HC Deb 21 April 1999 vol 329 cc845-61

11 am

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)

I am delighted to have had the good fortune to secure this debate—I expect that the Chamber will be packed to the rafters before long—and to have the chance to air the problems and, indeed, opportunities involved in park home living as it affects my constituents on some 1,000 pitches in 47 parks in the district of Wyre, as it affects some 200,000 people in the United Kingdom, and as it affects older people living in rural areas. That last category is quite relevant to the earlier debate.

It is, I suppose, the inevitable fate of Governments coming to power after a hiatus of 18 years to be faced with problems that should have been resolved years earlier, which have been compounded over time, and which have been sorely neglected for so long that people have despaired of their ever being sorted out. I doubt, however, whether many problems discussed in the House have involved such a basic difficulty in regard to definition. Nowhere in the legislation—which is sorely inadequate for the purpose of providing all park home owners with the security and consideration that most of us take for granted—is there so much as a definition of "park home".

The Mobile Homes Act 1983, the Caravan Sites Act 1968 and the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960 contain no better definition than that contained in housing booklet 30, "Mobile Homes", published by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. It states: The legal definition of a mobile home is the same as that for a caravan. Broadly speaking, it covers any structure designed or adapted for people to live in which is capable of being moved from one place to another (whether by being towed or by being transported on a motor vehicle or trailer). This does not include railway stock on a railway line which is in use, nor tents. It does include twin units separately constructed and designed for assembly on site, provided that the twin unit is physically capable of being moved when assembled. The twin unit must be no more than 60 foot long 20 foot wide and the living accommodation no more than 10 foot high.

I am glad that we are not discussing tents, but we should not really be discussing caravans either. I think that we should scrap all references to caravans and mobile homes when referring to park homes in residential parks that have planning permission for 365 days a year. We should be discussing housing needs, housing resources, housing law and housing policy. I do not propose to talk about holiday parks in which people often live for 11 months of the year. Although they give rise to serious anomalies and problems that will need to be dealt with in the future, our first priority must be to deal with residential parks.

Mr. Ronnie Fearn (Southport)

The hon. Gentleman mentioned holiday homes. People who obtain mobile homes often have to sign a document containing the word "holiday", and are not aware what that means. Many authorities are able to turn such people away from sites. The Government should tackle the problem. The word "holiday" should not be taken into consideration when people sign deeds or other documents relating to mobile homes.

Mr. Dawson

I commend the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue, and I share his concern. Personally, I feel that the issues relating to holiday parks are even more complex than those involving residential parks; but, before we do anything else, it is in the interests of all who live in any structure covered by mobile home or caravan legislation for us to clarify at least the residential aspect.

Park homes are not caravans. Usually, they are mobile only once, when they are installed, as I learned when I first visited a park home. Park homes are delivered—often to delightful rural locations—as prefabricated units; but once they have been installed with mains services bricked in, capable of being extended, adapted and reroofed, of having their insulation improved and, in principle, of being completely replaced part by part over time, they can hardly be described as mobile. They are homes, some valued at under £10,000 but others costing as much as £100,000. They are sited in parks owned by others, for which a pitch fee is paid, but they are still homes, which can provide a very comfortable, pleasant way of life—especially for older and semi-retired people who want a quiet existence.

Two of my constituents, Mr. and Mrs. Michael Ward of Wyre Vale park and Lodge park in my constituency, are Park Home and Holiday Caravan magazine's park owners of 1999. I am told by my constituents in Cabus and Catterall that they provide two splendid, safe, secure parks for older people. They have made a serious long-term investment in their parks, enabling them to develop high standards and excellent relationships with park residents in attractive surroundings. They plainly have a good, expanding business, for their parks are permanently full. News of impending vacancies is conveyed by word of mouth rather than advertisement. They intend to be around for a long time, and good luck to them.

Unfortunately, however, park home living is not all like that. I am hardly an expert on the subject; until about three years ago, I had never heard of park homes. But one day when I was campaigning in Poulton-Le-Fylde, I got talking to someone who had a story to tell. As a result, we decided to get together with some other people and hold a public meeting. We booked a room for 25. Given that it was a warm summer evening in Garstang, and that the subject was aimed at older, retired people who presumably would be keen on a quiet life, I expected half a dozen people to turn up; in fact, 72 turned up.

We ended up outside, in a grassy area, holding an impromptu meeting at which I heard tale after tale of people made vulnerable by age and infirmity who, having invested their life savings in park homes in isolated rural surroundings, had been verbally abused by park owners and their staff. They had been encouraged to move on so that the owners could claim a 10 per cent. commission on a sale. Annual pitch fee increases way above the rate of inflation had been imposed on them with no negotiation or discussion. Their parks, in which they lived and in which they had invested money—often their life savings—had been redesigned without consultation. Park owners had undermined their ability to sell their own property, and had then offered to buy it themselves for a much lower price. I have heard of inadequate electricity supplies—whereby putting on a kettle at the wrong time blew the electricity supply of the entire site—and of cases in which parks' physical standards were poor, and sometimes dangerous. I have also heard of cases in which attempts at building a residents association, to start a reasonable dialogue, were constantly thwarted and undermined, and in which people were unsure of their rights, confused, angry and afraid.

