HC Deb 19 July 2000 vol 354 cc67-86WH

11 am

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)

I am pleased to have secured today's debate. This is the second time in 15 months that the subject of park homes has been discussed in an Adjournment debate. I took part in such a debate on 21 April 1999. Today's debate follows early-day motion 750, which called for major legislation to resolve the fundamental problems of the sector. That indicates the interest and the concern across the House: at the last count, the motion had been signed by 98 Members from all parties.

The debate comes in the wake of the report of the park homes working party which was published on 12 July, in the middle of consultation on the housing Green Paper. Next week, in another place, my noble Friend, that redoubtable campaigner on park homes and on many other issues, Lord Ted Graham, will participate in a similar debate on the reform of park homes.

We are reaching the culmination of a major national campaign led by Sam Hart, the excellent reporter with The Big Issue, which has taken place at a time when hon. Members of all parties have expressed great concern about this sector. I have seen a petition from constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mrs. Brinton), and on Thursday my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who is another inveterate campaigner on such issues, will deliver a petition from his constituents calling for urgent attention to be given to reform of this sector.

This is an issue whose moment has come. For many people, park homes are a comfortable, safe and extremely pleasant way of life, and a delightful way to spend one's retirement in fine rural areas similar to those that I and numerous other hon. Members represent. They are also a good business opportunity for decent people who are prepared to work hard, invest money and time and treat people properly. However, people throughout the country are beginning to realise that in the midst of all that a serious problem of harassment and exploitation has been uncovered. Cheats and rogues are at work in this sector of housing.

I do not intend to name names, nor need I. We know who those rogues are because we have received letters from people all over the country who have suffered at their hands. Those in the park homes sector who suffer certainly know who they are. Ministers and officials of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions have been fully informed by many park homes residents and their organisations about the iniquitous treatment meted out to a proportion of the people who live in park homes. We know about the abuse. We have heard about the threats and harassment that people who live in this sector suffer. We have heard about the lack of basic facilities: the electricity supply that blows when a few people put on a kettle at the same time.

We have heard of the park owner who refuses to advertise a home that is for sale, who puts off prospective purchasers and puts obstacles in the way of residents who want to sell. He then makes an offer that cannot be refused, and makes a killing when the home is resold. We have heard of vast increases being demanded in pitch fees-the annual fee for maintaining a park home on a particular site. We have heard of the increases imposed, without discussion, information or justification, and of absurd charges levied for basic information about reselling, utilities and other aspects of daily lives on parks.

In the worst instances we have heard of homes damaged and wrecked and of downright criminal behaviour from people who should be brought to book. There are brave people in the park homes organisations. There are steadfast individuals who have striven for many years to bring example after disgraceful example to official attention. It is time for their voices to be clearly heard and action to be taken to right the wrongs. There should be no room in the 21st century for the park owner who abuses the vulnerable, the elderly, the isolated, and who benefits himself by taking advantage of the deeply inadequate law and his position of utter and overwhelming power.

I was proud to be a member of the all-party delegation, led by my noble Friend Lord Graham, which met my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions, in late 1997. I was delighted that she agreed to establish the park homes working party to take a full look at the way in which controls operate in the park homes sector.

I should like to commend all the members of the park homes working party for a job well done, especially the members of the Independent Park Homes Advisory Service, the British Park Home Residents Association, the National Association of Park Home Residents and the representatives of the owners' organisations such as the British Home and Holiday Parks Association and the National Park Homes Council. It is an enormous credit to them and to the civil servant, Michael Faulkner, who chaired their proceedings for almost two years, that they were able to work together to share problems, to achieve compromises and to acknowledge differences openly and straightforwardly. Their actions show that there is hope for the industry, for the decent and responsible people for whom it is a livelihood and for the decent and responsible people for whom it is a way of life.

There are some excellent recommendations in the report, which should be commended to the House. The written statement should be provided in advance of the sale and should be signed at the time of the sale and in the presence of witnesses. It is a vital contract and an important legal document. It should be deemed that a sale has approval unless the park owner expressly withholds it in writing within a maximum period. In some circumstances, a park owner could and should resist the sale of a home on his site—for instance, if the park were for retired people, the park owner should be entitled to prevent the sale of a park home to people who did not meet the eligibility criteria because they did not fall within the specified age band. However, we must have strictures to prevent people from inordinately delaying a sale.

Some park home owners have taken up the inspirational idea of collectively purchasing their parks when the owner places the park on the open market. It is good that the working group recommends deleting the age criterion for ending agreements. Park homes are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and major parts are becoming easier to replace. There is no reason why a well-maintained park home should not last for a long time.

Residents associations should be recognised with rights to consultation and information. It is obvious that decent park owners have nothing to fear from the establishment of residents associations.

As the report says, we must take action on the resale of utilities. That is one of several opportunities for the unscrupulous to exploit what amounts to a monopoly position. I understand the working party's recommendation for a statutory maximum price for the resale of liquified petroleum gas, to bring it in line with all other utilities, but I do not understand why the park owner should make money from supplying the basic services that are essential to obtaining a site licence. Whatever the outcome of that recommendation, it is essential that, whether the park owner makes a profit from reselling services or simply levies a charge to recover costs, full information about charges is given as of right to consumers.

