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Park Home Residents: Legal Protection

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:47 am on 1st October 2019.

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Photo of Luke Hall Luke Hall Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 10:47 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 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 17 September and we are now analysing the responses. We will seek to publish the Government response as soon as possible. We will certainly make sure that that is done by the end of the year. In answer to the question asked by the shadow spokesman, John Healey, the statutory instrument will be laid before the House as early as possible next year, subject to parliamentary time.