Subsequently, we had a succession of meetings. As soon as we received publicity, I started receiving letters from people across the country who were concerned about the issue. We organised a local conference to put people in touch with some excellent residents associations, such as the National Association of Park Home Residents, the British Park Home Residents Association and, perhaps above all, the Independent Park Home Advisory Service. We then went to meet Lord Graham—who I contend knows more about park homes than all the Members of this place and the other place put together. He has campaigned on the issue for years, and is held in great respect everywhere.

Spurred on by all that encouragement, we started to talk to the listening and progressive council leader—Councillor Richard Anyon—of Wyre borough council, which was quick to develop its practice on the matter. The council produced an information booklet for local park home residents, began to give more attention to site licences and pioneered home insulation schemes for park home residents. However, although a great amount of work is continuing at local level, that work is a mere drop in the ocean of painstaking casework and campaigning undertaken for so long by so many people.

As recently as last month, when I spoke to the annual conference of a very good park owners association—the British Holiday and Home Parks Association—in Edinburgh, I was told quite sincerely by a number of people that there really are no problems in park homes, and that any issues are stirred up by agitators and the permanently disgruntled.

At the conference, research was quoted—from about 1990—from the then Department of the Environment, stating that nine tenths of residents are happy with their lot. There are a great many knowledgeable, decent and honest park owners—I know that because I have met many of them—but, on that matter, they are absolutely wrong. I know that they are wrong because I have attended many public meetings, on many subjects—one man and his dog turn up at many of the meetings, although the dog usually goes away half way through them—and have come to realise that 70, 80 or 100 older people do not come along to such meetings if there is not a real problem.

I also know that those park owners are wrong because I have met Professor Philip Kenny, of the university of Northumbria, who has been a legal adviser on park homes for 15 years. He has called for radical reform of the Mobile Homes Act 1983, to align current law with housing legislation, and has commented that persons who are strangers to the world of mobile homes would be astounded by the absolute power of financial oppression that one person has over another." I also know that they are wrong because I have listened to the experience of IPHAS's advisers—people of courage and integrity—such as Joan Aylott, Alan Savory, Colin Packman and Bernard Johnson. It takes courage and integrity to do the work that they have done over so many years.

Courage and integrity are qualities possessed also by Roy Waite, who for many years has been a driving force in park home residents organisations. Roy is watching this debate and, after it, will probably tell me that I have it all wrong. However, if he were on the Floor of the House, he could tell hon. Members about local authorities that have completely failed to regulate and inspect parks; of councils whose own parks have been neglected; of the grotesque exploitation of vulnerable people, pressured to sell their homes way below market value; of residents harassed by park owners wanting to redevelop a site that the residents are entitled to occupy permanently; and of the outrageous, criminal treatment of the residents who came home to find their home towed off the site and dumped by the roadside.

I have seen some excellent examples of park home living. However, in a recent study of harassment, the centre for urban and rural studies, at the university of Birmingham, has shown that there is a general feeling that current arrangements are ineffective, and that the protection of residents' civil rights offered by the law, by industry self-regulation, by residents' associations and by other agencies is inadequate.

The loopholes afforded by legislation that was intended to apply to caravans, but that now applies to a very important part of the United Kingdom's housing resources, may create circumstances in which the vulnerable, poor and old—and those who are ignorant of their rights, or are without the self-confidence, knowledge or resources to enforce those rights—are exploited. It is an issue that cannot be ignored by any decent and responsible Government who are committed to meeting housing need, to ensuring supply of good-quality, affordable housing, and to fairness.

I believe in the truth of the words uttered by one of my constituents, at our very first meeting in Garstang, that, somewhere in the United Kingdom: Rachman is alive and well and running a residential park. I believe that, among the great majority of perfectly decent people running residential parks, there are some rogues from whom people should be protected. I believe that we have a potentially very fine, very important industry that is being undermined. Its reputation is being damaged. It could do so much better, both in meeting housing need and in providing business opportunities, but only if we get the problems sorted out and if—this is probably an insult to cowboys—we kick out the cowboys.

It is a good industry. That is demonstrated by nothing so well as the monthly magazine, Park Home and Holiday Caravan, which is indefatigably edited by Anne Webb and reports not only the good but the bad sides of the industry. The magazine reports on comfortable, secure, often extremely attractive and well-run parks, and on the ever-developing design of park homes. In a recent edition, I read an inspirational piece about the way in which a park home had been creatively adapted to meet the needs of a disabled person. This month, we heard of a group of residents who, between them, have bought the park in which they were living and are now managing it co-operatively.

