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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 26 March 2008

[Mr. Martyn Jones in the Chair]

Park Home Sites

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Liz Blackman.]

9.30 am

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): The issue of park homes has been debated in this Chamber and in the House for a number of years. Different Governments and different Ministers have tried to grapple with the complex problems of those who seek a simpler lifestyle in a park home. I shall define what a park home is, because a lot of people, when they hear “park home”, have the idea that it is some little chalet by the sea. A park home is not a chalet by the sea. It is, by and large, a mobile home—what we used to call a caravan once upon a time—which is not a home fixed to the ground but one that rests on a pitch. I understand that to be the definition.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Richard Younger-Ross: Before I have even started?

Bob Spink: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this important subject before the House. My constituency has the biggest and best park home site in the country; more than 1,000 people live on it. The homes there are not caravans, and they are not mobile. They are like small chalet bungalows. They are beautiful little homes that offer their residents an awful lot, as I will say if I catch your eye, Mr. Jones.

Richard Younger-Ross: The point is that park homes are not fixed to the ground. That is important. They are mobile, and can be moved. Often, when they are moved, they are dragged rather than towed.

There are wonderful magazines that promote the purchase of park homes. I have here a magazine called Park and Holiday Homes. The picture on the front cover shows a wonderful little chalet-style property with big windows that probably measures 40 ft by 20 ft. Such homes are rather different from the sort of mobile home in which I was brought up. My parents had the misfortune to run into financial troubles, and we ended up living in a caravan—we called them caravans then—between 1964 and 1969. Ours was 22 ft by 7 ft. Modern ones are entirely different, and people live in them for entirely different reasons. For us it was the force of economic circumstance, or perhaps lack of economic circumstance—I am not sure which, but we were certainly forced—but nowadays people take a lifestyle choice to move somewhere beautiful to a home that is compact and easy to maintain, and often sold to them with the idea that they can be part of a wonderful community.

For many people, that is the reality. I can visit many beautiful park homes in my constituency that are located in an idyllic part of Devon—we all know that Devon is idyllic—where people wish to reside. However, not all of them are beautiful. There are some issues with the
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legislation, particularly concerning what sort of people should be allowed to run the parks. Some fail to run them fully and properly, and there is always debate about whether the people who run them should be fit and proper. On Second Reading of the Housing and Regeneration Bill, I highlighted for the House how one particular park owner, Mr. J. Small, dealt with the residents of his park.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he agree that greater protection is needed for park home residents, particularly when they want to sell, and that communication of their rights and responsibilities could be greatly improved?

Richard Younger-Ross: I agree entirely. I believe that Mr. Small may have purchased, or may be about to purchase, a site in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I recommend that he visits it to see how Mr. Small gets on.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Park homes, although they are predominantly in coastal and tourist areas, are not found only there. They are an inexpensive alternative for many people, but one of the things inhibiting mobility is continuing high commission on the sale of park home sites. Although it has decreased from 20 to 15 to 10 per cent. over the years, two-thirds of people who responded to the recent Government consultation supported the view that it should be reduced further to 7.5 per cent., or perhaps even lower. Is the hon. Gentleman disappointed that the Government have yet to respond to that suggestion in any positive way?

Richard Younger-Ross: I hope that the Government will consider the issue again and respond to it. I note that they have consulted, but the question about the drop from 10 to 7.5 per cent. involved no corresponding rise in pitch fee. If one talks to those in the industry, they say, “We get our money from here, and we get it from there”—I shall come to the three main sources later—so they want to balance their income. If there is a cut in commission, as there probably should be, how should the pitch fee be adjusted to account for that loss of income? The Department for Communities and Local Government should be considering that, and perhaps some slightly deeper and more complex consultation should be undertaken. I am sure that the Minister, unless he wishes to intervene now, will respond in the—sadly—brief time available to him at the end of the debate.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing the matter to the attention of the House, but I do not want to leave Mr. Small. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that I have two park homes in my constituency where Mr. Small behaves like a latter-day Rachman? He terrifies the residents, frightens the inmates and does none of the work that he has committed to do. Does the hon. Gentleman have any idea what we can do to drive Mr. Small out of our area of Teignbridge and south Devon?

