are offered for sale as “single storey” and coming from “the UK’s largest bungalow provider”. They are not bungalows. The “Collins English Dictionary” defines a bungalow as
“a one storey house, sometimes with an attic”.
It also quotes the origin as coming from the 17th century Hindi word “bangla”, meaning a house of the Bengal type. To describe a caravan as a bungalow must surely be a breach of advertising standards.
The promotional material omits any reference to the fact that the homes are caravans or park homes—and, therefore, chattels rather than interests in land. It highlights one of the consequences flowing from such status—the exemption from stamp duty—but fails to mention liability for 10% to be paid on resale. Furthermore, it does not refer to the fact that, as caravan sites, they have to be licensed under the 1960 Act, but are not.
New Forest Glades, formerly known as Port View Caravan Park, benefits in planning terms from a certificate of lawfulness permitting the siting of caravans for residential use on the land identified in that certificate. An application has been submitted to Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council for a caravan site licence, but the land identified in the application is not co-extensive with the land identified on the approved plan. When I first complained to the council I was told that the applicant had not even paid the required fee for the application. The council is advising the applicants that unless their current application is amended it will be refused. New Forest Glades is, therefore, being heavily marketed as a site for expensive new luxury bungalows, some of which are, I believe, already occupied. The caravans are not bungalows and do not even enjoy the benefit of a site licence, and gullible members of the public are being seduced by sharp marketing and misleading advertising into buying homes that are no more than chattels on unlicensed and therefore illegal sites.
My hon. Friend highlights some of the poorer practice in the industry, but to shine some light on the situation I would like to highlight some of the better practices. I had an email from Mother Ivey’s Bay Holiday Park yesterday, telling me that it champions the real living wage on its park homes, gifts 1% of its hire fleet to families in need through the Family Holiday Association, and never permits residential occupation of its holiday parks. Is there a lot we can learn from holiday parks such as Mother Ivey’s Bay, which are industry exemplars?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We can learn a lot from them and the best way to encourage them is to take strong action against rogue traders. I shall come on to those points later.
Does my hon. Friend agree that those who seek to occupy a park home need the best possible advice, and some information about the law in the area, and will he join me in congratulating Age UK on preparing a wonderful factsheet—factsheet 71— explaining that law?
Absolutely. That is important. In that context, the Government have given new responsibility to the Leasehold Advisory Service to advise potential purchasers of park homes. I, and indeed the all-party parliamentary group, had a meeting with Anthony Essien, its chief executive. The trouble is that although it can give advice someone must approach it for advice before it can do so, and many people do not because they are seduced by the sort of information that I have referred to.
[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
I am sorry that a pre-existing commitment prevents me from staying for the rest of the debate.
It seems to me that the Advertising Standards Authority should get a complaint, and should quickly adjudicate, rule out of order and condemn the advertisements that my hon. Friend refers to. May I point out that Sonia McColl, the champion of park home owners, had her 40 foot, 10-tonnes mobile home stolen? My hon. Friend might join me in appealing to Devon and Cornwall police to find it and to find the people who stole it. Death threats are one thing; having your home stolen is another.
That last point is really important because Sonia McColl did an enormous amount of good work on behalf of park home residents across the country. She was the victim of a vendetta and a serious crime and I have seen recent correspondence suggesting strong evidence against two potential perpetrators, but the prosecuting authorities are not taking the action they should be taking in that respect. As always, my hon. Friend makes a very good point.
May I refer to another site in my constituency that is now called New Forest Glen but is better known as Tall Trees, in Matchams Lane? No application has been received by Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council for a caravan licence, despite more than 100 of my constituents living and having their permanent homes in Tall Trees park. I have been told by the council that officers from both planning enforcement and environmental health have met the site owners to try to regularise the situation on several occasions, but without success. They are now advising the site owners that they are considering formal action to secure the necessary permissions for both planning and site licensing. Although such promises of action are welcome, they must be considered in the context of many years of inaction during which residents of Tall Trees have been denied the rights and protection that would be available if they lived on a licensed park home site. These rights include the ability to be able to form a recognised residents association and restrictions on the amount by which ground rents can be increased, and on service charges being imposed.
Silver Mists, New Forest Glades and New Forest Glen are owned by one organisation, RoyaleLife. In March this year, I requested through the representative of Mr Bull, the chief executive of Royale Parks, that he address the problem, especially on Tall Trees. I referred to the fact that despite being recognised by Christchurch Council as enjoying residential status for 12 months of the year, many of the residents of Tall Trees were still paying site fees of £4,750 per year as well as council tax. If they had the benefit of formal residential status through a site licence, their fees would be £1,900 rather than £4,750. By not even applying for a site licence, Royale Parks is benefiting by being able to charge much higher fees. Residents also suffer because they must pay VAT on those fees. That situation should have been brought to a head by the council taking enforcement action against Royale Parks for not having a licence, thereby forcing the company to comply with the law. In my letter to Royale, I suggested that a meeting between Royale and the residents—who have been trying to have such a meeting for many months—would be useful, and I hope that such a meeting will now take place on
Last Thursday I received the latest word from the council’s corporate director for environment and community in response to the concerns that I have expressed on behalf of residents. It is not wholly reassuring. Although she says that she hopes the requirement for Royale Parks to regularise the situation and obtain the appropriate site licences or face formal action will provide some comfort to the residents, she could take action now to ensure that all those park homes for which residential use is recognised benefit from a residential site licence. I do not understand why the council has been so slow in acting against a site owner who is refusing to apply for a site licence. The site owner, unreasonably, is refusing to obtain a licence for the existing residential park homes, instead choosing to put pressure on residents to support his appeal in respect of other park homes on the Tall Trees development that do not currently have certificates of lawfulness or valid planning consent for residential use. Residents have been told that the site owner will address the issue only if the appeal against the refusal of certificates of lawfulness on other parts of the site are successful. In other words, residents are being held to ransom. Those appeals have been delayed inordinately, not least because the appellants want a full hearing.