The British Home and Holiday Parks Association and the National Park Homes Council are responsible organisations of park owners, run by competent and reasonable people. We have seen the industry attempt its own quality assurance—from the park homes charter to the gold seal assurance for park homes; the National Park Homes Council's quality awards for parks, which are setting high standards—and whose residents are now able to access 25-year finance packages; and the forthcoming involvement of the independent housing ombudsman. Those are all worthy initiatives—let us make no mistake about it—but they are no substitute for fundamental reform of the law, and they should not be touted as such.

I was pleased to be part of an all-party delegation led by Lord Graham, in late 1997, to see the Minister for Local Government and Housing, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong), and was absolutely delighted that she agreed to establish a review of legislation on park homes and to involve in that review representatives of the main industry groups, the three residents associations and the Local Government Association.

I have been to one meeting and received the minutes. The group appears to be working well. It is a focus of national interest from people living in park homes throughout the country. It has commissioned research, defined many areas for discussion and developed good working relationships between all parties. People of good will on all sides are making positive contributions. It is rightly tackling the complex issues on which we need reform in primary and secondary legislation.

We must have standard written agreements signed by both parties at the time of sale. It is nonsense that, under the Mobile Homes Act 1983, they can be delivered three months later. We must have an appropriate time limit, perhaps 28 days, from receipt of references for a park owner to decide whether to approve a private sale or to give clear reasons—there can be perfectly good reasons—why it cannot go ahead. It would be sensible if purchasing procedures were formalised to register the occupancy of the pitch and the sale of the home.

I am amazed by how trusting people are when they invest so much money and make a major life decision to take on park home living. That is a legacy of caravans. Some park homes cost more than £100,000. Many others cost much less, but may still require the investment of life savings. It is palpably not an undertaking to be entered into lightly, without proper searches and legal advice. The ability of a park owner to levy a commission of up to 10 per cent. of the value on the sale of a park home—it is often a 10 per cent. fee for doing nothing—is an incentive to the unscrupulous to persuade people to move on. I have no doubt about the anger felt by those who improve the value of their home and see the commission increase.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)

I do not disagree with what the hon. Gentleman has said, but does he find it curious that after its investigation Shelter did not recommend the abolition of the commission? Does he know why that view was taken?

Mr. Dawson

I am not advocating the abolition of the commission. I understand why Shelter took that view. Responsible park owners and organisations have told me that, together with new home sales, siting charges and pitch fees, the commission is a crucial way of financing new investment in parks. Without the 10 per cent. commission, pitch fees would have to rise accordingly, which could make park home living less accessible to people in housing need.

New investment in parks is vital. We must have improvement and modernisation. It is reasonable for those who work hard and invest their money to expect a fair return. The financing of home parks is the knottiest problem. We need more openness and clarity about it. Pitch fees should be negotiated properly between the park owner and the park resident. We need a neutral system of fair pitch fees and the equivalent of a rent officer to support it. If the commission is to be retained, it could be banded according to value. If we stick with 10 per cent., some estate agency services could be provided within that commission without an extra 2.5 per cent. being levied.

The role of local authorities is crucial. Councils should have a powerful duty to protect and enforce. As well as granting planning permission and licensing a park, councils should have a statutory duty to inspect that the crucial licensing issues of numbers, space, infrastructure, services and amenities are being maintained. Perhaps in partnership with a voluntary agency, they could provide accurate, disinterested housing advice to residents and owners and could take on a role as a prosecutor for harassment under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. When the Government have dealt with all those issues, I look forward to the rebanding of park homes valued at less than £40,000 for council tax purposes. That is for another day and comes under different legislation, but it is still an important issue that is worth flagging up.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford)

I hesitate to interrupt, but my hon. Friend has made a plea for someone to inspect and uphold conditions and possibly to prosecute. The Government are considering setting up a housing inspectorate, which would be independent of local authorities because they might be subject to inspection and prosecution. Bearing in mind what my hon. Friend has said about some local authorities being park owners, as in my constituency, might there be a case for asking the Minister whether the housing inspectorate could take on the role that my hon. Friend described?

Mr. Dawson

That is a thoroughly good idea and I look forward to the Minister's response.

I do not underestimate the size of the task facing the park homes working group, the industry or residents, but they are up to it. The group must set out the rights and responsibilities of residents and owners clearly in law; oversee fairness in pitch fee reviews; ensure that local authorities or an independent organisation play a powerful new role in setting and monitoring standards; and provide an accessible source of solid advice and information. All those interested in the industry should welcome that, as should anyone who understands that fairness, openness, good communication and decent relationships should be at the heart of a people-oriented business.

