HC Deb 20 July 1982 vol 28 cc222-4

4.3 pm

Mr. Nicholas Lye11 (Hemel Hempstead)

I beg to move, That leave be given in a Bill to amend the law relating to the ownership of mobile homes and terms of tenure of mobile home owners. On a day when the House has been horrified by the events of the moment, it is nevertheless our duty always to keep in mind the country's deeper underlying problems and to be ready to continue to turn our attention to those matters. I seek to bring before the House a Bill to update and amend the present law on mobile homes.

The existing legislation, which affects at least 150,000 people—that figure is probably substantially out of date as many new sites have been developed since the Act was introduced in 1975—runs out next year. The object of the Bill is to build upon what was done in the previous legislation which was introduced by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services. It seeks to remedy the many flaws and loopholes that exist in that otherwise benign legislation and to create a truly fair balance between the interests of those who live in mobile homes and those who operate the sites.

More than 150,000 people live in these small dwellings—something between a caravan and a prefab—which are scarcely mobile except with the assistance of an enormous crane. Nevertheless, such dwellings provide excellent housing and independence for hundreds of thousands of people.

The problem is that, while the homes are owned by the home owner, the sites on which they rest are owned by the site owner and operator. As a result, there is a conflict of interest which at present is not properly balanced in existing legislation. Some of the worst scandals have been highlighted by Esther Rantzen and the BBC "Checkpoint" programme, but the points that I wish to raise are much more fundamental and go the root of the defects in the Act. They affect not just the activities of the fringe and unscrupulous operators, but almost all operators.

The basis of the present legislation is that the home owner should have an agreement. Provided he does so, he is in many ways well protected. However, only 30 per cent. of existing home owners—even that may be an exaggeration—have such agreements. Without such an agreement, one has no protection. If one is in the hands of an unscrupulous site operator—I repeat that such operators are in a minority—one can be held over a barrel, be told to vacate or be forced to sell one's home at a knockdown price only to see it sold by the site operator at a massive profit.

Even if such a home owner is in the hands of one of the large majority of reputable site owners, if he does not have an agreement, he is likely to find that as a condition of keeping his home on site he is expected to pay not merely the 15 per cent. commission—that can be £1,500 on a £10,000 mobile home, and many are worth twice that amount—but also an extra 10 per cent. simply as a forfeit to be allowed to pass on his tenure to his successor. If he does not do so, he can lose everything, because a mobile home without the right to leave it on site is virtually worthless.

The Bill seeks to ensure that all mobile home owners; have an agreement in model form. It will remove the onus on the home owner to ensure that he gets an agreement. Instead, it proposes a deemed agreement that will apply in all cases where it is not positively and deliberately refused by the home owner after he has had its importance drawn to his attention.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

Has my hon. and learned Friend considered whether within the definition of moble homes he should include houseboats in relation to security of tenure at their moorings?

Mr. Lyell

My hon. Friend knows more about that subject than I do, but there may well be a close parallel between the two. In principle, I am sure that my hon. Friend will be glad to follow me down the same route.

There is a second problem of finding a proper way of negotiating a fair market rent for the tenure of the site on which the mobile home sits. Under the existing legislation, there is supposed to be consultation, but that is not working in practice and all too many site owners simply increase rents almost at whim, sometimes with the deliberate purpose of harassing their tenants. There is no way of remedying that position.

My Bill will provide a simple but formalised way in which, before rents are raised, there is consultation in which the site owner has to make it perfectly clear who he is, what his address is and how he can be contacted, and which provides an opportunity to go to an independent third party to arbitrate as to what is a fair market rent in the event that there cannot be agreement.

My Bill will not go down the road of rent control as we understand it in housing legislation. There is no need for that, and it would cause the supply of a very beneficial type of home ownership to dry up, but there is a need for a fair structure to ensure that the rights of site operators—those who own the sites—and the rights of mobile home owners are equally balanced.

My Bill will also deal with other problems such as the excessive charges that are sometimes made for producing purely standard agreements, to ensure that site owners display their names and addresses on the site, and to remedy the present position whereby the local authorities, who are apparently the only people entitled to bring any harassment case before the court, have that exclusive privilege removed from them, so that cases of true harassment can be brought more easily. I believe that the chief public health officers are unduly reluctant to act at the present time.

Members of the public will realise that the chances of a Ten-Minute Bill, introduced at this stage in the Session, becoming law are somewhat less than a racing certainty. Nevertheless, it is my hope that, if I have leave to introduce the Bill, the tabling of it will blaze a small trail which I hope that the Government may be induced to follow in the coming Session.

Mr. Speaker

Before I put the Question, I must tell the House that I allowed the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) to interrupt his hon. Friend, whereas the whole House is aware that a Ten-Minute Bill is heard without intervention. I apologise for not stopping the hon. Member for Twickenham.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Nicholas Lyell, Mr. Nicholas Baker, Mr. John Heddle and Mr. John Hannam.