I then got involved in writing to the chief executive of the Planning Inspectorate to see whether we could bring this matter forward. We now have an appeal fixed for
People in Tall Trees who wish to sell their home are unable to get full price for it because of the contraints to which I referred. One constituent estimates that the value of his home has been depressed by £100,000 as a result of the site owner’s actions and the council’s refusal to take enforcement action.
So far, I have concentrated on cases where no site licence has been issued, but even where licences are issued they are often not enforced, leaving residents exposed to exploitation. One such site, in Ferndown in my constituency, is Lone Pine Park, which is owned by Premier Park Homes Ltd. Two of my constituents there have been harassed because their park home is old and regarded by the new owners as being out of keeping with the new image of Lone Pine Park, which is described in a brochure as offering
“bespoke homes…nestled within Millionaires’ Row in Ferndown …Dorset.”
My efforts to engage with Dorset Council on the concerns expressed by my constituents have largely fallen on deaf ears. I wrote to its chief executive, Mr Prosser, on
“that a new site licence has been issued”, which provides the site operator with a number of permitted rights. He goes on to say:
“There are some outstanding matters which would require planning permission that are not covered by the terms of the site licence, and for this reason there is an open enforcement case on the site until such matters are regularised.”
Despite having had my letter for two months, he goes on to say:
“planning/enforcement officers will visit the site again to check the situation to ensure the site is not being operated in a manner that would breach the permitted rights under the provision of the site licence or the permitted development order”, and that
“the enforcement file will remain open until the site has been regularised.”
I refer to that letter at some length because it seems to show that the council has a very relaxed attitude to these important issues, which directly affect so many residents.
The hon. Gentleman makes a compelling case. One of the problems is that local authority officers have no experience in this area. It is vital that we give advice to residents nationally, because they are being penalised. Does he agree that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has to take this up as a matter of urgency?
Absolutely; the hon. Gentleman is right. Indeed, the British Holiday & Home Parks Association suggested that what we need in England is one centre of expertise that can not only give advice but take action on these matters, just as happens for trading standards and large companies that operate on many different sites. There is every reason for saying that we should do something similar in the park homes sector.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, which is timely from my perspective, as I visited Great Orton park homes last week. The main issues for the residents I met were the state of the park and the responsibility of the park owner.
I have two points to make. First, does my hon. Friend agree that introducing the fit and proper person test would go some way towards giving councils more powers to intervene where appropriate? Secondly, does he agree that it would be appropriate for residents to have the opportunity to acquire ownership of the park in certain circumstances, similar to the right that long leaseholders in blocks of flats have?
My hon. Friend’s second point is a suitable subject for a separate debate. One problem is that the land on which the caravans are situated is in separate ownership from the caravans, so to introduce a right to buy that land might legally be quite complicated. Having said that, it has been suggested that, to get round the site licence provisions, some operators are offering long leases on the small area of land on which each caravan or park home is situated, which leads to the situation where each separate park home on a site has to have a separate site licence. That is the latest way in which the law is being stretched. At my suggestion, Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council and the leasehold advisory group are interested in looking into the issue to see whether we will have a situation rather like the one we had with some Traveller sites, where an acre of field was divided up into lots of very small plots.
I am sceptical about my hon. Friend’s earlier point about the fit and proper person test. I will illustrate my scepticism by referring to the controlling director of Royale Parks Ltd. Robert Lee Jack Bull, born in May 1977, was appointed as the director of Royale Parks Ltd on
“a family-owned business with a heritage dating back to 1945.”
There may be such a heritage, but what is probably not well known is that Mr Robert Lee Jack Bull was convicted at Cheltenham magistrates court on two pieces of information brought by the trading standards department, as described in the register for
“Between 13/08/2009 and 08/11/2009 at Gloucestershire, being a trader, engaged in a commercial practice which, by omission, was misleading under regulation 6 of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 in that its factual contract omitted material Information, namely by making representations to Phillip and Mary Bentall, being average consumers, with respect to a park home, 101 Cotswold Grange Country Park, Meadow Lane, Twyning, which representations caused them to take a transactional decision namely to sell their home at 32 Quay Lane, Hanley Castle and purchase 101 Cotswold Grange Country Park which they would not otherwise have undertaken if they had known that planning permission only existed for holiday homes at Cotswold Grange Country Park and that 101 Cotswold Grange Country Park was a holiday home, not a permanent residential property, contrary to Regulation 10 of said regulations and as a result caused or was likely to cause the average consumer to take a transactional decision he would not have taken otherwise.
