Aldous secures second reading of Mobile Homes Bill

Waveney MP Peter Aldous last week secured a Second Reading of his Mobile Homes Bill.

Mr Aldous’ Mobile Homes Bill offers additional protection for park homes residents against unscrupulous or dishonest site operators.

The Bill takes account of the research and work carried out by the Communities and Local Government Select Committee who heard evidence and produced a report on the park homes sector in June, as well as the consultation carried out by the Department for Communities and Local Government and Consumer Focus’ “Living the dream?” investigation published last week.

Mr Aldous said:

“I am delighted that the Bill has received its Second Reading and I found the debate extremely helpful as many interesting points were raised that will be considered more fully at committee stage.

“This industry has been plagued by rogue operators - these reforms aim to drive them out and to secure a fairer deal both for home owners and for those responsible operators, running good businesses.”

FULL TEXT:

Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): I beg to move, that the Bill be now read a Second time.

When I was fortunate enough to be drawn fifth in the ballot for private Members’ Bills on 17 May, I immediately received requests to introduce Bills on many subjects. The request to sponsor a Bill on park homes stood out from the other suggestions for a number of reasons. First, the request came from a wide variety of colleagues from both sides of this Chamber and from the other place. Secondly, based on my experiences in my constituency, I was fully aware that the law on park homes was in urgent need of reform and updating. Thirdly, drawing on experiences in my career as a chartered surveyor, it was clear that park home owners in many places have been denied the basic right to live peacefully in and enjoy their own homes, a right that those in most other property sectors with different tenure arrangements take for granted.

The sector comprises 0.38% of the country’s housing stock—approximately 160,000 people living in 85,000 park homes on 2,000 estates. It is the fact that these numbers are relatively small, not any party political differences, that explains why the sector has been overlooked for so long and why there has been a lack of progress in bringing forward legislation. There is, in fact, a remarkable degree of agreement on all sides that the legislative framework governing park homes is today not fit for purpose. It neither deters unscrupulous site owners nor provides local authorities with effective powers to monitor and help improve site conditions.

Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I commend my hon. Friend’s proposals to allow the sale of mobile homes to be in the control of the occupier, not the owner of the site. This will come as a particular relief to those people on sites on the Isle of Wight and beyond that have been sale blocked. People have come over to the island specifically to block sales of park homes and sites. Most owners set sensible limits, such as restricting parks to over-60s, but does my hon. Friend believe that protecting the rights of mobile home owners will prevent sale blocking by rogue site owners?

Peter Aldous: Yes, I do agree, and the Bill seeks to address the concerns that my hon. Friend sets out. His constituency, like mine, is a coastal constituency, and it is in such areas that this is a particular problem. I am grateful to him for drawing that to my attention.

It is appropriate to mention some of those who have campaigned so tirelessly to address the unfairness that my hon. Friend outlined. They include my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), who chairs the all-party group on mobile homes, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who has campaigned vigorously for reform, and the noble Lord Graham of Edmonton, who has championed the cause of park home owners over many years.

A particular feature of the sector is that most residents are elderly and often vulnerable, with approximately 70% being over the age of 70. At present, they face a confusing array of laws and regulations that offer little or no protection. The existing legislative framework is flawed and has many loopholes that enable unscrupulous site owners unfairly to take advantage of residents.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Does my hon. Friend also agree that many of these elderly home occupiers came to what was to them an idyllic home in an attractive setting, often with a very friendly and helpful owner, but have then seen the site bought by somebody else who does not understand or co-operate on their problem at all?

Peter Aldous: My right hon. Friend makes a good point. Consumer Focus has just produced a report on park home sites entitled “Living the Dream?”. For many people these homes were a cherished ideal and somewhere they could retire to, but their dreams have been shattered and we need to pick up the pieces.

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and support everything in his Bill. He has described how the concerns about park homes relate particularly to coastal areas and to the elderly. May I point out that there are two park home sites in my constituency in Northumberland that are landlocked and that the residents, who are in no way elderly, are robust, strong and intelligent people? However, even the fact that they robust, strong and have their full capacities does not stop them being completely subject to landlords and the problems my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) identified.

Peter Aldous: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. There are some very responsible site owners, but there are also some unscrupulous rogue operators—gangsters, dare I say it?—against whom everyone needs the right protection.

The problem we have identified has been recognised by the Prime Minister, who, in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) during Prime Minister’s questions last November, said:

“There are some extremely good park home owners, who not only obey the rules but demonstrate responsibility and compassion, but there are some who do not. We are committed to providing a better deal for park home residents by improving their rights and increasing protection against bad site owners.”—[Official Report, 9 November 2011; Vol. 535, c. 283.]

It is in that spirit, and with full Government support, led by the former Housing Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), that I present the Bill for Second Reading. In summary, the problem park home owners face is that in recent years many sites have been acquired by rogue operators who, in pursuit of obscene windfall profits, exploit the piecemeal regulatory framework to make the lives of many elderly and vulnerable people a misery.

Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on getting the Bill to Second Reading and hope that we will get it through today—I am sure that we will. Many rogue operators have come in and bought up sites in idyllic places. In South Derbyshire we have some very good site operators, but there are also some people who have come in more recently who do not care about the residents and basically want them off the sites. It is a really poor show. The Bill will hopefully remedy the situation.

Peter Aldous: My hon. Friend summarises well the situation and the challenge we face.

The exploitation takes a variety of forms: the deliberate miscalculation of pitch fee increases and utility charges; poor, or even a complete lack of, site maintenance, as is the case at the Waveney residential park in Beccles in my constituency; and the abuse of the right to approve new buyers, known as sale blocking, which rogue site owners often use as a device to buy park homes at knock-down prices before selling them for windfall profits. There has even been a case involving terrified home owners being forced to sell their home, which had a market value of £80,000, for £1—a peppercorn.

