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26 Mar 2008 : Column 81WH—continued

10.17 am

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Time is short, so I shall be brief. I congratulate the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) on securing this timely debate on this ongoing issue. Many of the points that I was going to make have been made by the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds), so I shall skate quickly over them.

I should like to put on record my thanks to those who have run the all-party group for the welfare of park home owners for a number of years. It was set up by Hilton Dawson, the former MP for Lancaster and Wyre, and now the noble Lord Graham of Edmonton does a lot of the work. It is one of the best all-party groups, because it brings people together, including—dare I say it—site owners and park home residents. The group is important, and we should listen to it.

Park homes are an invaluable source of good accommodation, largely for older people, so I do not wish to diminish them. I wish that the public sector were a little more involved with them, because moving into such homes is an ideal way for people to downsize affordably and with dignity. I know that there have been comments about the need to revisit this issue, but I congratulate the Government on grappling with it, after their initial hesitation. They have made changes in the Housing Act 2004 and the Mobile Homes Act 1983 (Amendment of Schedule 1) (England) Order 2006, which uprated the Mobile Homes Act 1983. Those changes have brought greater protection and transparency and have legitimised and formalised some of the paperwork that I know, having considered this issue over the years, was not in a good state. The situation is much better now.

In the late 1990s, I did a survey of my park homes—I have about half a dozen—and found that residents overwhelmingly want improvements to council tax, which is an ongoing source of anger. When and if the Government eventually look at changing council tax banding, I hope that they look at that. Park home owners feel that they pay unduly, given the communalisation of services. I know that it is probably above the Minister’s pay grade to talk about that now, but it is important that we encourage people to choose that form of living by giving them some incentives. Hon. Members have discussed pitch fees and commissions, so I do not need to say much more about them.

I shall finish with two sources of worry, one of which is current—I shall not mention names, as I have not checked whether I can. Given the nature of the people who live in park homes, it is obvious that there is a need, over time, for home improvements to deal with energy efficiency, accessibility and so on. I have just come across a case of a site owner who is basically saying that if the lady in question were to put in a stair lift, it would affect his public liability insurance. To me, that sounds like a bit of a ruse, but it would be interesting to know where park homes stand in respect of home improvement activity.

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I have been the director of a care and repair agency for 20 years. It would be stupid if the work that that agency does with older people could not be done for those in park homes, because they are often some of the most vulnerable people. We need to ensure that the legislation in that area is working.

The second point of concern is the usual one. It is not so much about individual homes—in a sense, that is up to owners in liaison with site owners—but more particularly about how site improvements are made. It is sad that, by going on site, one can see where money has supposedly been saved—the state of the roads is poor, the sewerage is causing difficulties, and there may be problems with electricity and gas.

The question is how one forces site owners to recognise their responsibilities. Their response is, “I am sorry, I keep the pitch fees low and cannot afford to do the work.” That simply is not good enough. Some sites are dangerous because of poor maintenance, which is unacceptable. It would be interesting to know the degree to which the Government are prepared to put pressure on site owners to ensure general upkeep of the site. If that were done, we could encourage many older people to consider a park home.

10.22 am

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): It is always a pleasure to follow eloquent and decent MPs, such as those who have spoken today. I mention in particular the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), who is a great campaigner. He always works assiduously for his constituents and always brings common sense and decency to this House.

I want to bring an alternative view and balance to the debate, because it is right to have balance in our debates. I have in my constituency Britannia Parks, which now owns Kings Park, perhaps the biggest and certainly one of the best park homes in the country. People who live there feel that it is as close to an idyllic community as they could possibly get, given their circumstances. A wonderful set of more than 1,000 residents live on the site. There are great staff who are caring and who work assiduously for the residents. The site is attractive: there are trees and a huge lake with fish in it, and there is a pond on the village green with ducks and geese on it.

It is a superb community, and residents take fantastic pride in their park homes, which are new. They are modern and extremely well insulated, and they are extremely well kept. The site facilities are all superb—better than most new housing estates, actually. The site is fenced with security on the gate, and people take great pride in their homes, gardens and environment.