Contrary to regulations 10 and 13 of the…Regulations 2008.”
Mr Bull was fined £4,000 on that and the other count, and ordered to pay costs and a victim surcharge.
If we go for a fit and proper person test, will Mr Bull fall foul of that test? I suspect that he would not, which shows the weakness of such a test. That is why I express openly my scepticism about it, but I think that if my constituents, certainly at Tall Trees, knew about Mr Bull’s background they would be very concerned, because many of them were the victims of mis-selling. They bought their park homes at Tall Trees around the same period, between 2009 and 2013, having been told that those park homes carried with them full residential rights over a 12-month period.
If the hon. Gentleman does not agree with the concept of a fit and proper person test, what does he propose to put in place to try to stop exactly the rogues that he has described in such detail to the Chamber?
I am saying that I am not in favour of the fit and proper person test proposed by the Government. The alternative suggestion—I was going to refer to it, but I will now do so directly—is that the British Holiday & Home Parks Association, which is basically a trade body, should be given responsibility for introducing some policing in this area. The right hon. Gentleman will know that, as a result of the Parking (Code of Practice) Act 2019, which was introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire, rogue parking operators are no longer able to get access to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency database unless they belong to the British Parking Association, an organisation that ensures high standards in the parking industry.
Similarly, we could have a situation where an organisation such as the BHHPA was able to enforce the fit and proper person requirements through its membership code, so that it would not admit into its membership organisations that fell below those standards. That might be a much more direct way of addressing this issue, rather than going down the route of the fit and proper person test. Which of those 74 companies to which I referred would be regarded as an unfit and improper company because of one director? This is a complex area, but the main point I would make is that the fit and proper person test is not the panacea that some people are suggesting it is.
In my capacity as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on park homes, I am well aware of the laid-back attitude of many local authorities in discharging their responsibilities to park home residents. I have received lots of information from members of the public, including information on operators: the Elmstead Residential Park in Andover, Lakeview Residential Park in Romford and others frequently referred to in Private Eye. There are serious continuing problems. We will hear about some of them during this debate. Successive governments have engaged in window-dressing gestures rather than taking effective action against the rogue operators.
The fit and proper person test may be just such an additional issue. I hope that the Minister, in his response to the debate, will be able to set out the Government stall in respect of what the Government will do to force local authorities to meet their statutory obligations, and to protect the many thousands of park home residents looking for a strong lead in this area. It is recognised that there are a large number of reputable park home operators, but there are still rogues operating in this industry.
Three Members wish to make a speech, giving us about ten minutes each, without putting a formal time limit on it. Thank you Sir Christopher for starting this debate, and I apologise for my late arrival.
I congratulate Sir Christopher Chope for introducing the debate. There have been a number of park home debates, questions, interventions and Adjournment debates in Westminster Hall and the main Chamber, and I have been there to participate in every one of them. That is because we have three park home sites—not caravan parks, but park homes—in my constituency in the area in which I live, and it is concerning to hear the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman and his tale of woe with park homes in his area.
For the benefit of the Minister, I will explain the situation in my constituency so that he can respond. There were many problems in the past with park homes, but a new business has been assisting people over the last few months. I met the business on two occasions—the week before the last week, and a month earlier. Ards and North Down Borough Council and Newry Bourne and Down District Council in my constituency have a responsibility in this area in conjunction with the business, and they brought forward legislative change and recommendations. The Minister will not have that information before him right now, but it would be beneficial for his Department to contact directly NILGA or Ards and North Down Borough Council to find out what those legislative changes are.
It only works if the councils have the knowledge. Some people, including the shadow spokesperson, have referred to the knowledge of councils and their staff. Sometimes that is not in place. In my constituency area of Ards and North Down, a change has been made that will bring benefits. Park home owners and site managers are important too. I would like to highlight the helpful meeting I had recently with a site manager and new owners about the changes they are introducing to enable park home residents and owners to participate fully in the process, and to have a say in what happens. They have introduced a new system whereby people with park homes will meet every second week, with an advice centre that residents can visit and where they can express their views, ask for things and take things forward, rather than having confrontation all the time. We heard about that in the introduction to this debate.
Some things are in place, so again I ask the Minister to consider whether it is possible to check those things and chase them up; if he does, he might find a system that works. By the way, it only works if the park homes people are committed to it as well, but the council has a legislative responsibility.
Protection for park home residents is an issue that has been in play recently at local council level, as the council has submitted responses to the proposed model licence conditions for caravan sites, and there were a few issues that made it clear that both the park home owners and the residents needed help and protection. As we have three park home sites in the Ards peninsula, this is essential legislation for our area. It is important that the Department understands the needs of both residential and tourist parks.
In particular, I commend one of the local councillors, Councillor Nigel Evans, who has been at the forefront in putting forward the ideas, with the park home sites, and ensuring that legislation and the change that comes through with the consultation process can end up in the right place.
The council would welcome the inclusion of a condition that permits cars to be parked between units—that is just one of the small things that people in park homes have concerns about—if there is no obstruction of access or egress to, from or between the units, particularly in the case of an emergency, and where, in addition, parking between units has the consent of the site owner. We believe that there should be no permanent fencing erected, due to fire safety rationale.