I am confident that the working party will come forward with some excellent recommendations. The task will not go away, because there is a problem at the heart of the industry. When the working party has fully got to grips with the problem and made its recommendations to Ministers, I trust that the Government will take action during this Parliament. Vulnerable residents have been patient, but they cannot wait for ever. The industry has a future in providing quality, safe and secure accommodation in lovely, mainly rural surroundings, principally for older people. We need the industry to pull its weight.

When the problems are resolved, the industry can provide housing and business opportunities for the living and working countryside that will emerge from the new rural White Paper. Even under a new system of regulation, park homes can be less intrusive than housing, providing sustainable, workable solutions to many of the issues of old age and affordable housing on an appropriate scale for those who have lived their lives in rural areas and for those who, having spent years earning a living in towns and cities, are fully entitled to want something different in their retirement.

I am not suggesting isolated enclaves of older people in the countryside. There are parish councillors and members of the local Age Concern group among the residents of Wyre Vale park. They provide services for their community. One of them, Mr. Dennis Hollowday, is the town cryer at Garstang. He does a fine job. A reformed park homes system can play a uniquely positive role in the new life of the countryside, as can older people. Reform has been needed for so long and the Government are to be praised to the skies for picking up the baton and running with it. Let us see them finish the race in style.

11.30 am
Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) on securing today's Adjournment debate and dealing comprehensively with some of the problems faced by those who own and rent mobile homes.

Three statutes currently regulate mobile home occupation. The Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960 requires site owners to obtain a site licence from the local authority before any land may be used as a caravan site. The Caravan Sites Act 1968 gave basic protection to all mobile home occupiers living on protected sites. It prevented site owners from evicting occupiers with residential contracts other than by obtaining a court order. The Mobile Home Act 1983 went further and gave security of tenure to those with mobile homes who own the home in which they live and rent the pitch from the site owner.

One of the main complaints about the 1983 Act is that it gave mobile home owners insufficient rights over increases in pitch fees demanded by site owners. Many site owners use a standard agreement drawn up by the National Federation of Site Operators. It contains a pitch fee review clause and takes into account such factors as the retail prices index and sums expended by the owner on the upkeep of the park.

Another factor that causes occupiers considerable concern involves the problems that they face when site owners try to block their right to sell to a third party. A survey by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions found that more than 25 per cent. of respondents anticipated some problem when they came to sell their homes and 51 per cent. anticipated problems because of the park owner. Site owners are entitled to claim commission of up to 10 per cent. of the sale price of mobile homes on their sites. The justification for that charge is that what is sold is an amalgam of the value of the mobile home and the value of the site on which it is placed.

Site residents have also complained of poor conditions on parks. A Shelter report noted that local authority practice in enforcing the site licence conditions under the 1960 Act was "variable". Other problems experienced by mobile home owners include illegal eviction, harassment by site owners who had obtained planning permission, and grey areas within the legislation that are open to exploitation by unscrupulous site owners. The high percentage of elderly people who live in mobile home parks also increases the potential for exploitation.

Council tax is another problem for those who live in mobile homes. Nearly all mobile homes are in band A, which covers properties valued up to £40,000. Many mobile homes are not worth anything near that sum and the council tax banding should be amended to reflect that.

The DETR established a park homes working group last year with a view to reviewing a number of issues related to mobile homes. I hope that the Minister will be able to let us know how its work is progressing.

Mobile homes make an important contribution to the availability of affordable housing in rural areas in the private and public sectors. Compared with urban areas, the rural housing market has a high proportion of owner-occupation at 73 per cent., a high proportion of private renting at 12 per cent., but a low proportion of social housing at just 15 per cent. Demand for housing is significant and includes that arising from more affluent local households, retirees, commuters, second home owners and in some areas summer holiday lets.

In December 1998, the Rural Development Commission said: High demand from people wishing to move into the countryside or to have a holiday home, coupled with the constraints on the supply of housing, have forced up the price of housing so that it is not affordable to local people on low incomes. In 1991 it was estimated that in many rural areas 40 per cent. of new households would be unable to afford to enter the owner occupied housing market. Recent research on rural housing found that the majority of new housing in rural areas was built by the private sector for the upper end of the market and that new social housing provided by local authorities or housing associations fell short of replacing that loss by the right-to-buy scheme. It is worth remembering that in the period 1981 to 1991 the stock of local authority dwellings fell by about a third.

As the stock of social housing has declined, so has the option to rent privately. Much of the private rented sector has been sold for owner occupation or converted into holiday accommodation. Those trends are likely to continue in social housing and the private rented sector, suggesting that rural housing needs are likely to increase.

Projected household growth, technological and economic trends and the fact that many people wish to live in the countryside mean that the demand for housing in rural areas will remain strong. Therefore, the price of housing in rural areas will continue to increase. It is important that any further decline in the private rented sector is halted and new opportunities are developed, particularly in rural areas.