I put that balancing view on the record, although I admit that there are rogue operators. I congratulate the Government on their recent legislation, which tackled many of the issues. I have met the Minister on several occasions, and I have taken the Kings Park owner to discuss the regulations with him. What we really need now is stricter enforcement of the existing regulations, and, of course, we also need the tribunal system. However, we should not be seduced into rushing at the 10 per cent. commission, which may be an error. Many people may take the view that they prefer to have smaller pitch fees and to pay the money at the end, when it is easier for them.

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Park homes offer an alternative and a choice. I believe in offering people choice, but it must be informed choice. Several points have been made about ensuring that people are forced to get sound legal advice on exactly what they are entering into with a park home, but, provided that they get that advice, giving them a choice is a good thing.

Park homes provide affordable, low-cost housing, and offer a viable option for some people. They allow people to avoid rip-off bank and building society equity release schemes. Some of my constituents received £25,000, £30,000 or £40,000 from such schemes, but now they must pay back £160,000 or £180,000 they feel totally ripped off. Park homes give people a choice of avoiding that, even though there is a 10 per cent. commission when and if they sell.

Park homes create secure, close communities in which people know and care for each other. There are clubs and activities, and people, particularly those who become frail and vulnerable as they get older, can feel secure. Where demand for low-cost housing is high and there is a shortage of such housing, the Government should support good park home operators in the creation of sustainable communities. Pro-park home planning policies, the extension and intensification of existing sites, if appropriate, and consideration in national planning policy of the demand for such sites are needed. Planning policies at local level tend to be anti-park home, which is regrettable. Such homes have a part to play in the housing market. I am pleased that you have allowed me to make those balancing points, Mr. Jones.

10.27 am

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): In the two and a half minutes that I have to speak, I want to say, in congratulating the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) on securing the debate, that Mr. Small’s name is obviously wrong, because he is a Mr. Big given how the situation is developing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) has made a good point. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) also made that point to the all-party group on park home owners. He said that park homes are a life choice that many people make and should be encouraged to make. The problem is that, at present, because of the way in which the law is structured, and because of the inability of local authorities and other agencies to take action, people are actively discouraged from making that excellent life choice at a particular time in their lives. I want to suggest three ways in which the Minister could address that. Many of these points have been touched on.

First, on the sale of park homes, I shall describe a factual scenario. I am not dressing this up—it happened in my constituency. Somebody was selling their park home for a similar figure to the one mentioned by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann). She was a widow, and had to go into residential care. She agreed a price with a buyer—£60,000 or £70,000, I believe—and, as required, they went to see the site owner. He said, “Absolutely fine. I agree that she would be perfect on this site. By the way”, he said to the purchaser, “when you come here, I will make your life hell. I will put more
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pitches close to you. I will remove parking spaces and put up the pitch fees as much as I can. I will be at you day and night.” That person said, “I’m not going to live here in the evening of my life,” and quit. The park home site owner then purchased the home at a knock-down price, and added insult to injury by charging 10 per cent. on the sale. I hope that the Minister will address that, because it is one of the greatest unfairnesses of the current system.

I also suggest that we consider tribunals. The Minister made some good points in a recent meeting of the all-party group on park home owners. I tried to amend the then Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill so that disputes relating to issues such as residents’ associations—a problem in some park homes in my constituency—do not have to go to the Crown court and can instead go to a tribunal set up, for example, by the local authority. That is a much less difficult scenario for people to deal with.

Having made those two key points, my final point is that residents’ associations are still being subjected to unbearable pressure. People in park homes in my constituency have not been able to set up a residents association because of pressure by the park owner. That is unacceptable. I hope that the Minister will address these key points.

10.30 am

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross), not just for securing this debate—I congratulate him on doing so—but for his constructive work in this area for a number of years. He has held discussions with the Minister in the hope of taking forward some of these issues, and he has participated in the all-party group on park home owners, which hon. Members have mentioned. The all-party group is a constructive and useful forum for moving forward on the issue of park homes.