In the past, decking and planting of trees—the hon. Member for Christchurch referred to trees in particular—have become issues, where the park homes want to enforce things. However, there has to be a way of finding that middle ground, so that we can move forward and strike a balance, whereby both park home owners and the residents can feel that they are part of the process.
I am aware that regulations in corresponding Welsh legislation allow for a non-combustible temporary awning to be in place, as set out by the Welsh fire service, which is underlined by a Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service recommendation. I believe that we should have a similar approach to the issue of awnings. It is the same with decking; any permissible decking must be non-combustible, for fire safety reasons.
Not only are we doing all this in my constituency, and in my council area of Ards and North Down, but it seems that the Welsh authorities are taking some steps in that direction as well. Again, it is good to look about the regions and see what others are doing, because we can all benefit collectively from good process and good practice.
It is very difficult to have sweeping legislation that can adequately address the needs of a Traveller site, a residential park and a tourist holiday park, as they are polar opposites. I believe there must be a segregation within the legislation and that we should have segments for each individual main category, to which the hon. Gentleman referred in his opening speech.
At the heart of my concerns is the fundamental difference in the use and therefore the nature of such parks. Holiday and touring caravan parks offer the infrastructure and environment for holiday makers; private owners may not use their caravan as their main residence. There is a difference, because residential parks provide pitches for park homes where the homes’ owners make their permanent homes, with security of tenure. This is permanent housing. We have recognised that in Northern Ireland and in my particular area.
Although park homes, in rare exceptions, are sometimes found on mixed parks, where holiday and touring caravans are also located, the fact that park homes are housing while holiday caravans are used for tourism must not be overlooked. There is a balance to be struck, and the difference must be addressed. There must be a consistent application of model licence conditions for each type of caravan site, and it should be made clear that model licence conditions for holiday and touring caravan sites do not vary according to the length of time an occupier stays in a particular type of caravan.
The investment that individual owners make in their residential homes—in their park homes—can be £100,000-plus, which is a big investment. Obviously, prices have risen dramatically over the years, but that is the sort of investment that we are looking at in this moment in time. It is important that the people who have a caravan or a park home have security of tenure and know what they are buying into.
There must be consistent application of model licence conditions for each type of caravan site. It should be made clear that model licence conditions for holiday and touring caravan sites do not vary. That is very important, and I am not persuaded that the amalgamation of model licence conditions is helpful in achieving that aim. Therefore I do not believe that a consultation that requires residents or Travellers to comment on holiday sites, or vice versa, is fair or appropriate. The difference is important for holiday caravan and residential park home owners, to ensure that the holiday or residential character of the park they use is maintained, as well as for park owners, and I believe that any blurring of these lines is a step in the wrong direction.
I conclude with the comment that there are many issues that need clarifying in the law, to enable residents to have full protection, and as much power over their property as is possible. I look forward to hearing from the Minister; I welcome him to his post and wish him well. I hope he can and will implement UK-wide legislation to enshrine protection for those choosing to live life in park home communities, the needs of which are separate and distinct from tourism and travelling models.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I am aware that this is a sector you are interested in through your chairmanship of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee. I welcome the new Ministers to their places and congratulate my hon. Friend Sir Christopher Chope on securing the debate.
In the past four years, there has been quite a lot of work done to assess the impact and effectiveness of the Mobile Homes Act 2013, much of which has been instigated by the Government. However, much of this activity has been taking place beneath the radar, elbowed out of the spotlight by the Brexit debate. It is therefore good news that we are using this unexpected opportunity to review the situation and to consider whether we are on the right course to ensure the sector is fit for purpose, that the rights and welfare of residents are properly and fully protected, that local authorities have the powers and resources to enforce legislation, and that site owners who play by the rules can earn a realistic return on their investment and are incentivised to carry out further improvements to their sites.
Generally, I believe we are moving in the right direction—though we should be moving quicker and there are some significant obstacles to overcome. The 2013 Act has been a qualified success. In saying that, I do not wish to damn it with faint praise; indeed, many would say I have a vested interest in not doing so. The Park Homes Working Group 2015 has come up with some welcome recommendations and the Government’s response to the 2017 review identified the issues that need to be addressed. The challenge will lie in securing their effective implementation.
In the remaining time, I shall briefly highlight the significant problems that need to be tackled and the potential pitfalls that need to be avoided. First, we have the rogue site owners. As we have heard, they still exist and are finding ways of circumnavigating the legislation that was intended to put an end to their intimidating and sharp practices.
I know the hon. Gentleman has done significant work on this through the all-party group and he is making an excellent speech. On that point, is it not true that people have been jailed for breaking the law while owning park homes and, after their release, have been able to purchase new park homes because we do not have a fit and proper person test and a proper legislative framework to prevent that?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is correct and we need to address those particular issues, but we need to make sure we do so in an effective way, with the desired consequences. The introduction of the fit and proper person test was provided for in the 2013 Act and is intended to eliminate these rogues. However, the feedback from Wales is that it has not done that and that a dispersed system with a tickbox approach, which has been pursued there, has not led to one application being refused. If introduced—I have no particular problem with that—the test must be properly co-ordinated and consistent across the whole country and it must plug the loopholes whereby a rogue site owner either puts forward a manager for licensing purposes yet continues to direct business themselves or pursues the type of dubious practices highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch.