The report makes many worthy recommendations and demands scrutiny. We should encourage the 200,000 park residents throughout the land to participate in the consultation, which lasts until 31 October. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), can assure me that at least the summary document will be widely disseminated. We know where park residents live and we should encourage the greatest participation in discussions about their future. I represent some 1,000 park owners—about 0.5 per cent. of the park residents in the country—so I was sorry to hear from my office that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions can provide us with only 100 copies of the summary document. That is not good enough. I hope that we can obtain one copy per person, because every park resident should have one.

The document has some significant flaws and omissions. It acknowledges that there is some way to go on some important issues relating to park homes. The major question of commission on pitch fees remains to be resolved. We must have a full independent report on park homes financing. I find it difficult to accept that such a tenuous concept as the commission on turnover that might be achieved is a good basis for financing such significant business ventures. If a key element of park owners' income is dependent on a proportion of residents moving on, that is a serious and significant anomaly. Surely we should promote security and stability, particularly for the older people who form the majority of those who live on parks, rather than accept that a large part of park owners' income and sustenance comes from people deciding to move. That anomaly needs to be addressed.

The issue of good practice guidance crops up a little too readily in the document. Such guidance is fine when it has an adequate statutory basis, but we have problems if there are flaws and holes in the legislation. We need statutory duties from sound laws.

The best word in the document is "housing", which appears in the biggest print on the cover. Park homes constitute housing. Most park homes are extremely affordable, although they are not caravans. They are mobile in that they are taken to the parks, but it is hard to think of them as mobile when they have been bricked into position and are receiving mains services. It is extremely unhelpful to regard park homes as caravans or mobile homes.

Modern park homes are constructed to high standards. They are flexible and can be used for a variety of purposes. They are particularly adaptable for older or disabled people. They often provide a real option for people to realise hard-earned capital and take up residence in extremely pleasant, safe and caring communities, often at a quiet time in their lives. Put on a proper footing, the industry could address important aspects of housing needs for young and old people in urban and rural communities. Park homes could play an important part in the regeneration and diversification of both urban and rural areas.

Caravans and mobile homes are associated with the leisure and tourism industries or, more regrettably, with life on the margins. However, park homes should be regarded as mainstream housing. Almost all the serious problems can be traced to inadequate legislation, which has utterly failed to keep up with social changes and trends over the past 20 or 30 years. It is time to scrap all references to caravans and mobile homes and include park homes in mainstream housing legislation.

The housing Green Paper "Quality and Choice: A Decent Home for All" has been published. The title says it all. That paper rightly promotes a stronger role for local authorities. They must be given new statutory duties to register, monitor and enforce conditions on parks. Those duties must be informed by model standards that are suitable for good-quality homes—rather than inadequate caravans—and good-quality parks run by fit and proper people who are capable of providing an acutely important housing service for vulnerable and needy people.

The housing Green Paper states that the Government will build on developments in the Rent Service. That is right. Surely the rigorous and consistent independence of the rent officer could be brought to bear on pitch fees. That would provide an accessible and authoritative adjudication in an area that is currently ripe for exploitation, where issues are so easily clouded and where power is so readily wielded by those with easy access to the threatening power of the solicitor's letter.

The housing Green Paper also states that the Government will build on existing laws against harassment, recognising that some people have difficulty securing adequate protection from local authorities and the police. That is good and is also mentioned in the park homes working party report. Few aspects of life in this country could be more open to harassment than park homes, where the vulnerable and isolated are not properly protected by the law and lack access to sources of help.

The housing Green Paper also notes the development of a pilot tenancy deposit scheme, which aims to provide security for deposits and, backed by the independent housing ombudsman, swift independent resolution of disputes at the end of tenancies. Residents own and pay for their park homes, but they also have to pay a pitch fee to be sited on particular parks. Park home residents could benefit from such a service or scheme. It could help to resolve some of the crucial issues about commission and transfer of written agreements.

The housing Green Paper is keen to promote the provision of affordable housing in rural areas. That is great. We have a thriving park homes industry, which is crying out for more land to meet increasing demand. Many people choose to live in the sector and many good park homes are being built. There are good opportunities to develop park homes, which I support in the longer term. However, revisions to PPG3 and to general planning guidance should not go ahead until major reforms to put park homes on a proper footing have been implemented. We must drive out the rogues and villains and allow decent people to flourish in what should be a fine industry and a thoroughly good way of life.

Several hon. Members intend to speak on this issue. The full range of political views is represented on the all-party park homes group. Much work is being done at many different levels, and many Members of Parliament often deal with people in the park homes sector in their constituencies. The cause of park homes has been a hard road for many people for a long time. I now feel, however, that there is hope for the sector—hope for the people who live in it and who want to enjoy a pleasant and peaceful life; and hope for the decent responsible people who want to contribute by responding to good business opportunities.

The park homes working party report and the housing Green Paper provide the Government with the opportunity to introduce the serious and thoroughgoing legislation that this sector has never had before and so badly needs. It is an issue whose time has come, and it will not go away. I look forward to the rest of the debate, and hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will assure us of the Government's intentions to take this serious matter forward.

11.24 am
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) on securing the debate and on his speech. In my constituency, almost one in 10 households lives in a park home. Fortunately, almost all those households are satisfied with the quality of the accommodation and the way in which it is managed. There are obviously exceptions to that, but my plea to the Government is to consider the variety of park homes and the different arrangements that apply to them. I hope that the Government will ensure that any change to the legislation will not militate against current best practice. In some park homes in my constituency, any change to the arrangements for the payment of fees would be unpopular with the residents, whereas in others that would be popular.

