(2 years, 2 months ago)Westminster Hall
I beg to move,
That this House has considered rights and protections for residents of leisure park homes.
It is a pleasure to open this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. If you were to visit my constituency, drive along the A20 past Harrietsham, then turn up a winding single-track lane into the rolling hills of the North Downs area of outstanding natural beauty, after about five minutes you would find yourself at Pilgrims Retreat. It is a beautiful spot surrounded by fields and woodland, and there is hardly a building to be seen other than on the site. It is an ideal spot for a holiday, within easy reach of Leeds castle and the Kent coast, and a lovely place to retire to. That is the dream that several of my constituents gave their life savings to buy into.
The reality is a long way from the rural idyll that they were hoping for. Some have spent a six-figure sum on a park home that they believed they could spend the rest of their days in, only to find that they have bought a holiday home, which means that they do not have the same status as permanent residents and leaves them vulnerable to exploitation.
Some arrived at their new property and found that they could not get in, because there was no path or steps up to the front door. The site owner, Fred Sines, a man with a record who has been previously mentioned in the House, then demanded thousands of pounds in cash to fix the problem. I am told that he has also hiked pitch fees overnight with little warning, and that there is a culture of fear and intimidation, with people being banned from using facilities such as the club room, and threatened with having their properties demolished. All the while, they are paying council tax to the local authority, even though they are not permanent residents.
I recognise that leisure park homes or holiday homes are a significant part of Britain’s tourism industry. They are often in beautiful rural or coastal settings, and can be important drivers of the local economy when used for their true purpose: holidaying. According to a recent report by the UK Caravan and Camping Alliance, holiday homes in mobile home or caravan parks make up 8% of the UK’s tourism sector, generate £3.9 billion in visitor spend, and support 170,000 jobs.
When run in a decent and proper way, holiday parks support local economies and provide much-needed jobs in areas where work can be hard to find, but that is not always the case, and Pilgrims Retreat is not a one-off. In my constituency and elsewhere, holiday homes appear to be being mis-sold as residential homes, depriving the local area of tourist income and leaving residents, some of whom are elderly, in poor health and vulnerable to exploitation, with few rights or protections.
The situation is compounded by the failure of local authorities to enforce the terms of holiday home licences consistently by checking whether people are living there all year round—they should not be—and that they have another, main address. There are undoubtedly many wonderful holiday parks where the owners follow the rules, holidaymakers come and go in peace, and the local economy benefits, but that is not always the case.
My hon. Friend is making a strong case as to why the subject needs to be looked at, and is highlighting the problems that her constituents have experienced. Does she recognise, however, that many operators do a good job and provide employment for local people? I have several examples in my constituency, such as Meadowhead Ltd, which provides a good service. It is important that the whole industry is not tarnished by the way that those bad examples have conducted themselves.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. There are also well-managed park homes sites in my constituency, which is a reason to take action where the system is not working. We have to make sure that the whole industry is not tarnished by the actions of an unscrupulous minority.
For a subset of sites, there is a problem. Gaps in the law and inadequate oversight by local authorities allow unscrupulous site owners to benefit from a lack of consumer awareness. To fix that, we need to strengthen the rights and protections for holiday home owners, make sure that owners and potential owners know those rights, and make sure that the law is properly enforced.
My hon. Friend is making a coherent case on both sides of the argument. Does she agree that in some cases—not many—tenants are gaming the system to the disadvantage of park owners, and that a way forward may be more formal legal requirements, through which people who sign leases receive legal advice and are properly bound by the contracts that they sign?
I have heard the same thing. It is as if my hon. Friend had seen my speech in advance—although I know he has not—because we have clearly come to some of the same conclusions.
I reiterate that where the law does not work and enforcement does not happen, the industry overall gets a bad name. As a consequence, individuals’ dreams of an idyllic retirement in a country or coastal setting turns into a nightmare. One specific reason for that is because the owners of a holiday park home do not own the land that they live on; they are simply leasing the caravan or the mobile home on that land. People think that they are signing up to own the property in the long term, but they are actually signing a short-term lease, which can be for as short a time as 12 years. As they are leaseholders, they are covered only by consumer protection legislation, not wider housing laws.