The existing legal framework, which dates back over 50 years, is outdated, does not deter unscrupulous site owners and does not provide local authorities with effective powers. Local authorities have a limited ability to revoke licences when site conditions are being breached and, indeed, the granting of licences is at present little more than a rubber-stamping exercise. Moreover, the fines that local authorities can impose to deter operators are inadequate, and some site owners will risk the threat of small financial sanctions rather than maintain sites properly.

Demands for reform are sometimes made on the back of an isolated case, but that is not the situation with regard to the Bill. The case is compelling and overwhelming. The Department for Communities and Local Government carried out a consultation earlier this year, to which there were over 600 responses, and the Communities and Local Government Committee has carried out a full and comprehensive inquiry and come forward with recommendations, many of which are included in the Bill. An issue that I found particularly disturbing about that inquiry was that, of the 250 people who made representations, some asked for their names to be withheld as they were scared about possible reprisals.

Mrs Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on getting the Bill this far. In gathering evidence, has he found examples, as other Members have, of unscrupulous site owners deliberately using bullying tactics so that people are afraid? I have seen that in my constituency again and again over many years. One individual in particular—I dare to name him—Mr Sines, owns many parks across the country and has engaged in exactly the sort of behaviour my hon. Friend has just described, and has done so for over a decade.

Peter Aldous: My hon. Friend makes her point well. A particularly unscrupulous type of site operator has moved into the sector and is making life a misery for an untold number of people.

Earlier this week, Consumer Focus published its report, “Living the Dream?”, which confirmed the abuses and iniquities taking place in the sector. The conclusions of these reports and inquiries are underpinned by the experiences and findings of colleagues in this Chamber and in the other place, drawn from what they have been told and what they have seen for themselves. I anticipate that during the course of this debate we will hear some shocking examples—we have heard some already—of what some park home owners have had to put up with.

The Bill’s objectives are threefold. The first and foremost objective is to drive out the rogues. Secondly, the Bill aims to ensure that responsible site owners, such as my constituent, David Westgate, who runs the Beach Farm park at Pakefield, are not unfairly penalised and burdened with regulations and so can make a fair return on the time, effort and financial investment they put into their properties.

Rebecca Harris (Castle Point) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that this excellent Bill, by driving out the rogue operators, will allow the legitimate and responsible park owners to have much better businesses, to be much more respected and to do much more to improve and enhance their sites in future?

Peter Aldous: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She summarises the position well. The objective behind the legislation, as she says, is to ensure that the responsible site owner can move forward and run a sensible business.

The Bill’s final objective is to ensure that park home owners can enjoy their homes without fear of retribution or harassment. In drafting the Bill, I have concentrated only on those issues where legislation is needed. It contains measures to achieve the following objectives: reform of the licensing system that applies to park home sites; preventing site owners from blocking residents’ sales on the open market, including the misuse of site rules; clarifying the law on harassment and making it an offence to say something that is untrue to prevent a home from being sold; making pitch fees more transparent and setting new rules on what should be taken into account in reviews so that fees are fair and accurately reflect the condition of the site; and, finally, should it prove necessary, allowing the Secretary of State to introduce a “fit and proper person” registration scheme in future.

This Bill has, in many respects, been difficult to draft—the devil is very much in the detail—and I am grateful for the support that I have received. There are many points of detail that will need to be addressed in Committee. There also remains other work to do in the sector, including helping park home owners themselves to obtain a better understanding of their agreements and of their rights and obligations. The fact that at present only 1% of buyers take legal advice when buying a park home means that they are particularly vulnerable when faced with an unscrupulous site owner. The Government need to help the legal profession, including citizens advice bureaux, to improve their understanding of the sector and its legislative framework.

In a week when rising energy bills are making the headlines, it is important to remember that fuel poverty is a very serious issue on park home sites, which are usually off mains gas and where residents invariably do not have a contractual relationship with their energy company. Any proposals that the Government bring forward to address the challenge presented by rising fuel bills need to take account of the particular vulnerability of park home owners.

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for introducing this Bill. There is a statutory instrument in place that restricts the amount of extra charges that can be passed on to mobile home owners by the site owner, but only for electricity and water and not for liquid petroleum gas, for example. Would he be prepared to consider in Committee an amendment to his Bill to change that, because it is affecting the people who are suffering the most from fuel poverty in many of our constituencies?

Peter Aldous: I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for that intervention. This is a very serious concern that does need to be addressed, and we can consider that point if we get to the Committee stage. The Bill has been difficult to draft in terms of its length and succinctness. I am not sure whether it is the right place to deal with the matter, but we can consider doing so.

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): Fuel poverty is a massive problem for park home owners. The Bill would place an obligation on the site owner to be transparent with the fee arrangements. Will my hon. Friend consider extending that to the fees charged for energy, perhaps in the way suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk? This is very important in relation to the recommendations in the Consumer Focus report that my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) mentioned, which would enable park home owners to benefit from the measures that are being introduced by the Department of Energy and Climate Change through the energy company obligation and the green deal, enabling people to improve the insulation of their park homes and to access the best tariffs to get them out of fuel poverty.

Peter Aldous: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. She has clearly studied the Bill in some detail and taken on board the issues raised by Consumer Focus. Her point is well merited, and we can certainly consider it if we get to the Committee stage.

This Bill is a vital step forward in addressing the criminality, abuse and intimidation that has evolved in this sector in recent years. I thank colleagues for their encouragement and support, and I hope that the Bill can move forward in order to address the injustice that a vulnerable group of people have had to suffer for too long. I commend the Bill to the House.

9.53 am

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Peter holds regular surgeries at various locations in the constituency. Please call 01502 586568 to make an appointment.

Next Surgeries - 2018:
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