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Park Home Residents: Legal Protection

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:29 am on 1st October 2019.

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Photo of Lee Rowley Lee Rowley Conservative, North East Derbyshire 10:29 am, 1st October 2019

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.