Secondly, more needs to be done to ensure that local authorities have the necessary expertise and resources to enforce the legislation. From my own experience, I know that East Suffolk Council is very good and proactive in addressing a problem when it arises. However, there is more work to be done on day-to-day management and the guidance and advice given to both home and site owners. Such pre-emptive work will nip potential problems in the bud and ensure they do not develop into the major incidents that cause people so much distress and turmoil. I take the view that, if seen through, the recommendations of the working group and the Government’s response to the review will address many of the concerns.
Thirdly, we have heard a great deal today about the sharp practices that are blighting many people’s lives, but it is important not to lose sight of the fact that many site owners behave responsibly, fulfil their obligations and build good working relationships with the homeowners on their sites. It is vital that we do not create a system that forces them out of the sector to be replaced by the rogues who circumnavigate the arrangements and exploit the loopholes about which we have heard so much. In my experience, some good site owners are already deciding to leave the sector.
Fourthly, it is important to continue to distinguish between park homes and holiday homes and to guard against holiday parks morphing into park home sites, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch highlighted. The two sectors are completely different, with two different systems of protection against mis-selling and misuse. It is important that they remain as such and that we enforce the two systems fully and effectively.
Does my hon. Friend accept that, in the light of recent planning decisions at appeal, the two sectors are now morphed together, and that the only way to resolve the matter and make them distinct again is through legislation?
My hon. Friend is correct to highlight the problem, and the situation has evolved and been allowed to develop at individual sites around the country. It may be like separating Siamese twins, but we must try, because the two sectors are completely different, serving completely different markets. If at all possible, they need to remain as such.
My final point relates to the 10% commission on sales. That is an anomaly in many ways, yet it has to a large extent underpinned the sector’s financial viability over time. The Government are right to be carrying out an assessment of the likely impact of a change to the rate of commission, and their findings should be fully scrutinised both back in this Chamber and, I am sure, by your Select Committee, Mr Betts. However, before making any changes we need to guard against and properly consider any unintended consequences, which could lead to a jacking up of pitch fees, for example.
Park homes have often been a forgotten part of the housing sector, but they play a vital role, particularly in certain seaside communities, such as those that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and I represent, and for people at or approaching retirement. The sector has been overlooked in the past, and it is important that that does not happen in the future. We must continue to scrutinise the sector to ensure that homeowners have peace of mind, good site owners receive a fair return and the rogues are sent a clear message that they are not welcome and that we will send them packing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend Sir Christopher Chope on securing the debate and on all the work he does via the all-party parliamentary group on park homes. I have been part of several of the APPG’s meetings, and I am grateful that he continues to push the importance of reform—albeit there is a debate to be had about what form it might take.
I have been an MP for two and a half years, and this is an area of which I had no real knowledge or experience prior to becoming involved in local politics. I am very proud to represent, though, a number of park homes across the constituency of North East Derbyshire—in Old Tupton, Staveley, New Whittington, Tupton, and Marsh Lane. Those are the large park home sites, but there are a number of smaller sites across the constituency. I come from north east Derbyshire and north Derbyshire, and when we were driving past these sites, they looked superficially quiet, tranquil and well managed. I do not recall ever thinking that there would be the issues that I can now see, having taken an interest in the work that has been done by right hon. and hon. Members sitting in this Chamber and elsewhere, and having had the opportunity to talk to local residents about the challenges.
Fundamental for me is the fact that, at the moment, the processes, procedures and frameworks around park homes are largely personality driven. If there is a good owner of park homes who is willing to engage with local residents and have good interactions, the park is generally well run and, on the whole, people like and enjoy living there. When there is an owner who is not interested in working through the niceties, people can get into great difficulty in a very short time and it can become highly problematic—particularly for local residents who perhaps have moved there to enjoy a quieter time in their lives—to manage that.
As happened in our local area, we can see the difference when park home ownership changes from owners who have not necessarily given a focus—rightly or wrongly, for good or bad reasons and whatever the underlying purpose—to somebody who wants to engage with local residents and manage the park in concurrence with them. There can be an incredibly quick turnaround in perception, management and actuality on those sites; we have seen one of those in the last year or so.
There is an immensely personal element to this. As somebody who is somewhat “small-state”, who traditionally ascribes to the principles of regulation where necessary but not everywhere, and good regulation rather than just chucking it out and seeing what happens, and who is reluctant to introduce new forms of regulation, I think this is an area where further attention is needed. As hon. Friends and hon. Members have done in the last few minutes, I acknowledge the work of the Government over the last 10 years. There have been successive consultations and legislation has been brought forward, which park home owners on the sites that I am privileged to represent say has incrementally improved things.
There is no panacea here; the situation will not be fixed at a stroke, but we must continue to find ways incrementally to improve it. When I arrived here in Westminster, I was pleased to see some of the Government consultations, and I am pleased also that the Government have followed through on them over the last few months and years. I held a park homes forum in my constituency for a number of residents a few weeks ago, where we discussed the fit and proper person test that the Government were consulting on over the summer. Like others, I welcome the principle of a fit and proper person test, or something equivalent, which moves us on from the challenges we have at the moment—particularly around the personal nature of the difficulties that park home sites can get into.
