§ Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)
I beg to move,That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law relating to Park Homes in order to introduce transparency and consistency into their acquisition and disposal; to amend the model standards relating to Park Homes residents to bring them into line with the standards practised in local authority and housing association property; to give statutory recognition to Park Homes Residents Associations; and to make provision in respect of the accounts of the parks and the homes sited thereon.Nearly 200,000 people live in park homes in England and Wales. In my constituency of Tiverton and Honiton, I have had regular discussions with residents, particularly with those living in the Cat and Fiddle park at Clyst St. Mary and the Underhill park in Tiverton.
In 2000 a report of the park homes working party was welcomed by all who take an interest in park homes, particularly by the all-party park homes group. In November 2001 the Government responded to the recommendations of the park homes working party and the Bill is designed to implement some of those recommendations. Indeed, last year, the Minister, Lord Rooker of Perry Barr, told the all-party group that the Government might support a private Member's Bill.
It is disappointing that no mention is made of park homes reform in the housing section of the Local Government Bill that was published last month and is intended to come before the House in the next Session. The Minister informed us in correspondence that, although the draft Bill is out to consultation, park homes will not be included. I would like to use today's ten-minute Bill debate to identify the key areas of reform in the hope that the Government will think again.
Most parks have residents who own their homes, but pay a rent for the pitch on which they are sited to the park owner, who has responsibility for the shared site amenities. All too often there is unnecessary tension between residents and park owners, and in some cases the resolution of site problems can be described only as anachronistic. I believe that, under properly constituted agreements, owners should recognise residents associations in the same way that councils and housing associations are required to work with their tenants. For example, it is not unreasonable for an unambiguous complaints procedure and a consultation framework to be established and for the owner to be represented at the residents' annual general meeting. It is also important that the local authority responsible for the authorisation of the site licence should recognise a properly constituted residents association.
The acquisition and disposal of homes is another area where change is needed. In October last year, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister published a document that it had commissioned on the economics of the park homes industry. However, in a written answer, the Minister stated that the Government do not intend to respond to the report's recommendations.
I should like to outline some of the specific issues identified by the working party that continue to be of concern to residents, in relation to which reform is now urgent. The park owner has to give the home owner, 302 within three months of coming on to the park, a written statement setting out the owner's rights and the express terms that are not covered by legislation. Three months is far too long. There is no requirement for the statement to be signed or witnessed, which is another omission. The Government agreed in their response to the conclusions in the consultation document that best practice is required in that area.
The current legislation does not allow statements to include a right of first refusal for the park owner to purchase the home, but all too often that is written into the statement and many residents have gained the impression that they are obliged to offer back their home, if they wish to dispose of it, to the owner of the site. The rules relating to those statements need to be tidied up and put on a statutory basis and should include provision for the home to be assigned.
The standard agreement states that annual increases in pitch fees should be mindful of inflation. That requires greater transparency, because last year's report showed an upward drift in pitch rents in real terms. It has been an ongoing problem for residents and the lack of information on fees leads to resentment. Moreover, people in other areas of housing—for example, those who pay a service charge—would at least expect to have a breakdown of the figures. I do not think that that is unreasonable.
There is also the current unsatisfactory arrangement by which the site owner acts as an agent between the resident and the manufacturer when the resident purchases a new home. That prevents the resident from purchasing directly from the manufacturer. That, I believe, is an inequity, and needs revision to ensure fairness to the tenant who wishes to purchase a new home, and to provide a safeguard to the park owner who wishes to maintain the integrity of the park.
It is also unsatisfactory that park owners can terminate an agreement on the grounds that a home's age and condition have a detrimental effect on the site. Home owners can also argue that it could have such an effect within a five-year period. Although it is of course acknowledged that the park benefits from properties being well maintained, the current rule is arbitrary, not least because of the incentive for the park owner to replace old for new. The weakness in the current legislation is that it does not define age and condition, and neither does the law identify the statutory procedure for operation of the five-year rule. The current rules allow for unscrupulous park owners to bring agreements to an end in order to drive down selling prices. In my own experience it is often the very elderly or, in some cases, the beneficiaries of an estate, who feel this pressure most.
When responding to the proposal that the age criterion should be replaced by a criterion based on the condition of the exterior of the home, the Government responded that they agreed, not least because of the recommendations that they received from the consultees. The Government have also acknowledged in principle that amending the five-year rule or its replacement with a warnings procedure would ensure fair treatment for home owners. If this ten-minute Bill is about anything, it is about fair treatment for home owners.
303 At a time when affordable housing is so much on people's minds, park homes offer an alternative, but there is an underlying sense of frustration at the fact that people living in park homes have somehow been left behind when it comes to enjoying the practices in other areas of housing that others take for granted. There is a lack of transparency in transactions and of choice on acquisition; out-of-date rules apply that hinder communications between residents and park owners; and of course park home residents need to be brought within the scope of the Protection from Eviction Act 1977—something that I believe is long overdue. There is also a need for parks owned by local authorities to be licensed in the same way as privately owned parks. That is something that I believe the Bill should encompass.
I hope that the Government will heed this short Bill, and the recent reports of the park homes committee. I also hope that they will take the opportunity provided by the next Local Government Bill to rectify the problems that I have set out. In the Government's responses to the working party paper, they appear to concur with many of the recommendations, some of which I have outlined today.
The working party first sat in 2000. The Government responded in 2001 and commissioned an independent report on the economics of park homes. I welcome all that, but it is a matter of concern that the Government will for some reason not go that final step and embrace the opportunity to ensure that the legislation is put on the statute book. Indeed, in a recent letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), said:We anticipate that mobile homes reform will be wide ranging and fundamental and in order to ensure that the resulting legislation is fully sound, workable and will stand the test of time it will be necessary to prepare it sufficiently.I do not disagree with that, as the same applies to any legislation brought before this House. I hope that the Government will pay heed to a matter that affects many thousands of constituents, and that they will include the provisions that I propose in their own Bill.
I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mrs. Angela Browning, Mr. David Atkinson, Mr. Christopher Chope, Sir Patrick Cormack, Mr. Hilton Dawson, Mrs. Cheryl Gillan, Mr. Philip Hammond, Mr. Michael Jack, Mrs. Eleanor Laing, Mr. Mark Prisk, Mr. Martin Salter and Mrs. Angela Watkinson.