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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Over the years the term “caravan” in relation to permanent residential accommodation has been replaced by the expression “park home”.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.