I hope that the Government will recognise the enormous variety of park homes that exist, even on one site. I spoke today to the proprietor of a family firm that owns a site in my constituency with about 150 park homes, ranging in value from over £100,000 to £25,000 or £30,000. A large new park home brought on to the site could cost as much as £120,000. When a home is sold, 10 per cent. of its value goes to the site owner, who obviously gets more money for the more expensive homes. If the legislation is changed so that site owners no longer take 10 per cent. when a home is sold, that may militate against owners of less valuable homes.

Many people put much of their capital into buying a retirement park home, so they do not want high outgoings. There is a trade-off: they may not want to pay so much in annual pitch fees because if and when they move they will pay around 10 per cent. of the value of their home to the site owner. The site owner to whom I spoke today told me that he employs two full-time maintenance people and provides a personal service for the 150 homes on his site. There is so much satisfaction among the residents that there is not even a demand for a residents association. By contrast, some sites are owned by multinationals and the quality of the management depends largely on the quality of the manager who is employed. There can sometimes be difficulties in that regard.

My instinct is that we should enable the variety of park homes to continue. I welcome the recommendations in the report on relaxing some planning controls and enabling the development of more park home sites. Park homes are popular and have proved their worth over time. Why should we not develop more sites such as those already in existence?

I should like to concentrate on recommendation 8 in the report, on pitch fees and commission. That issue is highly contentious—as shown by the fact that, although the working party met for more than two years, it was able only to conclude that the Government should hold an inquiry. It stated: The Government should commission as soon as possible an independent study of the economics of the park homes industry, to identify the maximum level of commission to be set and give clarification of the items to be included in the calculation of the commission. The study should also identify the principles on which pitch fees should be set and reviewed. I hope that the Minister will announce that the Government will now commission such a study. There is no need to wait until the expiry of the consultation period for the report. It would not be contentious to commission such a study. I have every confidence that doing so would enable a balance to be struck between the interests of residents of the sort of park home that I described at the beginning of my remarks and those who occupy park homes that, in the words of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre, have as owners those who are rogues and interested in harassment and exploitation. Fortunately, not many of those are found in the Christchurch constituency. However, it would be desirable for the Government to commission such an independent study on the subject as soon as possible. That would give me every confidence that we could deal with the worst circumstances and accommodate existing practice where it enjoyed the support of park home residents.

My constituents frequently raise the issue of council tax band A, which normally applies to park homes. In some cases, band B now applies. However, in the example that I cited earlier of a site of 150 park homes, including some worth more than £100,000 and others worth only £25,000, the current council tax banding system tends to band them all together. That can lead to injustice and resentment, especially among those who occupy homes that are significantly below the top threshold for band A. I am disappointed that the Government have not yet said anything about their intentions towards band A council tax, as the information will interest several park home residents.

11.32 am
Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam)

I support many of the comments made by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope). I congratulate the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) on having secured the debate. I know from my reading on the topic that he has been active in pursuing the matter on behalf of his constituents, and I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate.

As the working party report highlighted, the legislative framework that governs the matter is inadequate and needs attention. It offers little protection to home owners and, as has already been mentioned, allows unscrupulous owners, albeit perhaps a minority of park home owners, to exploit, harass and extort money from their residents. It is right for debate on park homes to focus on permanent residents, as a clear case has been made for change in that respect. The park homes working party report makes interesting and encouraging reading. I hope that the Minister will tell us that it will lead to early legislation, guidance and various other developments that will effect genuine change in standards in the not-too-distant future.

I shall highlight the plight of recreational park home owners, who, when I began to investigate the matter as a result of a constituency case, did not seem to have been the subject of a debate in the House. The focus has, rightly, been on permanent residents. However, whereas the law affords little protection to permanent residents, it seems to offer almost none to those who decide to invest in a park home as a place of retreat, rest and recreation. A constituency case drew my attention to the matter. I shall ask the Minister a few questions and draw his attention to that case.

I shall briefly share the chronology of events relating to a case raised by a constituent of mine. It involves a site that is not in my constituency but is of interest to my constituents. I shall identify the site no more closely than by saying that it is in West Sussex. The site changed hands in 1996 after many years of good stewardship by a family-run business that paid great attention to the management of the site. Immediately, the fees were increased by 23 per cent., without consultation, explanation or, certainly in the eyes of many home owners on the site, good reason. At the same time, there was an electricity overcharge of £24 per caravan. The new owner insisted that insurance should be taken out for the caravans and their contents directly through him, at an increased rate.

In 1997, a caravan owners association was set up on the site to champion owners' causes and concerns. Rents were raised again and the electricity continued to be subject to overcharging. The association took up the matter with management. Its chairman wrote various letters on behalf of the members and received a fine of £130 for his pains. My constituent, who was a member, also took up the cause and wrote to challenge the owner on electricity overcharging. He, too, received a fine. All the fines have been repeated in the years since 1997. The chairman of the association's fines now total £270 and my constituent's fines total £440.

The owner was simply being required to respond to the concerns. It appears that fines as a form of response can best be characterised as extortion and as harassment of those trying to enjoy some recreational time on the site. When the owner took on management of the site, he also insisted that all the owners sign yearly licences. That does not fully comply with the current voluntary code of practice. Over the past four years, the park has deteriorated. The gardens, which were immaculately kept by the family owners, have now been transformed into open fields which are less attractive and appealing to the residents. The Office of Electricity Regulation has confirmed that the park owner has acted at least incorrectly and possibly unlawfully.