Under the Mobile Homes Act 2013, local authorities have powers to issue notices to residential site owners when the site is not kept in a good condition. They can be fined up to £5,000 for failure to comply with those notices. The Act also gives councils emergency powers to enter sites at short notice to enforce those notices. Holiday park homes are excluded from the Act, however, so although it has helped to reduce exploitation on residential sites, that exploitation seems to have shifted to holiday home sites. Solving one problem appears to have created another.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this timely debate. In Scotland, there is a requirement for licences to have been issued to owners by May, whether they permanently reside on a holiday or residential site. The purpose is to give them the guarantees that are lacking in the cases she has referred to. The Scottish Confederation of Park Home Residents Associations has come together to help those people, and to give them a voice that can be heard by the council when there are complaints, and, more importantly, by the site owners when they deviate from what we would all expect.
In general, we should look at what is happening in all parts of the United Kingdom to see what works best, and learn from it. I will refer to Wales in a moment, and no doubt the Minister will do the same.
I have already had conversations with the Minister on the issue. She is sympathetic and concerned, and is very much looking into it, which I appreciate. My first questions are whether she will consider extending the relevant parts of the 2013 Act to holiday home owners; whether she will consider introducing tougher penalties for unscrupulous holiday site owners to discourage them from acting in an exploitative way; and whether she will look at the fit and proper person test, which could be introduced in England for residential homes under the Act, and has already been introduced in Wales. Although the test is not perfect, it would be a step in the right direction, and would make it harder for a known unscrupulous landlord to get a site licence.
As well as introducing stronger rights and protections for the purchasers of holiday homes, we need to make sure that existing legislation is enforced. My understanding is that in England, the responsibility falls on local councils; the local council, for instance, should check that holiday home owners have another primary address, so that their holiday home is not their only and main address, and should also ensure that holiday home owners are not staying in their holiday home all year round.
It appears, at least in Maidstone in the case of Pilgrims Retreat, that my local borough council has not been doing those things, so the situation has been allowed to continue, not just for months but for years. It has built up, so that tens, indeed potentially hundreds, of people who believe they are residents are affected, even though the same local authority has been collecting council tax from these individuals, as if they were permanent residents.
The site licence at Pilgrims Retreat has been extended from 11 months to 12 months, which compounds the confusion of individuals seeking to buy properties there and live in them by giving them the impression that they can stay in these places all year round. I do not believe that my local council is alone in doing that.
Given the situation and the various ways in which individuals at Pilgrims Retreat have been let down, I welcome the fact that my local council is considering an amnesty for them and is trying to find ways to avoid making the residents—as they believe they are—homeless, because these properties are their only residence, and they have spent their savings on them; but in general, the situation should not and must not be allowed to continue.
If borough councils across the country are really struggling and failing to enforce the rules, it would be right to look at other options for licensing and enforcement. I ask the Minister to consider what could make enforcement work better. What changes to the rules might make enforcement easier? Should there be other organisations involved, or other levels at which enforcement and licensing occur, perhaps at county level? Or should there be an independent regulator with statutory enforcement powers?
To make things easier, perhaps there should also be a change to the rules. When a site has a 12-month licence, people might be told that they cannot stay there all year round, but it is really hard to enforce that rule. It would be easier if a site simply closed for a period of the year, for one or two months. That would not necessarily be popular with the holiday park owners, who are trying to run a business in which people might want to take a holiday at any time of the year, but there is a balance to be struck between making sure that the business model works, and making sure that these properties are holiday homes, because if they become de facto housing developments, they are totally failing to achieve their objective for the economy.
We need stronger protections for the individuals who live in these homes, and need to make sure that any new protections are properly enforced. We need to make sure that consumers know their rights. I have spoken to the British Holiday & Home Parks Association and listened to stories from all around the country, and it seems to be clear that many people are not alert to the risk of being mis-sold a holiday home. They hear that residents pay council tax; they know about 12-month leases; and often the site owners are the only source of information and advice for somebody planning a purchase, up to and including the point of sale. Many purchasers genuinely believe that they are buying a residential home.
My hon. Friend is making some good points. On the issue of advice, is there not a potential role for solicitors in providing advice about the transactions involved? We are not talking about inconsiderable sums of money; sometimes we are talking about a lot of money for the individuals who are buying these park homes. What role does she feel that solicitors and the legal process should have in helping people to make wise decisions and understand the risks involved?