Richard Younger-Ross: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I noticed some laughter when he used the word “inmate”, but some people on those sites do feel like inmates. They feel imprisoned, particularly if they
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are unable to sell their park home because of the park owner’s interference. I shall come to that in greater length and detail. If I may have an opportunity to progress, I shall come also to Mr. Small and what we might be able to do with him.

I used parliamentary privilege to name Mr. Small during a previous debate. He responded by saying that he did not think that I had ever been to Buckingham Orchard, the site that I named. For the record, I have visited it on probably a dozen occasions, although I do not have records beyond that. According to the Herald Express, Mr. Small responded:

I did not realise that our profile had risen to such a stock.

Mr. Steen: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that although Mr. Small may have no regard for politicians or the clergy there are court proceedings against him, as well as a number of judgments that are currently unsatisfied? That is an entirely different matter. As well as not liking politicians and the clergy, he is trying to flout the law.

Richard Younger-Ross: The hon. Gentleman is slightly ahead of me, because I was about to say that it is clear that Mr. Small appears to have no regard or respect not only for politicians, but also for the laws that we pass and for the residents of his parks.

To answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, we can resolve the problem by introducing legislation requiring site licence owners to be “fit and proper people”. That has been raised on a number of occasions and certainly by the working party set up by the Government in 1998, which reported in 2000. One of its recommendations was that licensees should be “fit and proper people”. The Government’s response in 2000 stated:

We tabled an amendment to the Housing and Regeneration Bill in Committee, and I have tabled another for Third Reading, requiring the Government to consider legislation defining a “fit and proper person”. I hope that the Minister will explain how he plans to make progress on that. He should bear in mind that some Members’ patience is stretched, given that the Government responded positively eight years ago to indicate that they were considering such an approach. I hope, therefore, to hear something positive and firm about how that will progress. From conversations with the Minister, I know that he is concerned about the situation, but I emphasise the point that some Members have been here several times before and had hoped for more progress.

Why the need for “fit and proper people”? The hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) described Mr. Small as a Rachman—

Mr. Steen: A latter-day Rachman.

Richard Younger-Ross: Indeed, although I am not sure that I would necessarily go along with that description, because it implies intent, and I am not sure that in
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Mr. Small’s case there was intent. In some cases, he has shown careless disregard for residents, but he has not deliberately tried to force them off the site. However, that does not mean that the hon. Gentleman is not right in saying that some park home owners have a policy of trying to force people off. I heard evidence yesterday about a site in southern England being stripped of park homes, one by one, with what appears to be a clear view on the part of the owner to constructing a bricks and blocks development when all the park homes have been removed.

I shall leave Mr. Small for a moment and read out a letter sent to me by a park homes residents association that does excellent work. I shall keep the location and the person anonymous, because I do not have their consent, but I can name the site owner. The person writes:

That is, of course, entirely true. Many park home owners rely on the fact that most people who move to park homes do so after retirement and that some of them are quite elderly, frail and easily intimidated by a persuasive, polite gentleman, who says things such as, “I am going to put up your park home pitch fee; if you disagree, I shall take you to court.” For many people, the mere threat of being taken to court is enough to make them comply and sign.

Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con): I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Does he share my view that many people who purchase park homes have no understanding of the relationship between themselves and the site landlord and assume, as with normal property transactions, that they are caught up in landlord and tenant legislation, which does not apply to park homes?

Richard Younger-Ross: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. Many people purchase park homes with no legal advice, believing that the site is some ideal little park. It is rather like going on holiday—they think that they simply need to book their plot and go and live on it, and that everything will be ideal. It seems like an extended holiday; it is not a holiday, but a permanent residence. When taking out a long-term lease on a property, one would probably take legal advice. When purchasing a property, one would certainly take legal advice, from the estate agents, who have duties and things that they can and cannot do, and from solicitors. For park homes, people do not do that.

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that part of the problem is that these dwellings—as I refer to them—are defined legally not as homes, but as chattels? We must change that.

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Richard Younger-Ross: I agree; that is part of the problem. The definition of a park home can be misleading. They are not deemed to be homes because they are not fixed, so their legal status is different from what it would be if they were built of blocks on the ground. The mere fact that some people brick up the gap around their park homes, which effectively fixes them to the ground, or that they build verandas and porches, which are fixed to the ground, should, in some senses, change the status of the home. Sadly, as the law stands, that is not the case, so the homes end up in limbo with regard to the protection afforded to an ordinary owner.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on initiating this important debate. There are several park homes in my constituency, mainly around the River Crouch, and many people who have chosen to live there are retired. I reiterate the point about the 10 per cent. commission. For many people who decide to sell, for whatever reason, it rankles that they have to pay 10 per cent. commission to the site owner. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that many of my constituents would like that provision to be reviewed? I hope that the Minister, like me, listened to what he said about it and that there will be an opportunity to reconsider the commission.