Even if the home owners seek to enforce their rights in respect of the overcharging, they face retribution or the fear of retribution in the form of further fines and being asked to leave the site. Annual licences make that incredibly easy to do. These people have made substantial investments. The hon. Member for Christchurch described the large sums that can be involved in purchasing such homes. On the site, investments of more than £10,000 are being made. It is often difficult to move and sell homes, especially if one does not have the co-operation of the park owner.

A case was referred to me about a deaf and dumb couple who had to leave the site because the fees had gone up so much. In the end, they sold their home to the park owner for £750. He resold it for £3,750. By any measure, that is a substantial mark-up for the park owner. The park homes working party report does not directly address itself to the plight of recreational park home owners, but many problems that it identifies undoubtedly exist across the sector. Caravan sites used for recreational purposes do not come under the definition of protected sites, and so do not benefit from the limited protections afforded by the Mobile Homes Act 1983. Their protection is based solely on the terms of contracts and there is sometimes doubt about whether contracts have been constructed fairly.

Recreational park home owners deserve greater protection, perhaps on a different level from that of permanent home owners. Park associations should have the right to information and consultation. The Office of Electricity Regulation should be proactive in using all its powers to protect residents and ensure that information is supplied to them. There must be clarity about what fees are for and how they are to be reviewed and set. I agree with the hon. Member for Christchurch that the research suggested in the working party report should be commissioned, but in a way that deals with not only permanent but recreational home owners.

I hope that such a different group of home owners will be subject to greater certainty and that the current voluntary code of practice will be enforced properly in the future. I hope that it will become something that can be relied on by park home owners and regarded as a national standard against which licences will be issued and services can be judged. That is how to ensure that those who suffer an inferior service and poor treatment will receive a better deal.

Mr. Dawson

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Burstow

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I shall not give way to him as other hon. Members wish to take part in the debate.

I hope that the valuable work undertaken by the working party, albeit focusing on permanent residents, can also be translated into lessons to be learned to deal with the recreational sector. Will the Minister undertake to deal with the worries of recreational home users as well as permanent users? They need to be helped just as much as permanent users.

11.41 am
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) on securing today's debate and on the fact that he has previously pressed the issue in the House. He has flagged it up as an important matter, drawn from his experiences of the wide provision of park homes in his constituency. Many of us share similar problems, although we also have experiences of acceptable park home site operators. How such sites function and operate is largely a matter of luck and the attitude of a particular site owner, rather than an obligation to act according to best practice.

Many changes take place in site ownership; new owners move in and regard it as a highly profitable area and press it considerably. There are many techniques by which a person can make money. A person can be a good owner and good employer, can make sure that people are satisfied with matters and can work well by using that technique. Others press like mad every avenue to exploit people. Such action is taken by many site owners in respect of pitch fees, utilities and the exploitation of the site rates.

As my hon. Friend said, many park home owners are vulnerable people and have great difficulty in coming forward publicly and expressing their views. That is why Members of Parliament are under a duty to do so on their behalf. Although some people, because of the publicity that surrounds the matter, are willing to sign The Big Issue petition and forward it to their Members of Parliament, they do not want the site owners to know that they are involved in such activity.

One or two brave individuals act as leaders of their communities and are willing to take the flak, but many people are frightened of coming forward. It must be made clear that the consultation process is open to all home owners, and when people submit their views they can say that they do not want such documentation to be made public. I hope that will be able to flex their muscles more freely. However, that is dependent on implementation of some of the measures contained in the party homes working party report. My hon. Friend has said that there are additional issues that he wants to advance and develop.

One of the extra issues brought to my attention by park home owners is council tax banding. I pursued that matter on many occasions with the previous Government, which introduced the banding, and have done so with the present Government. I have suggested that there should be extra banding so that park home owners are not charged such high council tax. There should be a wider extension at the other end of the scale, giving a closer relationship with reasonable and decent standards of charging which would benefit the people whom we are discussing.

The problem of unadopted roads has been brought to my attention and affects a wide area in my constituency. If an unadopted road leads to a site, there may be great difficulties in ensuring that, although other people have properties in that area, the site owner has the major responsibility. There are two national bodies for site owners, operating a type of self-regulatory system, but the way in which that system works depends on the organisation of which the site owner is a member. In my constituency, there are sites that are not tied in with those bodies, so the best practices of the industry cannot be fed in.

It is clear that we need legislation in line with the best interpretations of the proposals in the report. There is a worry that that may take some time. One of the recommendations, in connection with pitch fees, claims that another study is required. It is important to gather the correct information before making decisions, but the process has been going on for a long time. During the years of the Conservative Government, the park homes group did some valiant work, initiated by Lord Graham, with which many of us have been associated. At last, the Government have made some progress, but we need to ensure that, in the not-too-distant future, we produce effective legislation that tackles the serious problems faced by park home owners.

11.48 am
Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

Until my appointment to the Chairmen's Panel forced my resignation, I was chairman of the all-party group that the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) now chairs. I congratulate him and Lord Graham on the working group, on which my fingerprints are very light and on which he has done good work.

During my time as chairman, I discovered two things about this issue. I attended several conferences on the subject and managed to upset most of the mobile home owners and park proprietors present, which means that either I was completely right or completely wrong—I leave my hon. Friends to work out which. The issue tends to polarise people. People on both sides of the argument have the unhealthy attitude that if one is not for them, one is against them. As my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) said, most mobile home park proprietors are good and most mobile home parks are well managed.