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point, which is similar to one that was made earlier. When individuals are spending these sums of money—£100,000 or £200,000—perhaps they should be required to get some form of legal advice; it would be right to consider that. Clearly, we do not want to make the process more onerous than the process of buying a home, but one cannot buy a bricks-and-mortar house without going through a conveyancing process. Perhaps if there was a requirement for some kind of more formal process, fewer people would fall into the trap of misunderstanding what they are buying.
There is also a role for communication. Perhaps there is an opportunity for a communications campaign targeted at this market—at potential and current holiday park home owners—so that we get the message to people who might well become victims of this situation. We need to address the mismatch between people’s perceptions and the reality of buying a holiday park home. People need to understand that they are not buying the land; they are buying a lease. They need to know the implications of that.
Looking around, I believe that there are colleagues who may wish to speak, and I am very keen to make sure that my hon. Friend the Minister has time to answer my questions, so I will conclude by saying that by strengthening legislation to give protections to holiday park home owners, by ensuring proper enforcement, and by improving consumer awareness, we can and must make sure that other people do not fall into the same trap that my constituents at Pilgrims Retreat did.
It is always a pleasure to speak in Westminster Hall at any time, but this issue is one that I have a particular interest in, because I have a leisure and park homes facility in my constituency of Strangford, located in the village of Ballyhalbert. It has been there for many years.
I thank the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) for securing this debate. I am mindful that the last time I spoke in Westminster Hall on the issue of leisure and park homes, the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), was not a Minister, but she is now. She brought this issue forward in that debate, and she and I both spoke then. It is a pity that some years have passed by and we have not seen the conclusion that she and I wanted to see.
I will speak on a very specific point, which relates to some of the problems that we have had in my constituency. They may not be the issues that the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent has referred to, but they are issues that I feel I have to air in Westminster Hall today.
They relate to my time prior to coming to Westminster, when I was in the Northern Ireland Assembly, doing the job I had before this one. During my time in the Assembly, the Caravans Bill, which was a private Member’s Bill, was brought before us and I fully supported the rights not simply of those who owned holiday caravans but of those who chose to live permanently on site, of whom there were many. Caravans were a burgeoning business at that time, but from the local council to the Assembly and then obviously to here in Westminster, I have followed the issue. I was supportive of proper rights then and I am supportive of them now. The hon. Lady has put forward a very good and solid case today.
I am very pleased to see the Minister in Westminster Hall again. She seems to be in Westminster Hall almost as often as I am; this is two days running. [Laughter.] I jest.
Back in 2015, I questioned the then Minister—now Secretary of State for Work and Pensions—about electricity prices for park home residents, outlining concerns about the lack of energy efficiency schemes for those living in park homes. I was ever mindful of the fact that the age of those living in park homes is from 55 upwards, perhaps up to 80, and I asked the then Minister to see what she could do to help those people, taking into account the fact that park homes cannot have electricity meters. That was just one of the many issues that I raised at that time. It was clear that there were indiscretions and difficulties, and I want to highlight some of those as well today.
We are considering another issue in this debate. The Mobile Homes Act 1983 gives protection, as do the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960 and part 2 of the Consumer Rights Act 2015, which protects consumers from enforceability of unfair terms in contracts—the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent referred to unfair terms in contracts. In addition, there are the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. There are all of these pieces of legislation, and yet residents are not protected and are unsure of their rights. I want to air those issues today.
For the record, it is important that I say that this matter is a devolved one in Northern Ireland, and so it is not the Minister’s responsibility to respond to all of my points. Nevertheless, I want to air these issues, because the problems that the hon. Lady mentioned are happening in England—that is why all the English Members are here today—and they are probably also happening in Scotland and Wales. In Northern Ireland, they would be under the control of the Assembly—if only we had a functioning Assembly.
I have been dealing with an issue related to the park homes in my constituency, in co-operation with the local council, and these matters are certainly not straightforward or simple. As an example of the litigation and the problems that occur as a result of it, the removal of fences was a battle from beginning to end. The owners of the park homes site are required to operate under a licence issued by the council, which is displayed on site. The licence conditions relate to amenity and safety, and are based on model licence conditions issued by the environment Department in 1992.