Another problem is the under-representation of young adults in rural populations. A high proportion of young people in rural areas live in the parental home—82 per cent. of males and 67 per cent. of females compared with 67 per cent. and 51 per cent. respectively in urban areas.

The supply of housing in rural areas is currently inadequate to respond to the needs of young people. Housing information and advice need to be made more widely available across rural areas as few social housing resources are devoted to meeting the needs of young people. The private rented sector also has an important role to play in providing housing for young people.

The Rural Development Commission says: The provision of affordable housing is caught in a spiral … we believe that the time is right for a new rural housing initiative aimed at addressing the problems of housing and homelessness in rural areas in a comprehensive way, bringing together the Housing Corporation, local authorities, Registered Social Landlords, private lenders and the many public, private and voluntary organisations who have an important role to play.

My party has recognised that. We would give councils stronger powers to insist that developers included low-cost housing for local people in new developments. We would also seek to increase the availability of low-cost rural housing. We would allow councils to remove the 50 per cent. council tax rebate for second homes. Additionally, where ownership of second homes is squeezing out local home buyers, we would permit councils to introduce a variable premium of up to 100 per cent. on the council tax or a flat-rate tax to reduce purchases of second homes and/or to require change-of-use planning consent for the transfer of a full-time residence to use as a second home. All the revenue raised should be retained by the local authorities for specific community purposes with no reduction in Government grants.

In conclusion, while the rights of park home owners need to be enhanced, it must not be at the expense or discouragement of responsible site owners. Park homes have an important role to play in the provision of affordable homes in rural areas. A new A-minus council tax banding should be created to reflect the lower value of mobile homes. Second-home owners should not be rewarded as they are under the present system, but made to pay their fair share of local taxes. Councils should be allowed to spend their capital receipts, not simply given borrowing permissions against a proportion of their value and either alone, or in partnership with housing associations, they should be encouraged to build new homes where there is local need. Support for young people in rural areas should be improved to reduce the disadvantage that they face in the housing market.

Finally, given that the overall level of public spending on housing at the end of this Government's term of office will be lower than under the Conservatives, it is difficult to see how any of the problems that I have highlighted will he tackled adequately. However, I know that the Government are concerned about the issue, and I am hopeful that we will hear some good news from the Minister when he responds.

11.40 am
Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) on securing this debate and giving us the opportunity to raise a crucial issue, particularly in rural areas.

The hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) drew attention to the three critical pieces of legislation on the statute book: the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960, the Caravan Sites Act 1968—a landmark piece of legislation, which gave basic protection to all occupiers of mobile homes living on protected sites—and the Mobile Homes Act 1983.

As the hon. Member for Torbay pointed out, the 1983 Act went further than the 1968 Act, and gave security of tenure to residents of mobile home sites who owned the home in which they lived and rented the pitch from the site owner. As the hon. Gentleman said, as with the 1968 Act, the 1983 Act only covered owners and occupiers of protected sites. The central feature of the 1983 Act was the requirement on the site owner to serve a written statement on the occupier containing the express and implied terms of the agreement within three months of making it.

The implied terms that are incorporated by statute into agreements between site owners and owners of mobile homes cover such issues as the home owner's indefinite right to live in the home on the site unless the agreement is validly terminated by either party; the circumstances in which a valid termination of the agreement may take place; the occupier's right to sell or give the mobile home to a person approved by the site owner; and the rules regarding succession as they apply to owners and occupiers.

The House will be aware, from the reasoned and reasonable speech of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre, that the vast majority of site owners in this country are decent, honourable individuals who genuinely seek to ensure that the sites that they own provide facilities that enhance the quality of life for those living on the sites. Unfortunately, a small minority—as in many other walks of life—tarnish the good work and honourable behaviour of decent site owners by their unscrupulous, short-cut approach to the ownership of sites.

Regardless of that, three main problems have been alluded to in the debate. The first is the question of pitch fees. Many sources of argument about this matter between owners and residents are due to a lack of transparency. Reports and investigations carried out over the past 20 years have shown that a general complaint is that there has not been enough discussion and transparency in respect of increasing pitch fees. That has done a great deal to sour relations.

Secondly, there is the problem of selling the mobile home and the issue of the 10 per cent. commission fee, a matter with which the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre dealt comprehensively. He explained why Shelter did not recommend the abolition of the commission fee, and the reasons given were probably right. However, the fee is misunderstood by residents, and there should be more transparency and greater explanation of the reasons and purposes for the fee so that one can minimise the sense of grievance of some residents.

Thirdly, there is the issue of site conditions. As I said, the vast majority of site owners are honourable and decent people who seek to provide a high quality of life on their sites. However, there are too many complaints concerning the minority who do not live up to such reputable standards. The Shelter report showed that local authority practice in enforcing the licence conditions under the 1960 Act was variable, and that was reinforced by the then Department of the Environment in its 1992 survey.