At that forum with local residents, we quickly saw some of the pitfalls, challenges and difficulties that can arise when trying to create a fit and proper person test. I acknowledge the difficulties of making such a test watertight and am interested in the suggestion from my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch around looking at alternatives.
The residents who came to talk to me can see holes in this proposal before it has even started: owners need either to take a fit and proper person test or to nominate somebody else to be a fit and proper person—which means that an entirely inappropriate person may be involved in park home site ownership. As long as they nominate somebody who nominally meets the local authority rules, they can continue to act, operate and manage with relative impunity. Furthermore, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch indicated, there are owners who refuse to engage with the regulations today, so they are therefore highly likely to refuse to engage with the regulations tomorrow, despite the threats that have been put into this consultation—if it is eventually turned into legislation.
We were also interested in the management order in the fit and proper person consultation. The logical extension could be that somebody was deemed not to be a fit and proper person and was, nominally, not allowed to run their own park, but the local authority might come along and nominate itself or somebody else to run the park, and the individual might still take the profits, even when somebody else was running the park.
There is then the additional question of how we apply the rules, which has been referred to. Enforcement is already incredibly varied across the country, and that is likely to continue. Even with some of the points in the fit and proper person test, it will be highly reliant on the local authority having not only the desire to make things better—I think most authorities do, and North East Derbyshire and Chesterfield in my constituency certainly do—but the resources and the willingness to fight what look like they could be incredibly long legal processes to resolve some of these issues, which are very vivid on a day-to-day basis.
There could also be these rather strange scenarios where, if I read the consultation correctly, one local authority could deem somebody not to be a fit and proper person and would not really have to publicise that information to a great extent, while another local authority somewhere else in the country where that individual owned a park could deem them to be fit and proper, and may not even find out that another local authority had suggested that they might not be.
Again, it is easy to take shots at legislation, and I mean all of what I have said in the positive spirit of recognising that these proposals have the potential to improve things, but I think Ministers will be giving them greater consideration in the coming months, as they consider the consultation.
The other thing local residents said when they came to the forum was that they were keen to see many of the other reforms that have been mooted over the past couple of years. Those relate to CPI and RPI changes, pitch fees and looking again at the 10% sale charge, although I absolutely acknowledge the challenge posed by the industry’s economic framework, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend Peter Aldous.
I do not think we will ever achieve perfection in this area, given the structural problem of an extremely difficult tenure, management and legal framework that has the potential, through the interactions involved, to create tension and difficulties. I think most park home owners recognise that things will not be perfect, but they also understand—particularly when they deal every day with real and obvious difficulties in their local area and they just want to get on with their lives—that there are real challenges that need to be met.
I welcome the debate, and it is good that we have the opportunity to talk about these issues, which affect residents up and down the country. I welcome what the Government are doing to try to improve things, even if further consultation is required, as I have outlined. I hope we can make some progress in the coming months and years.
We now come to the Front-Bench speakers, who have 10 minutes each. There will then be time for Sir Christopher to wind up.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, as it was to serve under that of Mr Hollobone. Could you pass on our thanks to him? I enjoyed your team tagging at the start, just as I enjoyed the team tagging with Sir Christopher Chope to get us under way. I pay tribute to him for securing the debate.
This is a significant issue. The hon. Member for Christchurch is the chair of the all-party group, which is industry backed. It is highly significant that we heard from him and others the detail of the way in which park home owners and residents are systematically ripped off by some site owners, as well as his call for legislation and tougher enforcement and sanctions.
I welcome Luke Hall to his place in what may be his first debate as Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, and I congratulate him. There were 10 Tory MPs present at the start of this debate—I had not realised quite how compelling the debate would be compared with the attraction of the Conservative party conference in Manchester. I just hope everyone got refunds on the rooms they booked and had to cancel.
We have heard again today why an estimated 85,000 park home owners require better protection, stronger rights and Government action. Many of the residents are older people on low incomes, and they are without the means of redress that we would expect to be available to residents in any well-functioning market. The speakers in the debate have listed some of the common problems: unlicensed sites; lack of rights and means of redress for park home residents; unfair pitch fees and unjustifiable increases, sometimes annually; mis-selling, with some site owners encouraging those buying a home on their site to use their lawyers in the transactions; indefensible rules that allow site owners a take or commission of up to 10% when people sell their home; rogue park owners resorting sometimes to bullying, thuggery and even criminality; and, as my hon. Friend Dr Drew said, a lack of clear, independent advice from Government to park home residents and owners.
I say to Sir Christopher Chope that, given the vivid and detailed descriptions we have heard of the deep problems in the market, a membership code for the trade body’s members is not sufficient to resolve those problems—it simply will not cut it. A fit and proper person test may not be the single solution, but it must be part of the system to deal with what he described as rogue operators in the industry. My hon. Friend Alex Sobel, from his constituency experience, powerfully made the case why a fit and proper person test must be part of the answer.