I had a meeting with local residents. Again, many things happen at those meetings: some local residents come with problems, and others sometimes need some encouragement to follow the rules that are laid down.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I have many holiday parks in my constituency, and it is important to put on record that not all are as unscrupulous as some of the examples that we have heard about. However, the hon. Gentleman makes an important point: often, the constituents who come to us with problems are not fully aware of their rights, or of some of the remedies that are available to them. Does he agree that we should be looking at how to raise awareness of those remedies?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. What he has said is what we are all trying to achieve, including the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent and myself.
All parks are inspected annually for compliance with the model conditions during the annual site licensing visit to the park homes. The licence states:
“Fences must not be erected around or near to individual caravans unless they are of non-combustible material and they do not present a safety hazard.”
I felt at the time, and still feel, that many of these people have had these fences in place for 10 or 15 years, and there was never a bit of bother until about three years ago. People planted their wooden palisades, their trees or small bushes, and some council staff then interpreted those things as dangerous.
The council stated:
“While the Council has a duty to ensure compliance…the responsibility rests with the park owner. In this case…the owner had failed to ensure compliance and to recognise that the presence of such combustible materials can assist the rapid spread of fire, and that”
enclosing individual sites
“does not allow for access for emergency vehicles.”
That was what the whole issue was about.
I urge the devolved Administrations, when examining issues with residential park homes, to look at what this Parliament did with the revised legislation and regulations. I had a steady stream of casework prior to those revisions; I have not had a single piece of casework since. In the light of the residential issues that the hon. Gentleman is talking about, I urge the devolved Administrations to look at what this Parliament has introduced.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention; I am just coming to my conclusion, Mr Austin, as you will be glad to hear. The conclusion is that we got to the end of the road and got the problem sorted—hallelujah for that. However, getting it around took a long time. After much deliberation, and by agreement between the park homes and the council, the residents have been permitted to retain the boundary fencing as it does not assist the spread of fire from property to property, which we always said it did not.
That one issue highlights the quagmire that living in a park home can create. We need to have specific, clarified regulation to protect park owners and residents, and to allow a better working relationship with local authorities. Those in park homes are typically retired and sometimes vulnerable people, and I do not feel that the current quagmire of guidance and legal protection offers those people protection. I truly believe that this must change.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) for raising this issue, and endorse much of what she has said. The holiday park homes in my constituency bring in hundreds of thousands of holiday makers, and their revenue, every year. Those homes are extraordinarily well managed; they produce a very high-quality consumer product; and a huge amount of reinvestment takes place every year to keep that product at its high standard. I am always aware of the problems that I have had with park homes in the past, but those were largely—in fact, exclusively—confined to the residential homes in my constituency. I have never had any difficulty with the holiday homes; they are all extremely reputable organisations.
With respect to the residential homes, by and large, I have again had little difficulty, particularly when they are operated by public limited companies in which there is someone who people can deal with. There are, however, a number of homes run by—I am struggling to find the delicate words to use—people who have neither the social nor managerial skills to make a success of it, if I can put it that way. It is sometimes difficult to contact anyone representing those park homes, and that is the area in which we need to come up with a better form of intervention. The question of “fit and proper person” has been raised, and it is an appropriate question to ask.
One of the issues that many residents of residential homes raise with me is that of the 10% selling-on fee. It is extraordinary to me that people enter into contractual arrangements without advice and without realising what they are letting themselves in for. Nevertheless, if that is to be addressed, we have to recognise that realistically, it is part of the economics of running a park home and we would therefore expect that revenue to be paid for elsewhere in these people’s site fees. However, for park home owners of the nature that I have described, there is always an incentive to increase the turnover of sales by making vulnerable people’s lives miserable so that they move on. Removing that incentive is a clear argument for addressing the issue of the 10% fee.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) for raising this important issue, which affects a lot of us here. I have visited both residential and leisure park homes in my constituency, and under the correct management, there is no doubt that they can be well-run sites that are great places to live or to go on holiday. However, some of them are in the wrong hands, and bad practice can creep into leisure sites, creating an exploitative way of doing business. The lack of regulation is certainly making that situation worse.
During my visit to a leisure park site in my constituency, I heard accounts from many constituents of maintenance disputes, intimidation and harassment by site management, and rules being changed: one day, those residents could have an outdoor shed, and the next day they could not. One day, they could have plant pots, and then suddenly they could only have three plant pots, with all the rest being smashed. The management was quite threatening, and the residents were definitely frightened.