Other problems are experienced by owners of mobile homes, including illegal eviction and harassment by site owners—a matter referred to by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre. More must be done to ensure that local authority practice in enforcing licences is carried out on a more uniform basis and to a higher standard throughout the country to protect residents, and more pressure must be brought to bear on site owners who fail to provide decent standards.

It should never be forgotten that a number of those homes are valuable—and not only in commercial terms. In a way, that is irrelevant. More importantly, these are the homes of individuals and their families. They deserve as high a quality and standard as any of us participating in the debate would expect in our own homes. Because they have chosen—or, in some cases, have to live in—an alternative form of housing to the vast majority of housing in this country, there is no excuse and no reason whatever why those people should be expected or forced to accept lower standards than those that we would expect.

In conclusion, hon. Members have drawn attention to the Government's establishment of a working party to look into the matter. I welcome that. It will be interesting to see whether the Minister is in a position today to give the House any further information about the progress of that working party, although I fully understand that it may be premature to expect such an explanation. However, if he were able to give it, it would be beneficial.

All of us will look forward to the publication of the working party's report. Hopefully, it can identify areas where there is a need to move forward, and we will then be in a better position to evaluate what action needs to be taken, if any, to enhance and improve the quality of life for the owners of mobile homes.

11.48 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) on securing a debate on this important subject, and on the clear and comprehensive way in which he outlined the issues that we must consider.

I share the belief of my hon. Friend that park homes—sometimes referred to as mobile homes—can play a significant role in the wider housing market. Most park home sites are in rural or coastal areas, and the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) rightly highlighted some of the difficulties faced by people in securing accommodation in rural areas. Park homes can extend the choice and opportunity for people living in such areas—particularly the elderly and couples without children—to live in decent, affordable homes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre made a particularly telling point when he described the way in which elderly people have benefited from good-quality, attractive accommodation in park homes where they can lead a pleasant and peaceful life and enjoy the amenities.

My hon. Friend referred to the issue of definitions, and mentioned that the definition of a park home is no different from that of a caravan.

The Government are in no doubt that park homes have well outgrown their origins as caravan dwellings. In the early days, caravans often catered for people who could not find anything better and lived in a caravan because it was the only option, even though it was not suitable as permanent accommodation. The situation today is very different. A modern, well laid out park home estate with new homes is worlds away from the old-style caravan site, and park homes—as all hon. Members who contributed to today's debate have stressed—can offer an attractive form of low-cost, permanent housing.

Park homes provide a unique form of tenure which brings its own benefits but can also bring its own unique problems. The resident owns his or her home but rents the pitch on which it stands. I recognise that park homes legislation has not been revised for some 16 years and so may not benefit from comparable advances in mainstream housing legislation. One might compare the protections afforded to private tenants against harassment and illegal eviction with those covering the park homes sector.

I also appreciate the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre that park home sites need efficient and effective controls over issues such as the layout of parks and the scope of park operators to change them, and the conditions in the park, which the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) rightly highlighted. All hon. Members will agree with him that people living in park homes should have the right to proper and decent conditions. However, before we delve too deeply into wholesale changes to planning legislation, we need to examine carefully the pivotal role that local authorities have to play in that area through the site licensing arrangements. We should examine ways to ensure that existing legislative controls are put to best use.

The unusual nature of the park homes form of tenure can sometimes create tensions between residents and park owners or operators. Finding a balance between the needs of both parties is not easy but the Government are committed to ensuring that both get a fair deal. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre will agree that for many people park home life is a pleasant and relatively trouble-free existence. He highlighted the high quality environment provided by a Mr. and Mrs. Ward in his constituency and his stories could be echoed by many other hon. Members who have park homes in their constituencies and observe well laid out and managed parks providing an excellent environment for people to live in.

Research for my Department in 1990 suggested that most residents were satisfied with park home life. More than 90 per cent. were very or fairly satisfied with their home and more than 80 per cent. were similarly satisfied with the park they lived on. Relations between park operators and residents on most parks were also good. More recent research revealed very similar levels of satisfaction and it is important that we bear that in mind. Problems exist, and I do not want to hide from that fact, but the large majority of park home residents have a pleasant life style in pleasant conditions and are happy with the arrangements.

The park homes industry has done much to raise standards in the sector. The two main trade associations—the British Holiday and Home Parks Association and the National Park Homes Council—have developed and refined a park homes charter for their members. It offers residents and prospective residents guidance on their rights and responsibilities and sets out the minimum level of service they can expect to receive from their park operator.