Most residents live out what is often their twilight years—because that is the nature of the occupancy of many of the parks—in comfort and happiness. A small minority of rogue proprietors cause misery. They are usually outside the membership of the professional associations. If we are to do anything useful, we have to target those people so that we discern the baby from the bath water and do not over-react to a situation that is serious but relatively confined. It is obviously wrong for someone to run a site in which the roads and footpaths are in a dangerous condition, where gas supplies are overcharged, where electricity or gas supplies may even be dangerous and where a local authority exercises no control. That is absurd: it could not happen with any other form of housing—which is what we are talking about.

There is also the issue of commission and of how properties are bought and sold. The people who buy such homes are often trading down by selling larger houses to release capital to provide for their old age or, in some cases, an overseas home. Some residents of good parks in my constituency spend the summer in the United Kingdom and the winter somewhere sunnier; that is their choice. If we are to concentrate on the problem parks, we need to persuade the Minister to legislate and to deal with the rogues by giving local authorities the powers to license all sites and all individuals. The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) made the good point that parks change ownership. What has been a well-run, well-managed and fairly charged park can deteriorate rapidly, if not overnight then within a matter of months, if it falls into the hands of someone who is not a member of a professional association—other than the professional association of crooks—who rips off the elderly, escalates charges and creates mayhem where there was once tranquillity.

The all-party group that has been considering licensing laws for licensed houses has recommended that, in addition to the licences for premises, there should be licences for licensees through some kind of professional qualification. Proprietors will not thank me for saying this, but I believe that not only properties but those who run them should carry a licence. If we could achieve that, we would get to grips with most of the rogues in what can be an unpleasant business, although usually it is not.

The way in which park homes are traded has always perplexed me. People who put down large sums of money to buy such properties have few rights, and those on whose sites the properties are located are on occasion encouraged to exploit the conditions of onward sale. I have never understood why there is not a system similar to that for leases on flats. If one buys a flat with a 99-year lease one knows how much of the lease is left, and that the property is devalued as the lease decreases, even though property prices may be rising.

Madam Deputy Speaker, that is a sensible way forward, although I add a note of caution. [Interruption.] It is being indicated to me, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the proper form of address for you in this Chamber is "Mrs. Roe". As a member of the Chairmen's Panel, it is my view that if this Chamber is to have proper recognition, the person in the Chair, whether formally a Deputy Speaker or not, should be so addressed. I shall therefore continue so to address you.

I urge caution on the matter of leases, which may allow the unscrupulous landlord of a block of flats, of whom there are many, to impose exorbitant service charges through devious means. If we are to take the proposed route, as we probably must, we should ensure that the bad practices of more traditional leasehold property are not inherited.

Malcolm Kent, who is the proprietor of a good park in my constituency, urged me to say that the Minister's proposals must be proportionate. If we do not get the balance right, there is a danger that those good proprietors who might otherwise invest in parks will not do so. We may thus inadvertently encourage the bad proprietors and deny resources to those who wish to maintain parks properly and keep them in good order.

An equitable solution must be found that is fair to the park proprietor and does not lead to residents, many of them elderly, ending their days in misery and discontent as a result of exploitation.

11.56 am
Dr. Peter Brand (Isle of Wight)

Mobile homes and park homes make a tremendous contribution to the quality of life on the Isle of Wight, where, I am glad to say, the parks are at the respectable end of the market. I am honoured to be the patron of the Medina park residents association, which does a brilliant job.

I endorse the remarks of the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale). Parks need a regulatory framework in which to operate, which includes recognition of residents associations. It is essential to have a residents organisation that can negotiate with park owners and managers so that, for example, the cost of providing services and maintaining the roads, which the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) mentioned, can be verified by residents before licence fees go up. There must be openness between the residents and the people who run the park.

I make a special plea to the Minister to consider council tax banding, as highlighted by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope). There is an anomaly in that park homes, which often have sophisticated and expensive fixtures and fittings, are compared with ordinary homes, which are often empty shells. There is a perception among park home owners that they are penalised because their homes come with fittings already attached, which puts them in a more expensive bracket than would be the case if they lived in a small house or bungalow. People in my neck of the woods feel aggrieved, as it is not unusual for park homes to be in band B or even band C. That is unfair to people who decide to convert from bricks and mortar, which have a much higher resale value—it would be extremely unusual for a park home resident on the Isle of Wight to pay £120,000—and to invest in a property that has a shorter lifespan but provides a high quality of life.

11.59 am
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

I apologise for my absence at the beginning of the debate, which was for reasons that I explained to you, Mrs. Roe.

I endorse the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson). I congratulate him on following the work undertaken by Lord Graham and the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), which started the ball rolling. I too have encountered inconsistencies in the council tax banding. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to look into that matter carefully. The answer lies in increasing the number of bands.

Certain other anomalies need to be dealt with in a regulatory regime, and I suspect that some of them come under the direct responsibility of my hon. Friend the Minister. Colleagues will remember the fiasco a few years ago when electricity companies gave households a rebate. They refused to give a rebate to individual home owners, but gave one to the site. The site owner did not gain greatly—only the electricity companies gained. Those issues need to be incorporated in any change.

There has been a steady move in the right direction. The voluntary code has been extremely helpful, but as the hon. Member for North Thanet said, there are the occasional rogues. We need to control them firmly, but without imposing a regime that will make it more difficult for those sites that are extremely well run. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the debate today. I hope that the Minister can offer some hope to those people who live on parks run by that small number of rogues.