Even more concerning were reports about mis-selling of leisure homes as permanent accommodation, and unclear contractual arrangements on reselling and pitch fees. There were many stories of people having been sold a dream of selling up and buying a holiday home, with an emphasis on the site being open for most of the year. I was even handed photographic evidence of signage stating that a site was an ideal starter home, and encouraging people to move into those starter homes. In places such as Chichester, where the average house price is over £300,000, that is an attractive offer for many. Of course, all the buyers think is that they have to go on holiday for two weeks, which most of us do. Many of the residents were only given part 1 of their licence agreement during the sales process, with part 2—the terms and conditions—made available only after the sale, or in some cases never supplied. One gentleman I spoke with explained that he had signed his contract despite not seeing all the small print because, after divorcing, he needed to find somewhere to live really quickly.
From those examples, and from others shared by Members today, it is evident that there is a widespread problem of holiday park sites being used residentially, with owners not adequately protected under consumer rights legislation. Of course, local authorities have enforcement powers, but they are concerned about using them: they know that this is going on, but they are concerned about creating a problem that they cannot solve, because if people are made homeless there are not enough homes. If an owner is a member of the National Caravan Council, then they can also use that council to raise concerns. However, not all sites are members. I visited a park home site recently, and it had left the NCC, so there was no means of redress.
Where site owners are guilty of mis-selling, the balance of power is completely in their favour. Residents have no permanent address and possibly no local connection to the area. That can lead to problems registering on the electoral roll, accessing local services or receiving benefits they need. Residents are often too scared to come forward with complaints because they are all too aware of their vulnerable position. They are almost stateless in a way; they do not have any rights. Essentially, they are fearful of being evicted and made homeless. Consumer rights legislation does not offer these grey area residents the same level of statutory protections, such as against harassment or rights over information such as utility charges, as those living on residential sites. I fully support the calls we have heard for the Mobile Homes Act 1983 to be extended to leisure home owners, which would go a long way to evening up the imbalance and protecting the many vulnerable and often elderly residents.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) on securing this important debate, and on highlighting a growing problem in the leisure park sector that is devastating the lives of many people, and turning what was supposed to be a dream into a nightmare.
The issue is of interest to me for two reasons. First, the Mobile Homes Act 2013, which was brought in to stamp out abuses in the park homes sector, started off as a private Member’s Bill that I took through the Commons. It appears that the measures introduced by that Act to outlaw rogue site owners have had the unintended consequence that they now focus their attention on holiday parks. Secondly, the holiday parks sector is important in my constituency. Leisure park homes are a vital component part of the tourism industry around Lowestoft and along the Suffolk and Norfolk coast. Generally, those businesses are well run. It is important to bear in mind that the vast majority of site owners are responsible business people.
As I see it, we have to address two issues: the unscrupulous operators who have moved into the sector, and the people who have moved into the parks with the intention of living, rather than holidaying, there. They can be addressed in two ways. First, there is a whole raft of legislation that prohibits mis-selling and fraud, and it should be enforced. That includes the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013, the Consumer Rights Act 2015, the Misrepresentation Act 1967, the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 and, very importantly, the Fraud Act 2006.
Secondly, responsible site owners should do all they can to ensure that people do not live on parks as their main homes. That means properly checking the purchaser’s home address, and asking for a utility bill and a council tax receipt to confirm it. It means watching out for tell-tale signs that the mobile home might be being used as a permanent home, such as cars leaving and returning at what could be described as commuter times, and washing being on the line throughout the year—in particular, school uniforms being hung out to dry.
My concern about additional legislation is that we would need to ensure that it did not have an unintended negative impact on local economies, many of which are in coastal locations and are fragile and heavily reliant on tourism. Moreover, it has to be pointed out that in many instances local authorities do not enforce existing laws and regulations due to financial restrictions and staff shortages. I have to ask: what is the point of passing new laws that will not be enforced?
We need to get the councils a better local government funding settlement at the forthcoming comprehensive spending review, so that they can properly regulate the sector, applying the rules so as to drive out the rogues who are making many peoples’ lives a misery. My hon. Friend has highlighted a growing problem that must be stamped out, and I will work with her to do that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) on securing this debate. The issue has arisen on a number of occasions in my constituency, and I have carried out casework on behalf of people on both sides of the equation. Before I get into that, may I use this opportunity to pay tribute to the emergency services in Somerset, who responded so well to the ceiling that collapsed at Pontins in Brean the other night? A number of people were injured. I hear that the emergency services responded with their usual professionalism and expertise, and ensured that injury and inconvenience were absolutely minimised.