However, as I am all too aware from my postbag and from what has been said in this debate, not all park home residents receive the quality of service that they are entitled to expect. It is clear that a minority—it is only a minority—of park operators make their residents' lives a misery, either through neglect or, in some cases, deliberate mismanagement. Some may be genuinely ignorant or unclear about their legal responsibilities. Others may cut corners to keep costs down, but a few deliberately and openly break the law. Only a small number of rogue operators may fit into that category but that is no comfort to the residents on the receiving end of their actions. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre graphically described the failings and problems brought to his attention. His image of the idyllic summer evening meeting in Garstang, which subsequently turned out to be a recital of the serious problems affecting many elderly people, was something that the House will have listened to with concern.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre is an active member of the all-party group for the welfare of mobile home owners. The group plays a crucial role in focusing attention on the issues that are of concern to park home residents, including security of tenure, the written agreement between resident and park owner, pitch fee reviews and issues relating to home sale, including the sales commission payable when a home is sold.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre referred to the important role that local authorities play in the park homes sector and he highlighted the good work of Wyre council in his area. Local authorities have powers to control health and safety conditions through the site licensing system and to tackle any problems of harassment and illegal eviction faced by residents. However, it is clear that local authorities' performance in these areas varies widely. The hon. Member for West Chelmsford highlighted the Shelter report, which found a wide variation in local authority performance.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I have listened with fascination to the debate because, like most rural areas, Stroud contains several park homes, which are very well run. One of the problems of the relationship with local authorities is the grey area of who actually provides the services. I hope that the working party will be able to clarify that issue, because at the moment it is too easy for the local authority to pass the buck to the site owner and vice versa. That seems to be where some of the difficulties occur.

Mr. Raynsford

My hon. Friend makes a fair point about the importance of clarity in responsibilities and the avoidance of buck passing. I assure him that the debate this morning will be considered carefully by the working party, as part of its general work, and I can confirm that the need to establish a clear framework to provide greater clarity and understanding of obligations—and, therefore, greater certainty that good practice will prevail—will be part of our objective. The hon. Member for West Chelmsford stressed the importance of transparency in the arrangements so that it is clear who owes what duty to whom, and everyone understands the arrangements for prices. I expect the working party to consider that carefully.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) raised the question of a housing inspectorate taking over the role from local authorities of examining conditions on sites. I do not believe that would be an appropriate role for the inspectorate, and it would lead to a confusion of roles between local authorities which have existing public health and other planning responsibilities for parks. If those were cut across by another body, it might be a recipe for confusion and a lack of clarity. That is not the way forward, because we want to see arrangements that ensure that proper standards are maintained and appropriate action is taken when sites fail to meet those standards.

Following discussions between members of the all-party group—including my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre and Lord Graham, to whom my hon. Friend paid a well deserved tribute for his long-standing interest in the subject and the hard work that he has done to pursue the interests of park home residents—and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Housing, my Department agreed to establish the park homes working party to examine the problems in more detail.

The working party was established last year and comprises representatives from the two main trade associations representing park operators, three national residents' groups, the Local Government Association, the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, the Welsh Office and officials from my Department. It is making good progress. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre knows, it has kept the all-party group closely informed of its deliberations and he has had the opportunity to observe one of its meetings at close hand. I am grateful for the tribute paid by my hon. Friend to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Housing for setting up the working party, and for his kind words about the working party's approach to its task.

The working party is taking a very comprehensive look at the statutory framework of park homes legislation in order to identify best current practice in the application and enforcement of controls by local authorities. It will explore whether significant gaps or weaknesses exist in the legislation that might be remedied. The working party will consider the question, raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre, of how park homes should be defined.

The hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn) was present earlier in the debate and raised the matter of holiday homes. The legislation covering holiday homes is different from that applying to mobile homes and park homes. The Office of Fair Trading has responsibility for holiday home standards and is working closely with the industry to raise those standards.

Initially, the working party's work has concentrated on the role of local authorities. Its primary aim is to develop best practice guidance on how to make the most effective use of existing legislative powers.

Research commissioned by my Department is informing the working party's consideration of the problem of harassment and illegal eviction in the park homes sector. We had hoped that the Local Government Association would be able to take forward work on site licensing controls through a survey of its members. However, the response was disappointing and few authorities focused on issues of best practice. My Department has therefore decided to deal with this element of the working party's remit by means of a further research project and is in the process of inviting tenders for that research.

The working party is also now starting to consider the perceived gaps and weaknesses in park homes legislation. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre will agree that it is leaving no stone unturned in its close scrutiny of the issues. It will consider all the main matters raised today, including those highlighted by my hon. Friend and by the hon. Member for West Chelmsford

. The hon. Member for West Chelmsford described three key problems: pitch fees, sale and commission arrangements, and site conditions. He rightly stressed the importance of clarity and transparency in arrangements, and I have already said that I agree. He also emphasised the importance of ensuring that all park home residents should be able to enjoy decent conditions, and I entirely concur with that.