12.01 pm
Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)

I join in the congratulations to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) on securing this Adjournment debate. Although the issue of park homes is not of enormous importance to a large number of the population of Great Britain, it is of enormous importance to those who either live in them or own the sites. It is therefore just the sort of thing that we should be discussing in an Adjournment debate. My interest in this matter goes back a long way, before I entered the House. There are several sites in my constituency, some of long standing, some better run and some worse run. I am a founder member of the all-party group and am proud to have been a member ever since.

As has already been mentioned on several occasions, the industry's first difficulty is the vulnerability of many of the park home owners. Many are elderly and have chosen to move into a park home either because it was the only home that they could afford for their retirement or because they wanted to use the capital that became available from the sale of their previous home as a source of income in their old age. Such people are vulnerable and desperately need to retain that capital to give themselves a reasonable standard of living in their old age. It can cause huge difficulties if it is whittled away by increased pitch fees.

The second difficulty, which has not been mentioned by other hon. Members is that some of the licences under which the park sites operate came into existence many decades ago. That is certainly true in my area, where several licences were originally granted by the local authority before the change in the local authority structure in 1974, and a number go back two previous changes. It is sometimes difficult to ascertain why the original licence was set as it was. Some of those licences are rather inadequately worded, as we have now discovered.

Park homes form a vital component of the supply of affordable housing, particularly in rural areas. In many parts of the country that supply is now critical, and in my area it is by far the biggest housing issue. My party's policy is that local councils should be given much greater powers to insist that developers include low-cost housing for local people in all new developments. If the Government followed that policy, the industry would enjoy a significant boost.

Although most people who run residential parks are honest and honourable, some owners are on the fiddle. They are the rogues who give the industry a bad name and from whom the public need to be protected. Britain has a fine and important industry that is being undermined by a minority of unscrupulous park owners who profiteer by overcharging residents for sales, site fees and basic necessities such as running water and electricity. That is why the House needs to consider passing new legislation to clarify existing laws and to ensure that the standard of service provided by park owners is evenly maintained across the country.

I am grateful to the Government for establishing the working group on park homes, which the all-party group has wanted for some time. That has provided all those with an interest in solving the industry's problems with several important recommendations. I broadly welcome the recommendations and hope that we can develop them during the consultation period set out by the Minister.

The Mobile Homes Act 1983 has many deficiencies. One of the most frequent complaints is that it gives park home owners insufficient rights over increases in pitch fees demanded by site owners. It helps that many site owners use a standard agreement drawn up by the National Federation of Site Operators. That agreement contains a pitch fee review clause that takes into account such factors as the retail prices index and the sums expended by the owner on the upkeep of the park.

However, even if that agreement is used, difficulties can arise when occupiers feel that the owner has done little to warrant the increase or that the increase is well above the inflation rate. One interesting statistic from the review conducted by the Department of the Environment in 1991 showed that although one third of park home site owners felt that they had consulted park home owners about their most recent pitch fee increase, only 3 per cent. of park home owners felt that they had been consulted. That is an anomaly. I welcome the recommendation that residents associations should have the right to information and to consultation by park owners on some matters. However, to make real progress on pitch fees, the Government should seriously investigate the proposal, originally made by Shelter, that rent officers should have powers to fix pitch fees whenever there is disagreement.

The issue of commission on sales causes frequent complaints. Site owners are entitled to claim commission of up to 10 per cent. on the sale of park homes on their sites. The justification for that charge is that the site value forms part of the overall price. That is a rather odd justification, because once the site has been sold, the site value should not stay with the original site owner but should go to the person who owns the park home that is to be sold. However, it is true that commission is a crucial way of financing new investment in parks. Without it, pitch fees would rise and that might make some park homes less accessible to those who need them.

I am pleased by the recommendation that the Government should commission an independent study into the economics of the industry to identify the maximum allowable level of commission and to clarify what can be considered when calculating commission. Such a study could also identify the principles on which pitch fees should be set and reviewed.

Another important problem is council tax, which other hon. Members have mentioned. Almost all park homes are in band A, which covers properties originally valued at up to £40,000. However, many park homes were worth nothing like that at the time of valuation, and people are understandably angry about being charged in band A. My party has long advocated the creation of a new council tax band A to resolve the issue. We are delighted that the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) supports that proposal.

I must tell him that when I pressed the previous Conservative Government on the issue, they were not entirely happy about that suggestion.

I was pleased by the inclusion of a recommendation regarding the sale of utilities. I fully support the introduction of a statutory maximum resale price for the resale of gas supplied by cylinder and bulk tank. I also welcome the possibility of a review of the park homes charter promoting good practice in the industry in relation to the supply and pricing of utilities.

Before I finish my speech, I want to make one point to the Minister on behalf of park owners. Although the rights of park home owners need to be clarified and enhanced, it should not be at the expense or to the discouragement of the majority of responsible site owners. Currently, park owners, unlike the owners of other small businesses, do not benefit from any relief on inheritance tax. That point has so far been ignored by the Government. I hope that the Paymaster General or the Chancellor of the Exchequer will review that apparent anomaly, which, when a park site owner dies, has the potential to cause uncertainty and distress for the owner's and previous owner's heirs. Park homes provide a vital source of affordable housing across Britain. With the co-operation of both sides of this House, legislation can be introduced that will benefit owners and residents.