Brean is a wonderful place to go for a holiday. Tens of thousands of people do so every week, all season long, and there are many more caravans and mobile homes in the wider Burnham-on-Sea area. I understand that it is second only to Skegness in the European rankings for concentrations of caravans. We are very proud of that.
I feel that I should mention that my hon. Friend is completely correct: Skegness is the proud owner of the highest concentration in Europe. While I envy my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) for securing this debate, it is important to set it in context. The overall benefit to the economy of the industry is enormous, and the rogues are small in number, even if their effects are genuinely profound.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He knows, as I do, that what Brean lacks in quantity as against Skegness, we make up for in quality. I know he agrees with that.
There are effectively four groups affected by the issue. The local community beyond the park are frustrated that there is additional pressure on local services and infrastructure without any due planning process having been followed. Sedgemoor District Council has had to retrospectively allow planning permission to protect the value of the asset that the residents of park homes have spent money on, but there is a lack of consultation and transparency in the planning process when that emergency measure is taken. There is also a loss of tourism revenue, because permanent residents tend not to eat out and use local attractions as much as those visiting for just a week.
The local community is disadvantaged, too. Reputable, law-abiding caravan and leisure parks in the area miss out. There is the reputational risk to the industry of all operators being tarred with the same brush, which is unfair. When this issue arose two or three years ago, Sedgemoor employed a company called Capacitygrid. I am sure it did nothing other than what it was invited to do, but its method of checking that all the tens of thousands of caravans in the Brean area were legit was to be quite harassing in how it did its business, and how it got proof of another address. The park owners had to put up with their residents being affected by that company, which had been instructed by Sedgemoor to go in and check on the scale of the problem.
The local council has to pay for enforcement out of our council taxes. It has the grumpiness that comes with the difficult planning decisions that it needs to take if it is to retrospectively approve the caravans as permanent places of residence. As the caravans are already there, there is none of the community infrastructure levy or section 106 money that would come with a more routine planning decision, so there is none of the development that comes with having secured that money during the planning process.
Most importantly, the residents are so often taken for a ride. They are overly trusting, but they see an opportunity to have a permanent home in a place where they have enjoyed holidaying their entire working life. They take that opportunity and put their life savings into it, only to find that what they have bought is effectively worthless, because there is no planning permission for that residence to be used year round. I have had it reported to me that residents struggle to access local services. They are at the mercy of unscrupulous park owners.
I agree with so much of the expertise that has been shared with us about what could be done. There is plenty of legislation that protects consumer rights, and our first instinct should be to use what is on the statute book, rather than to develop new laws. However, it is important that we address this issue. From my experience in nearly four years as the MP for Wells, I have seen enough of this problem on the coast to know that it is something that the Government should address. I very much look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I thank the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) for introducing the debate.
For anybody watching, I begin by making clear the distinction between leisure park homes and residential homes, because that is extremely important. The terms are not interchangeable. I completely agree with the concerns about leisure park homes raised by the hon. Lady and others. Leisure park homes can be bought by unsuspecting people in the mistaken belief that they can live in them all year round, when that would be a clear breach of licensing conditions for holiday homes. Those who have purchased a leisure park home must have a permanent residential address elsewhere, as such homes cannot be used as a main residence. That can affect council tax, planning permission requirements and so on, as the hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) said.
Permanent residential park homes, of which I have a couple in my constituency, are not the same; owners can live in those houses full time, all year round. The regulation of those sites is a matter for the Scottish Government. However, clearly the terms and conditions attached to the different kinds of parks—leisure park and permanent residential park homes—need to be made absolutely clear to prospective buyers. As we have heard, that is not always the case.
The situation is complex. With regard to permanent residential homes, I have heard of situations in Scotland where parks are not properly maintained, despite significant charges being levied on residents for that very purpose. In response, the Scottish Government have introduced a new licensing system that gives local authorities enforcement powers that they had not enjoyed before. That means that the local authority can serve improvement notices if the site owner commits a criminal offence in breaching a licence condition.