Richard Younger-Ross: I am sure that the Minister has heard those comments, because the issue needs to be considered fully. I have attended a number of meetings at many park homes—some large, some very small—in my constituency, and often I ask, “Do you want a change in the 10 per cent. commission?” Some people say, “Yes, because we are looking to move and it is a large sum of money to be taken from us”, but others say, “No, because this is my last home and, therefore, only the executors of my estate will have to pay that commission, and I would rather have a lower pitch fee in the interim.” There are arguments on both sides, so we need to consult on that point. On balance, I think that 10 per cent. is too high, but that going down to 2 or 3 per cent. would make the pitch fees too high. We ought to seek a compromise of about 6, 7 or 8 per cent.—that is the sort of figure we ought to be aiming for. However, it is a matter for consultation. It is for those who live in park homes to say what they want in consultation. I am sure that the Minister has heard our points and will respond later.

To provide a larger picture of the life that one can live if one happens to reside on a badly run park home site, I return to the issue of who is a fit and proper person. Buckingham Orchard was a problem site before Mr. Small bought it in 2001, shortly after I was elected. Over the years, I have not had much cause to praise my predecessor, Patrick Nicholls, but he worked on park homes issues, including Buckingham Orchard and other sites, and was part of a working group that came up with some sensible recommendations, some of which have been implemented, some of which we still await. I have a note dated 11 November 2005, when there were 79 units on the site, of which only 69 were on the licence. Mr.—

Mr. Steen: Small.

Richard Younger-Ross: Mr. Small—shall I ever forget his name?—applied for an extension to the park. The planning authority and the councillors granted it in the
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belief that it would be in compliance with the 6 m rule. The local authority insisted on that, even though, in my view, the standards that it demanded involved such minor breaches that it was not worth the effort of moving a park home. Indeed, several local authorities take a different view from the one Teignbridge took at the time. Before Mr. Small had even completed the roads or reconfigured any of the old site, however, he moved new park home owners on to the new part of the site. Indeed, he moved owners not only on to that part of the site, but on to land that did not have planning consent because he had extended the boundaries—by accident and oversight, of course—and was then required to move them. The garages were non-compliant, and he was required to move some of them back.

For the people on the rest of the site, there began a long and slow process of making the site fit. Mr. Small would tell a resident that the park home was going to be moved but not exactly when, because between the two events there must be a signed agreement that the move can go ahead. He would eventually move the resident’s home, but if it was damaged during the process he would argue that that was down to their insurance, that it had nothing to do with him and that he had no responsibility for any of the damage. He denied that it was his fault.

The homes would then be put on a new site. It was not the home owners’ fault that historically, for some reason, their park homes were 5.9 m apart rather than 6 m apart. It was not their fault that the planning authority and the park home site owner allowed the park homes to be 1.5 m from a boundary rather than the regulatory 3 m; they were moved, and legislation should not allow someone who is forced to move in those circumstances to end up with a loss. Damage was certainly caused to their homes.

If one looks at park home magazines, one sees that many home owners have beautiful gardens. Being retired, they spend a lot of time on very small gardens, laying patios, building verandas, putting in small ponds, ornaments and plants, and spending money on plants from the garden centre; yet their gardens are sometimes totally trashed by the moving of a park home. It may be moved only 1 m or 3 m, but at the end of the day, their beautiful garden becomes, yet again, a pile of muck and rubble. That was the condition in which some gardens were left; they were destroyed but they were not put back.

Mr. Steen: The hon. Gentleman and I share a common campaign, and the name “Mr. Small” always results in me jumping up. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that of the three sites in my constituency, which are all well run, two are owned by Mr. Small? The hon. Gentleman is describing matters with which I am very familiar, because they have happened at the two park home sites in my constituency owned by Mr. Small. Torbay unitary authority is doing everything it can, and very well, with a full-time employee, to deal with the situation, but is the hon. Gentleman aware that in spite of that full-time official, the law is not strong enough to help a well intentioned local authority do anything much about the situation?

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