HC Deb 16 January 1974 vol 867 cc554-8

4.11 p.m.

Mr. Phillip Whitehead (Derby, North)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the further regulation of caravan sites ; for the security of tenure of owners of mobile homes ; for the control of purchasing transactions between caravan owners and site operators ; and for purposes connected with those matters. This is an urgent matter of public concern, as is indicated by the immense mail I have received on the subject and by the many hon. Members on both sides who have told me of the problems faced by their constituents who are residential caravan owners. Other hon. Members have raised the matter in the House. The interest of my hon. Friends the Members for Renfrew, West (Mr. Buchan) and Eton and Slough (Miss Lestor) and the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Sally Oppenheim) is well known.

The situation is a combination of three factors—supply, demand and regulation. First, there is a chronic shortage of sites. Secondly, the present raging inflation is forcing many thousands of retired and young married people to invest in caravans rather than houses. The legislation is inadequate to deal with the many abuses, which have been aggravated by the increased demand and restricted supply. These factors apply even more strongly to houseboat owners and the alleged holiday chalet tenants, such as those on the notorious Sunningdale Estate in Worcestershire, which has received some Press prominence recently.

I am dealing today only with caravan sites. I accept that one cannot look at demand without considering supply, and that the Government should advise local authorities to include zones for residential caravans in their forward planning. That would be one step towards breaking the monopoly stranglehold of the profiteering site owners on the fringe of this lucrative but sometimes shady business.

But far more is needed. Many of the 5,250 caravan sites are properly run, and the Caravan Council and the Site Owners' Federation are discussing with the National Mobile Homes Residents' Association a new form of model contract. But they can only put their own house in order. The Caravan Council has 300 park operators among its members, and the Site Owners' Federation includes only about half of those who operate caravan sites. It does not include many who flourish on the fringe of the trade, a malodorous Mafia of unscrupulous profiteers.

Conditions on many sites do not come up to local authority standards, and it is not even mandatory to impose the model rules of 1960 when licensing a site. If there are abuses, residents are often afraid to report bad sanitation, inadequate fire precautions or petty harassment, for fear of eviction. In some cases that fear even extends to joining the NMHRA. One case of eviction on those grounds is before the courts today, I think in Crewe.

I have a letter from an old-age pensioner in Scotland, where there is not even the protection of the 1968 Act. It begins: Please keep it dark or you know what will happen to me—out! It is typical of many I have received.

The 1968 Act gives only 28 days' security of tenure. Although court orders must be sought for possession, the court can only suspend such an order. It cannot challenge the site owner's right to bring in eviction proceedings. I have scores of letters from residents evicted because they objected to having to buy a new caravan or to the raising of the site rent, where the courts imposed only the most trifling delay before the order was carried through.

Nor is it fair to say, as the site owners tend to say, that exorbitant siting, rental and service charges, though not subject to the rent protection afforded to every home occupier, have the courts' assessment in cases of dispute. It is no good telling someone that he can appeal against his site rent but that he must get an eviction notice served on him first.

Finally, there is the growing scandal of forced resale. A constituent of mine inherited a three-month-old caravan from his deceased brother, and was offered 40 per cent. less by the site owner, with a week to accept. If he had dug his heels in, he might have got a better deal, for it was a regulated site. My researches have come up with many worse cases of straightforward extortion, where the caravan owner is made an offer he cannot refuse for a vehicle for which he probably paid well over the list price. He takes a cut of £1,000 or more, and the following week sees the same caravan advertised by the site owner at even more than he had originally paid.

Is it only the sites that have increased in value? I think not. It is the site plus the caravan. The elderly person who has been forced to invest in a mobile home is shattered to find that the home appreciates in value, like a house, only if the site owner is selling. If the site owner is buying, he claims that it is depreciating like a motor car, but faster.

How can we protect the legions of frightened and swindled people who are living in mobile homes? The law must be strengthened by an amending Bill, and in Scotland new laws are needed.

There must be longer security of tenure than is provided in the 1968 Act. Rents must be properly regulated. In considering eviction orders, the courts must be able to call on the local authority register for evidence that the site is properly and fairly maintained. Local authorities must stipulate, as they are often far too torpid to do now, such conditions in granting licences. All new site tenancy agreements must be on the basis of a lease and the acceptance of the model rules now being drawn up. Sale and resale of caravans through and to site owners must be done on the basis of an agreed commission, not by the brute force of the monopoly buyer, and that percentage commission should be clearly stated in the original lease between the caravan owner and the site owner.

Because of our failures as a society to provide proper housing for all our people, 250,000 people now live in mobile homes, often through cruel necessity. They must be protected by local authorities using their powers, by the caravan industry itself, and by legislation which bites.

The residents themselves know that we shall be helping the next generation more often than not. Whatever you can do may not benefit us", one retired lady wrote to me from Sevenoaks, but keep it up for all the young ones who have to stay in caravans. It is like a concentration camp here. She signs above her name, which I cannot give: Still a hopeful member of society. Her hopes must not be disappointed. We must not let such people down. It is in that spirit that I ask leave to bring in the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Phillip Whitehead, Mr. Norman Buchan, Mr. David Crouch, Mr. Michael Cocks, Mr. Terry Davis, Mr. Leslie Huckfield, Mr. Brynmor John, Mr. Dick Leonard, Mr. Edward Milne, Mrs. Sally Oppenheim, Mr. John Pardoe and Mr. John Roper.