12.10 pm
Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

This has been a good debate. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) on securing it. He was right to stress two points: the industry is thriving in many parts of the country, as is clear from the attendance at this debate, and it provides a livelihood for some people, which we must constantly bear in mind. For other people, it is also a way of life. That epitomises the balance that we must preserve in approaching the matter.

As always when we debate such subjects, we have heard a great deal about the bad operators. It is right that those who abuse tenants and their financial position should be dealt with. We have not heard as much about good and exemplary operators, who regard parks as a way of providing fairly high-quality accommodation, either on a long-term residential basis or for recreational purposes.

Harassment is probably the worst aspect of the problems that we have discussed. It should be deplored and there should be a cracking down, especially as many parks attract the elderly and vulnerable, who can be preyed on by less desirable operators. Local authorities have clear powers to deal with harassment, about which we have heard little. If harassment and intimidation are taking place, we must ask whether local authorities are doing their job in looking after those people.

I want to join other hon. Members in encouraging those of all persuasions on this issue to respond to the recommendations that are subject to consultation. The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) made a point in that regard. If people want to retain anonymity, I presume that they can do so. It is important to send out the message that anyone with views on the matter should send them to the Minister. I was therefore slightly puzzled when the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre asked the Minister to give a clear indication today. I should have thought that that is the last thing that the Minister can give, and I am sure that he will refer us back to the consultation exercise with a slight sense of relief. He smiles broadly, so I may not be completely off-target, Mr. Winterton.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton)

Order. Because of the status of Westminster Hall, anyone speaking should address the Chair as Mr. Deputy Speaker or Madam Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Waterson

We had an interesting debate before you joined us, Mr. Winterton, and I was under the impression that the opposite was the case.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

If a member of the Chairmen's Panel chairs the meeting because of the unavailability of the four members appointed Deputy Speakers in Westminster Hall, he is addressed by name or as Mr. Chairman.

Mr. Waterson

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to refer to you as Mr. Deputy Speaker.

It is important that we do not allow the obvious and well-known malpractices of the few to blacken the name of all operators, because that will make them less likely to run parks or open new ones. We do not want to chase out of a thriving business—as the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre said, it is just that—those who are the best in the business.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) spoke about unscrupulous landlords. He used the phrase "perhaps a minority". Perhaps, on reflection, he will want to rethink. On any view, this is a minority, but that is not to say that we should not take the problem seriously. The hon. Gentleman rightly talked about recreational owners. With respect to him, one problem with trying simply to treat these occurrences as any other housing situation by applying the whole panoply of housing legislation and regulation is that there is a dichotomy: some people regard park homes as their long-term homes and others keep them for recreational purposes, which causes problems of definition.

My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) spoke about well-run sites from personal knowledge of his constituency and we should not lose sight of that perspective. I join him in saying to the Minister that I cannot think of a good reason for our not just getting on with the independent study into the economics of the business. We have had a couple years of the working party, as my hon. Friend said. We are in consultation until 31 October, so why wait? Most people who are involved in these questions would be happy to see a start made because so much else flows from it. The issue is complex and requires careful examination.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) spoke with great knowledge, especially as a former chairman of the all-party group. He was right to talk about throwing out babies with the bath water. I agree with him that the problem is serious, but relatively confined: we must constantly keep that perspective before us. My hon. Friend touched on the role of local authorities, as I have. We have heard little about them, although they have a role under existing legislation. My hon. Friend's interesting thoughts on the sort of twofold licensing approach that he commended need further examination. I will not follow him down the leasehold path, not least because so far the Government have signally failed to meet their preelection promises on reforming the law of leasehold and commonhold. I would not want park homes owners to become enmeshed in that scenario.

We heard from the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Dr. Brand) and the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), who also talked about such matters as council tax banding charges and roads, which are often a problem for these sites. I believe that the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) made a point about the need for balance, as I am doing. We are talking of up to a quarter of a million people who live in these parks in some 2,000 licensed sites.

It is wrong to suggest that existing legislation is inadequate. Of course improvements can be made, which is why consultation is so important. We already have the Caravan Sites Act 1968, the Mobile Homes Act 1983 and the voluntary charter, which is to be commended; but it is important to bring the responsible park operators on board. One example is the National Park Homes Council. It supports the majority of the working group's recommendations, the advance provision of an agreement, the project to look into the economics of parks and the independent redress mechanism, all of which are constructive and important. However, it has great concerns about simply applying housing regulations and law to the sites. It talks about the prosperous holiday caravan business. I have already mentioned that there is a different side to the issue.

The council also refers to occupiers' safety requirements and the significance of British standard 3632. It does not agree with the principle of offering first refusal on purchasing a park to its tenants or proposals to reduce the commission rate to 2.5 per cent. However, it is happy to await the outcome of research. The key point, which has been made more than once, is that the economics are fundamental. Tinkering with pitch fees or commissions could produce a counter-productive result.

People can be greatly encouraged by the way in which serious and responsible people in the industry are prepared to work together. This is an important debate, and I again congratulate the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre on securing it. I hope that the Minister is deluged with representations during the consultation period.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I call the hard-worked Minister to reply to the debate.

12.20 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Chris Mullin)

I join other hon. Members in thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) for raising the important issue of park homes. From the contributions that we have heard, it is clear that the issue has not always enjoyed the prominence that it deserves, as it affects a large number of people. Some are residents and others enjoy recreational use of their park homes.