I enjoyed the contribution from Jim Shannon. As you well know, Mr Betts, he is probably the most regular contributor to debates in this House on housing generally and to debates on park homes in particular. He encouraged us to look to Northern Ireland and the experience in his area to see that we can work through co-operation, rather than confrontation. I hope that Ards and North Down Borough Council and his three park home site owners have responded to the current Government consultation. I also pay tribute to Peter Aldous, who spoke about how the Welsh have implemented tougher steps and how we in England can learn from them. I hope that the Minister will heed some of the practical points his hon. Friend made.
Scott Mann, who has now left, and Lee Rowley both pointed out that the best site owners are dragged down by the worst. Sir Peter Bottomley, who has also left, said that for too long there has been too little action by the Government. I regret that fact that the hon. Gentleman is correct: no progress has been made in the past decade. As you will remember, Mr Betts, I was the Housing Minister in the Labour Government in March 2010, when we published the conclusions of a consultation we undertook on park home regulation, including proposals and plans for a new fit and proper person test as part of new licensing requirements for park home owners, and a range of new offences relating to licensing, with tough financial penalties when the rules were not observed. However, as with so much else to do with housing, the Government who came to office in May 2010 were concerned first and foremost with cutting regulation and investment, and from that point on they resisted any case for new regulation and new rules, which have since proved to be necessary.
We have had a lost decade for housing and for park home residents and owners because of the lack of action. The only legislation to be passed in the past 10 years was not Government legislation, but the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Waveney that became the Mobile Homes Act 2013. I pay tribute to him, but the fact that, four years after that the passage of that Act—a qualified success, as he described it, but flawed—the Government had to undertake a consultation on what to do, and finally, in July, a full year after the consultation had concluded, they published their proposals. Will the Minister tell me today when the promised primary legislation will be introduced in Parliament? Will it be part of the Queen’s Speech in two weeks’ time?
With respect to the capacity of councils to do the vital enforcement job that all hon. Members have described, I say to the hon. Member for Christchurch that it is not necessarily that they are unwilling; given that the Local Government Association tells us that by next year councils will have lost 60p in every pound of their funding over the past 10 years, it is that at present they are unable. Will the Minister confirm how much will be available to councils to help to fund the new licensing role to accompany the legislation? Given that the problems that park owners face are part of the wider problems facing leaseholders who buy their home and find that they do not own it, will the Government back the plans that I have set out for Labour: ending leasehold on all new homes and giving existing leaseholders the legal right to buy their freehold for 1% of the property value?
This narrow issue, which nevertheless affects the day-to-day lives and prospects of tens of thousands of people, poses at a small scale the bigger choices that the Government face. The housing market is broken, and the Government must decide whose side they are on: whether they will remain, as they have been for the past 10 years, on the side of the commercial developers, the big landowners, the private landlords and the managers of park home sites, or whether they are—as Labour is—on the side of the hard-pressed homeowners, the first-time buyers, the leaseholders and the park home residents. I say to the Minister that it is “make up your mind” time, before the voters make up their mind at the next election.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend Sir Christopher Chope on securing this hugely important debate and on his work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group; I know that he has been and will continue to be a constant and powerful voice on these matters.
The park homes sector plays a crucial role in housing, particularly for older people; I say that not only as a Minister in my Department, but as a local MP who represents a number of park home operators and residents. Park homes provide a home for approximately 180,000 people across our country—mostly older people, many of whom are vulnerable, as has been referred to several times in this debate.
Some sites can be a dream move into the countryside, or by the sea in Christchurch, but we have heard too many examples today of that dream quickly becoming a nightmare. Hon. Members have raised numerous cases of exploitation, intimidation and coercion, and we know that some site owners exploit vulnerable residents financially through the use of complex ownership and management arrangements; I am aware of one case in which residents were asked to pay £40,000 per home for their written agreements to be renewed. Such practices are unjustifiable and unacceptable, particularly where the majority of residents are pensioners on low incomes whose park home is their only or main asset. All residents of park homes should be confident that they will be able to stay on their pitch as long as they choose to; they should not be worried about where to live or what unforeseen financial liabilities they may have in future.
We have seen vivid examples of the extreme misuse of variable service charges to extract ever more cash from those who may already be on low or fixed incomes, and I know of a case in which a resident lost their home and life savings as a result. There are examples of threats, intimidation and even violence to coerce residents into selling their homes way below the market price. Even at the less extreme end of the spectrum, there are examples of the market simply not functioning as it should. Some of them have arisen or been able to persist partly because the park homes sector is unique; over the decades, the sector has evolved much faster than the legislation we have passed to govern it, and there has been insufficient understanding of and information about the rights and responsibilities of park owners and residents. That has created a huge number of problems, which we are committed to resolving.
A unique aspect of the sector is the crucial relationship between the site owner and the resident. When it becomes unconstructive, as it has in the past, it leaves some residents exposed to unscrupulous site owners, which is why strong legal protections are necessary and why the Government continue to take the matter seriously. Legal protections are of course in place. The 1983 Act, which we have discussed this morning, gave residents security of tenure, which means the site owner can end the agreement only for certain reasons and with the approval of the courts. Although the legal changes were important, they clearly failed to address a lot of the overarching challenges in the sector. That is why the 2013 Act, introduced by my hon. Friend Peter Aldous, strengthened the rights and protections of residents and gave local authorities more enforcement powers. There was a new process for selling mobile homes, which required the use of statutory forms to reduce the potential for sale blocking; the new pitch fee review process; and a new process for making sure that, when new site rules were introduced, residents were consulted.