My hon. Friend was keen to say that it is not always a sad story—people live happily on park home sites that are run well and park homes make a positive contribution—and he was right to do so. However, we are discussing this matter today, because that is not everybody’s experience. My hon. Friend clearly set out the problems, which he was keen to say may, in some cases, be down to negligence on the part of park owners rather than design. Hon. Members have mentioned park owners using the rules as they currently stand to intimidate or press residents to fit in with their plans. However, I am sure that there are park owners out there who see parks as a valuable source of income, which is the key driver for them. It happens not so much by design, but through negligence.

My hon. Friend has been an advocate of the concept of a fit and proper person. There may be questions about such a concept, if it is a disincentive for people involved. Having said already that much good can be done in providing park homes, in terms of people’s lifestyle choice, we would not want to impose artificial barriers that would prevent people from doing that. However, my hon. Friend is right to mention the concept, because often site owners do not just have one site, although some do. The gentleman that he mentioned—the infamous Mr. Small—has a large number of sites, as do
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many other owners, so they are significant people. Using the concept of a fit and proper person may be a way of looking at people who are such a significant figure in so many people’s lives.

My hon. Friend identified a range of problems: not just the obvious ones in respect of the financial issues to do with commission and increasing ground rents, but those to do with the moving of homes, which are the assets in which people have invested. People do not have so much control over the rest of the site—they accept that they are paying ground rent and that they are on someone else’s land—but they have invested in the home itself and, perhaps, in providing some extra facilities around it, as my hon. Friend has described. So it is extremely distressing and damaging for people to have that work undermined and their investment damaged in any way.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the lack of maintenance. Many hon. Members have experienced that in respect of homes in their constituencies, where the park home owner is not meeting their side of the bargain and providing a pleasant environment in which people can enjoy park homes.

The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) talked about the legal situation in respect of particular local circumstances. The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) made a number of points, including the key point about transparency, which is important. People who are looking at park homes as a way of enjoying their retirement—we are, in many cases, talking about people in retirement—need to understand the issues. Although the written agreements that are a feature of this process have a part to play, he was right to identify the fact that more can be done in terms of the transparency of financial arrangements, in all the ways that those are applied, whether at the point of sale and transference of a park home or a site or in respect of ground rent or any other fees that are levied.

The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) was keen to put the positive side of the case. Park homes are a positive lifestyle choice, and there is potential for them to do more in meeting housing need and allowing people to downsize, and so on. He mentioned council tax, which is a problem for park home residents. I am sure that the Minister will want to take that away with him, because it might not be a main focus of our deliberations today.

The hon. Members for Castle Point (Bob Spink) and for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) courteously made brief contributions. The hon. Member for Castle Point spoke about the positive side of the issue, particularly in respect of the large sites in his constituency. If I ever have the opportunity to visit those, it will be interesting to see the size of the community that has developed there. The hon. Member for Newbury mentioned a more formalised arbitration process to allow some issues to be resolved without recourse to the courts. As other hon. Members have said, we are often dealing with residents who do not have the financial resources to pursue legal cases and, even if they are able to get access to legal advice, with support, they may be distressed by that process, so they are not best placed to represent their interests or to put those things across effectively. Therefore they may rather acquiesce in the face of bullying.

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In responding to the issues more generally, park homes make a positive contribution. In respect of the park home sites in my large, rural constituency, in nearly three years as a Member of Parliament only one case has been brought to my attention—it involved the new owner of a park taking a slightly different view of parking permissions that the previous owner had been happy to allow. That was one of those vexed issues, but it was not the sort of problem that we have heard about elsewhere in the country. In the past, I visited a site in the south of England where such problems were occurring. However, I will not mention the constituency, because I have not had the opportunity to discuss that matter with the hon. Member concerned. There was great dilapidation of the site area, park homes were being removed and the owner seemed to want to replace them with new park homes with a view to the profit that was to be made. So he was running down the site to persuade existing occupants of park homes to move on and sell to him—again, at a knock-down rate.

