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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.