We have also banned certain types of site rules that give site owners an unfair advantage. We have given local authorities more powers to issue compliance notices, which we have heard a lot about this morning, to carry out necessary work to the site, or face prosecution or an unlimited fine. To better tackle instances of harassment, the 2013 Act strengthened the criminal law by removing the requirement that acts of harassment have to be persistent before a prosecution could be brought by a local authority. Such measures have led to tangible improvements in the lives of many residents, although it has been highlighted again today that there is still a huge amount of work to do to improve the lives of park home residents and to really make the sector work.
The Government want to go further. In 2018, we conducted a review of the park homes legislation to understand how far the 2013 Act had gone towards addressing the overarching issues in the sector and to help expose what more can be done. We have been strong in our response. First, we said we would consult on the technical detail of introducing a fit and proper person test. There has been much discussion about that this morning. We are certainly committed to learning the lessons of what happened in Wales and making sure that the test is as thorough and fit as it can be. I certainly take on board the representations made about that by hon. Members in the Chamber this morning. The consultation closed on
Not at all. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will bear with me for a minute or so.
Secondly, we said we would establish a park homes working group, and we have done that. The group has been working since October last year to explore how rights and responsibilities can be communicated more widely and administrative processes improved. Thirdly, we said we would conduct research into the 10% commission charged on the sale of park homes, and I expect that to be under way by the end of this year. Finally, we will introduce primary legislation to address other challenges in the sector, including issues such as the definition of a pitch fee, the use of variable service charges and the use of complex company structures that can limit a resident’s security of tenure.
At the moment, the assurance I can give the right hon. Gentleman is that a statutory instrument will be laid before Parliament early next year and there will be legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows. I am sure the Minister for Housing will be happy to provide further clarity as soon as it is possible to do so.
I will briefly go into a bit more detail about two points I mentioned that are particularly pertinent. As we have heard, the sector is complex, highlighting the importance of the working group, which brings together local authorities, the British Holiday & Home Parks Association and the National Caravan Council, residents’ associations, LEASE and Age UK. A hugely important workstream for the group is on making sure that the communication of rights and responsibilities is as effective as possible.
We have talked about the age profile of a lot of people living in park homes. One of the important things for us to consider and remember and for the working group to ensure—certainly, it is in its recommendations to us—is the availability of information not only online, through the technological formats that we would use, but directly on sites and in paper copies. The working group has recommended that my Department should produce a single source of information and that all park home owners should be aware of it. The work is fully in train and will be made widely available, including paper copies.
I should like to give more detail about the introduction of the fit and proper person test. There was overwhelming support—not 100%, but overwhelming—for the introduction of such a test, in the review of legislation. We are committed to bringing it forward and putting it into effect, subject to the results of the technical consultation that closed on
During the debate, Jim Shannon asked whether the Department could make contact with Ards and North Down Borough Council. I am more than happy to make sure that that happens and would like to pass on my thanks to Councillor Edmund for the work that has been done in his area. My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney talked about the availability of guidance and advice and about the importance of making sure the working group information is available as quickly as possible. I assure him that the Minister for Housing sees that as a priority.
My hon. Friend Lee Rowley, who talked about the importance of the fit and proper person test, made a pertinent point about the joining up of local authorities and the conversations that they should be having. I shall make sure that that point is taken away.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch raised some extremely pertinent points and I shall ask the Minister for Housing to investigate them all fully in advance of their forthcoming discussion.
Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the Park Home Owners Justice Campaign, and does he agree that one of the best ways to identify and deal with bad operators is publicity? Can I through him invite people to copy anything that they say to rogue operators to firstname.lastname@example.org, which is one of the great campaigners in this field?
Absolutely. Such debates are an excellent way to shine light on poor practice in the sector. Park homes represent about 180,000 households and can house some of the most vulnerable people in society. Too often, those people are exploited and suffer poor treatment. They deserve our protection and support, so it is right that the Government have given and will continue to give significant attention to the sector. Good progress has been made in recent years. We have heard this morning that there is still a huge amount to do. I trust that I can count on the support of the Members present this morning, as we press ahead with our vital reform of the park home sector.
May I give a warm vote of congratulation to my hon. Friend on his maiden speech as a Minister? Brilliant! He responded admirably to the shadow Minister, John Healey, and he understands our frustration and said that he will pass on those expressions of frustration to the Minister for Housing when she gets back from the conference.
I am most grateful to everyone who has participated in the debate, because it has shown that we regard the issue as a high priority. In the end, government and legislation are all about priorities. I hope that, because of the debate, the Department will start to draft some legislation. As we know, when the current Transport Secretary was the Housing Minister, he was told that there was no space for legislation in the Queen’s Speech, but he had prepared the legislation and the drafting. One of the most depressing things that the all-party parliamentary group heard when we last met officials was that no work was being done on that. May I suggest that the Minister get draftsmen to work quickly on addressing the issues we have been debating today?
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered legal protection for residents of park homes.