Peter Aldous highlights the impact and effectiveness of the Mobile Homes Act 2013. He outlines some of the problems that still need to be tackled such as rogue site owners, better enforcement of the legislation, support to ensure responsible site owners stay in the industry and protection to stop holiday home sites morphing into park home sites.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I am aware that this is a sector you are interested in through your chairmanship of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee. I welcome the new Ministers to their places and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) on securing the debate.
In the past four years, there has been quite a lot of work done to assess the impact and effectiveness of the Mobile Homes Act 2013, much of which has been instigated by the Government. However, much of this activity has been taking place beneath the radar, elbowed out of the spotlight by the Brexit debate. It is therefore good news that we are using this unexpected opportunity to review the situation and to consider whether we are on the right course to ensure the sector is fit for purpose, that the rights and welfare of residents are properly and fully protected, that local authorities have the powers and resources to enforce legislation, and that site owners who play by the rules can earn a realistic return on their investment and are incentivised to carry out further improvements to their sites.
Generally, I believe we are moving in the right direction—though we should be moving quicker and there are some significant obstacles to overcome. The 2013 Act has been a qualified success. In saying that, I do not wish to damn it with faint praise; indeed, many would say I have a vested interest in not doing so. The Park Homes Working Group 2015 has come up with some welcome recommendations and the Government’s response to the 2017 review identified the issues that need to be addressed. The challenge will lie in securing their effective implementation.
In the remaining time, I shall briefly highlight the significant problems that need to be tackled and the potential pitfalls that need to be avoided. First, we have the rogue site owners. As we have heard, they still exist and are finding ways of circumnavigating the legislation that was intended to put an end to their intimidating and sharp practices.
I know the hon. Gentleman has done significant work on this through the all-party group and he is making an excellent speech. On that point, is it not true that people have been jailed for breaking the law while owning park homes and, after their release, have been able to purchase new park homes because we do not have a fit and proper person test and a proper legislative framework to prevent that?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is correct and we need to address those particular issues, but we need to make sure we do so in an effective way, with the desired consequences. The introduction of the fit and proper person test was provided for in the 2013 Act and is intended to eliminate these rogues. However, the feedback from Wales is that it has not done that and that a dispersed system with a tickbox approach, which has been pursued there, has not led to one application being refused. If introduced—I have no particular problem with that—the test must be properly co-ordinated and consistent across the whole country and it must plug the loopholes whereby a rogue site owner either puts forward a manager for licensing purposes yet continues to direct business themselves or pursues the type of dubious practices highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch.
Secondly, more needs to be done to ensure that local authorities have the necessary expertise and resources to enforce the legislation. From my own experience, I know that East Suffolk Council is very good and proactive in addressing a problem when it arises. However, there is more work to be done on day-to-day management and the guidance and advice given to both home and site owners. Such pre-emptive work will nip potential problems in the bud and ensure they do not develop into the major incidents that cause people so much distress and turmoil. I take the view that, if seen through, the recommendations of the working group and the Government’s response to the review will address many of the concerns.
Thirdly, we have heard a great deal today about the sharp practices that are blighting many people’s lives, but it is important not to lose sight of the fact that many site owners behave responsibly, fulfil their obligations and build good working relationships with the homeowners on their sites. It is vital that we do not create a system that forces them out of the sector to be replaced by the rogues who circumnavigate the arrangements and exploit the loopholes about which we have heard so much. In my experience, some good site owners are already deciding to leave the sector.
Fourthly, it is important to continue to distinguish between park homes and holiday homes and to guard against holiday parks morphing into park home sites, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch highlighted. The two sectors are completely different, with two different systems of protection against mis-selling and misuse. It is important that they remain as such and that we enforce the two systems fully and effectively.
Does my hon. Friend accept that, in the light of recent planning decisions at appeal, the two sectors are now morphed together, and that the only way to resolve the matter and make them distinct again is through legislation?
My hon. Friend is correct to highlight the problem, and the situation has evolved and been allowed to develop at individual sites around the country. It may be like separating Siamese twins, but we must try, because the two sectors are completely different, serving completely different markets. If at all possible, they need to remain as such.
My final point relates to the 10% commission on sales. That is an anomaly in many ways, yet it has to a large extent underpinned the sector’s financial viability over time. The Government are right to be carrying out an assessment of the likely impact of a change to the rate of commission, and their findings should be fully scrutinised both back in this Chamber and, I am sure, by your Select Committee, Mr Betts. However, before making any changes we need to guard against and properly consider any unintended consequences, which could lead to a jacking up of pitch fees, for example.
Park homes have often been a forgotten part of the housing sector, but they play a vital role, particularly in certain seaside communities, such as those that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and I represent, and for people at or approaching retirement. The sector has been overlooked in the past, and it is important that that does not happen in the future. We must continue to scrutinise the sector to ensure that homeowners have peace of mind, good site owners receive a fair return and the rogues are sent a clear message that they are not welcome and that we will send them packing.
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