I pay tribute to the work of the all-party group, and particularly the work of my noble Friend Lord Graham. As the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) predicted, I shall not make any definitive announcements today, because the object of the consultation is to consult. When the consultation closes, we shall consider carefully the representations made to us, including those made by hon. Members today. In the short time allowed, I shall try to deal with some of the main concerns, particularly those raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre.

I share the view of hon. Members that the park homes sector can play a useful part in providing decent, affordable homes. Many park home owners live in good-quality, attractive accommodation in well-run parks and enjoy the park homes life style. However, I also appreciate the concerns expressed about the need for park home sites to have an appropriate control regime that balances the needs and interests of residents and site owners.

That is why we set up the working party, which consisted of members of residents' bodies, site owners and local authorities. The hon. Member for Eastbourne was right to say that local authorities already have some powers in harassment cases. The report, published last week, made 30 recommendations for change. They included changes to the arrangements for the sale of homes, the issuing of written agreements, harassment procedures and site licensing. We shall consider the recommendations carefully, as hon. Members would expect, and we look forward to receiving responses in the next two or three months. We have set a deadline of 31 October for comments. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre mentioned that he was having difficulty obtaining an appropriate number of the summary documents to distribute to park home owners in his constituency. I shall ensure that he receives what he requires. If other hon. Members have problems, I should be glad to raise those, too.

An important aim of the working party was to reach a consensus between residents and site owners. An impressive amount of agreement was achieved on a range of issues, and we are grateful to the working party for its efforts. It may be useful if I comment on some of its recommendations and the timetable for further action.

Most of the recommendations are for legislative change. Their broad aim is to provide greater clarity on the rights and responsibilities of residents and site owners and to improve the level of protection available to residents. For example, there is a proposal for the resident and the park owner to sign a written agreement at the time of a home's sale, so that both parties are aware of their obligations from the outset. There is also a proposal to tighten arrangements that currently allow park owners to exploit their power of veto on the proposed purchaser of a home.

Other proposals welcomed by my hon. Friend were the deletion of the age criterion to justify the ending of agreements between residents and park owners and the setting up of formal residents associations with statutory rights to receive information from, and to be consulted by, park owners and local authorities. The working party also recommended changes to the rules on the sales of utilities, such as liquefied petroleum gas, about which a couple of hon. Members expressed concern.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre said, the working party proposed that there should be a new statutory requirement on local authorities to impose and monitor conditions for mobile home site licences and to consult residents on those conditions. That would require authorities to carry out their responsibilities for site licensing more methodically and consistently.

My hon. Friend referred to the harassment of residents, and the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) described a particularly shocking case, which perhaps calls for naming and shaming—it is for him to investigate the matter and deal with it in his own way. The report proposes changes to the legislation to bring the provisions on harassment of residents into line with those that apply to tenants in the private rented sector so that the same level of protection applies across both tenures.

My hon. Friend mentioned the possibility of involving rent officers in disputes about pitch fees. Voluntary arbitration arrangements run by the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators operate in respect of such disputes, and the independent housing ombudsman makes his services available in some cases, given the agreement of residents and park owners. Working party members were in favour of developing properly independent arbitration agreements, but did not make any recommendation about the involvement of rent officers in resolving disputes. However, we are prepared to consider that possibility.

The proposals requiring amendments to legislation must be further developed and their impact properly assessed. A legislative opportunity must then be found to implement them. All hon. Members will be aware of the tremendous pressure that the legislative programme is under. We are therefore anxious to make progress as quickly as possible on aspects that do not require legislation, while bearing in mind the fact that it may be required in due course. We are also anxious to have a consistent and thorough approach to the issues.

My hon. Friend suggested that mobile homes should be subject to housing legislation, and referred to The Big Issue campaign. I share his concern about providing residents with adequate protection against exploitative treatment, but the proposal in his early-day motion did not find agreement among the members of the working party. Nevertheless, we are willing to consider a wide range of suggestions in the interests of developing an appropriate control regime for mobile homes.

In addition to legislative changes, the report suggests the provision of good practice guidance to local authorities on the way in which they carry out their statutory responsibilities on harassment and site licensing. I accept the working party's view that there are wide variations between authorities in that respect, and we shall issue good practice guidance following the findings of recent Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions research. Our aim in disseminating good practice is to improve the quality and consistency of the service that authorities provide to residents and site owners on harassment and site licensing. The working party identified a willingness on the part of residents and park owners' bodies to consider further provisions, which are included in the industry's voluntary agreement between the parties. I commend the parties for that.

The parties were unable to reach an agreement on pitch fees and sales commission payable by the resident to the park owner—the most controversial aspect considered by the working party. Several hon. Members referred to the proposal that research should be carried out into the economics of the industry, and we are not waiting until the end of the consultation period to deal with that. Talks are already under way to discuss the basis for such a study.

We are willing to consider action across a broad front—in the form of the good practice guide and, when the opportunity arises, legislation—following the publication of the working party's recommendations. At this stage, I cannot rule anything in or out. The matter is in the hands of my solicitors, as we say. I am especially keen to take forward those issues with clear support from the working party and other consultees.

A couple of hon. Members referred to a possible revision of the council tax band—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Time is up. The matter may be in the hands of your solicitors, Mr. Mullin, but you are now in the hands of the Chair.

We now move to the debate initiated by the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw). Before I call him, I advise hon. Members that a number of other Kent Members have the hon. Gentleman's permission to participate in the debate. They have sought the sanction not only of the Chair but of the Minister, and that has been granted. As long as they stick religiously to the commitment that they have entered into, I hope to be able to call them all.