The hon. Member for West Chelmsford asked about the working party's progress. I hope that what I have said has demonstrated the working party's approach to the task. Quite a lot of work remains to be done, so it will be some time before the report is complete. The hon. Gentleman, and the House, will appreciate that it would be premature of me to make any commitments before the working party has completed the review.

Because of the delays with its study into best practice, the working party is having to review its work timetable. It had originally hoped to produce recommendations to Ministers by autumn last year on making effective use of existing legislation, and by spring this year on the need, if any, to amend legislation. However, it now aims to produce recommendations on the former later this year. I know that many people would like quick results, but I am convinced that a careful and thorough approach to such important issues will pay dividends in the long run.

We have to try and take as many people as possible with us. There is a large measure of agreement between all parties in the industry and among residents, and the aim is to secure the best for all concerned. It is important to build on the large amount of goodwill that exists. We must not allow divisions over relatively minor matters to breach the consensus that will be helpful for the future of the industry and which will benefit the conditions on park home sites.

Until the working party has completed its task, I am not ruling anything in or out. It would be wrong to pre-empt its conclusions, as I have said. However, it is only fair that I make it clear to the House that, given the pressure on the parliamentary timetable, it is very unlikely that any changes could be made to primary legislation in the short term. We would also need to consider any forthcoming recommendations for significant change against the background of the Government's commitment to better regulation. We would need to examine carefully the costs and benefits of any change and the impact it might have on the park homes industry and others.

Mr. Dawson

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and appreciate what he has said about the need for thoroughness to ensure that all relevant issues are properly reviewed and resolved. However, does my hon. Friend accept that many thousands of people all over the country will greet with considerable dismay his statement that legislation is unlikely in the short term? They know that these serious matters have to be resolved in a thorough manner, but they need them to be resolved within a reasonable time.

Mr. Raynsford

I hear what my hon. Friend says, and I too want action to be taken as quickly as possible. However, my hon. Friend must recognise that there is undoubtedly scope for making progress through best practice. We must explore that option to ensure that existing arrangements are made to work better. Also, it is only fair to be honest about the legislative position. The problem does not arise only in connection with park homes: the Government—and many hon. Members—are keen to promote other very important legislation but, although there will be time in due course, legislation cannot be introduced quickly because of the requirement for all legislation to be properly scrutinised. That takes time, and the pressures on the parliamentary timetable inhibit the volume of legislation that can be introduced in any one year.

The hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) raised three matters, two of which were touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre—council tax band A, and housing needs in rural areas. The hon. Gentleman also referred to overall levels of spending on housing investment.

I appreciate that many park homes fall into the lower end of band A, and that residents may feel aggrieved at the banding arrangements. However, in any system that uses valuation bands rather than actual valuations, it is inevitable that properties of slightly different size, character and value will pay the same council tax. That is implicit in any banding system.

Last year, we carried out a thorough review of the system of local government finance, including the council tax. The large consensus was that the existing arrangements were working reasonably well, and that it would be premature to make any dramatic changes. Revaluation is a very expensive operation that cannot be done quickly, as any revaluation has knock-on consequences. We are keeping the council tax under review, and will reconsider the case for improvements to the system if we carry out a revaluation during the next Parliament, but I do not believe that such a revaluation is a high priority requiring urgent action.

I can tell the hon. Member for Torbay that, since 1989, the Housing Corporation has directed funding from its approved development programme to a special rural housing programme, targeted at villages with populations of fewer than 3,000 people. In the 10 years to 1999, the programme provided some 16,000 new rural homes. For the current 1999-2000 financial year, we have asked the Housing Corporation to aim for around 3.4 per cent. of new social letting under the programme to be in villages inhabited by fewer than 3,000 people.

We have also increased substantially the overall level of housing resources available to local authorities. In 1997-98 and 1998-99, the capital receipts initiative has made nearly £800 million available to local authorities in England. That is to be followed by the extra £3.6 billion for local authority housing investment over the three years 1999-2000 to 2001-2002 announced in the comprehensive spending review.

Our guidance to local authorities on the development of their housing strategies makes it clear that they should consider carefully the needs of all groups, including rural communities, and plan accordingly. We expect local authorities to make their contribution to meeting rural housing needs in areas where it is a local priority. It is not true that, at the end of this Parliament, the level of housing investment under the Labour Government will be lower than it was at the end of the previous Parliament. By the end of this Parliament, the level of capital investment will be double that which we inherited. It does no service to the House or to housing to pretend otherwise.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this very important issue today. Park home life plays an important role in today's housing market. For most residents, it offers good-quality accommodation on well-run sites. As we know, for others, the picture is less rosy. It is in everyone's interests that we address the problems that blight a minority of parks. I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government are determined to do so and are anxious that progress will continue, through the park homes working party, to ensure that the legislation works effectively for park operators and residents and, where it is found wanting, we shall look carefully at the case for change.