We are talking about people who are often older and on fixed incomes, who are particularly vulnerable to the bullying and distressing actions that we have heard about—particularly in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I hope that the Minister will seriously consider my hon. Friend’s suggestion about a fit and proper person. If he feels that that is not the appropriate route to go down at this stage, perhaps he will be able to offer interim arrangements that may reassure people out there on park home sites who are suffering at the moment from unjust treatment. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw mentioned his ability to sniff out injustice at some distance. One thing that unites all of us here is our determination to see that anybody who is currently living in a park home should not suffer injustice.

Finally, I want to probe the Minister on commission and the consultation undertaken in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) in July 2007, when the Department for Communities and Local Government set out responses, and the balance of those responses, to the different options that were presented. There seemed to be a will to shift towards 7.5 per cent. commission and to consider other ways of creating income for park home owners, but the proposals that eventually emerged from the Department were to stick with the 10 per cent. I shall be interested to hear whether the Government will re-examine that, and on what the final decision was based, given that so many responders wanted a change.

10.40 am

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Jones.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) on luring a small but select body of colleagues into the Chamber this morning for this debate—[Interruption.]It may not be as small as some bodies that come here, and there has been great interest in the issue. He spoke with great lucidity and charm when introducing the debate.

One matter that the hon. Gentleman has conveyed clearly, and to which other hon. Members have referred, is that people who decide to live in park homes have made a lifestyle choice, and devote considerable care to improving their verandas, tending their gardens, and
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building porches. They take great care of their park homes. That rang a bell with me, because for six months of the year my grandparents—they are dead now—lived in a fixed caravan on a park home site, so I have some small acquaintance from my summer holidays back in the 1970s with the park home lifestyle. Many of the hon. Gentleman’s observations rang true.

The hon. Gentleman introduced us to Mr. Small. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) described him as a latter-day Rachman, but the hon. Member for Teignbridge was more cautious and said that the Mr. Small showed a careless disregard for people who live in park homes on his site, and he listed some of those sites in detail. I am sure that the media in his area, whose interest he was trying to arouse, will not have missed that list—they certainly should not miss it.

What emerged during the debate is that, as all hon. Members who are present have described, there are other Mr. Smalls. There is clearly a difficulty. During the debate, I was reflecting on the fact that the whole arrangement for park homes is unique and difficult. The occupier owns the home, but not the site. The site owner can charge pitch fees and commission of up to 10 per cent., and they can try to block the sale of homes. We heard details of complaints about all those matters this morning. There is structural difficulty in the whole relationship from the start.

I thought that the idea of the hon. Member for Teignbridge of occupiers having to pass a test to show that they are fit and proper people—I am not a lawyer, but I believe that that phrase is well recognised in law—is worth exploring, and hon. Members will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about that. It is worth looking back at the legislation, and at the tensions between site owners and occupiers. The tendency over the years has been increasingly to protect occupiers all the way through from the original Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960 to the Mobile Homes Act 1983, which first gave security of tenure to residents.

There is agreement that there should be proper protection for residents, and that more should be done in that regard. I have referred to the idea of the hon. Member for Teignbridge about fit and proper persons. My hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) made an important point about transparency, and I shall ask the Minister about that. Other hon. Members have referred to a tribunal system, which is being explored in discussions between the all-party park homes owners group and the Minister. We all want proper protection. It is clear from what the hon. Gentleman said about Mr. Small and other comments during the debate that there is a problem with unscrupulous owners.

It is important to add for the record that no evidence has yet been produced in this debate to suggest that the majority of owners run their homes other than decently, so it is worth pausing to reflect on a general law of life that often arises—our old friend the law of unexpected consequences. If we rush carelessly into action on, for example, commission, there could be a consequence in what the site owners do with pitch fees, and so on. Care is necessary, and I am sure that the Minister will refer to that.

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