In addition, the local authority can take the steps set out in an improvement notice if the site owner defaults. Penalty notices can be served, and the local authority can apply to the sheriff for the appointment of an interim manager. Furthermore, emergency action can be taken if there is imminent risk of serious harm to the health and safety of a person. That represents a significant beefing up of local authority powers, and is a response to site managers or owners simply collecting money while not fulfilling their obligations to keep sites maintained to the standard that those with park homes are entitled to expect. Where there are gaps in the law regarding leisure park homes, they should be addressed, as the hon. Member for Chichester pointed out.
Another issue relating to permanent sites that owners are simply not aware of in every case, until they reach the point of resale, is that permanent residential park home owners have to pay sales commissions of up to 10% on the resale of their park home, as the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) pointed out. The question that we must ask is: if residents do not know about the charge, why do they not? Clearly the system is not working as we would wish it to. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out, the power supply to these homes is also an area of concern.
We are really short of time; I think the Chair would like me to proceed. I do apologise.
In Scotland, we hope to counter some of those difficulties. All prospective mobile home buyers will now have 28 days’ notice to consider the terms of the agreement before the sale can be concluded. It is important that this group of consumers have the proper protection that they need when choosing to live year-round on licensed permanent mobile home sites, because it is a very expensive undertaking. It is important that the system be transparent, open and fair, both to permanent residential site owners, and to those who choose to live on such sites.
I say to the Minister, as other Members have said, that protections are required to make the system of purchasing leisure or residential homes, and the rights and responsibilities of each party, fair for all concerned and transparent. Those measures need to be in place. As I always say in such debates on devolved matters, it is really important that England looks at what Scotland has done to see what can be learned, and vice versa. We should all pursue best practice, no matter where in the UK we live.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin, and to speak in this debate. The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) made a convincing case for the need for protection of leisure park homes. She also painted a lovely picture of her constituency. Is it any wonder that people want to go to the rolling hills of the north downs and retire there? What a terrible thing it is when they find that it is not quite what they expected.
We heard tales of pitch fees increasing, and about the culture of fear and mis-selling. The right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) rightly asked who some of the people running these homes are, and what can be done about the problems. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) asked why nothing had been done, when he has been raising these issues for some years. The hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) talked about people feeling almost “stateless”, which is a strong and apt word.
The hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) talked about his role with regard to previous legislation, and made a really important point about the need to protect the tourism industry. Anything that we do must not damage that. The hon. Member for Wells (James Heappey) told us that his area is second only to Skegness in its concentration of caravans, and we must listen to what he has to say.
I am very sorry that I was not here earlier; there were distractions in the House. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is incredibly important to draw a distinction between sites that are badly run and badly managed, where bad practices are endemic, and really well-run sites that have had zero complaints over many years? For example, there is Pinewoods in my constituency, near Wells-next-the-Sea, Searles park in Hunstanton, and McDonnell caravans park. We have a number of really well-run sites with no history of complaints whatever. We need to find a way of ensuring that we drill down and protect those people who need protection, while not damaging those well-run sites.
I agree with that completely. The poor form tarnishes the whole industry, and people who are doing things well do not, on the whole, object to changes to regulation or legislation because they are already doing what they should be. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point.
As we have heard, there are lots of problems that we need to try to fix. Residents in leisure park homes are not afforded the limited protections of mobile home owners on sites with residential planning permission. They do not have the special protections under the Mobile Homes Act 2013, as we discussed. In the Opposition’s view, it is right to call for protections to be extended to residents living permanently in leisure park homes. We should also ask why residents are being sold permanent homes in leisure parks that do not have residential planning permission. It is unclear how widespread that practice is. Perhaps the Minister can tell us her sense of the scale of the problem, and what the Government consider the issues to be.
The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent talked about the protections afforded to residents of park homes through the 2013 Act, but it is worth emphasising that abuses are still happening across all park homes despite those changes in law. There is a need for wider reform. Organisations such as the Park Home Owners Justice Campaign and the Park Homes Policy Forum have worked for years to expose the exploitation of park home residents, which is still ongoing. Park homes have been described to me as
“like leasehold bullying, but with criminal thuggery thrown in.”
We know that 62% of leasehold home owners feel as if they were mis-sold them; I would not be surprised if a similar, or higher, number of park homes residents felt the same way. Just as there are leaseholds with onerous ground rents, park home owners can be charged extortionate pitch fees that can increase rapidly each year. As with leaseholds, hidden clauses in park homes contracts can cause significant hardship down the line; residents have limited routes of redress when things go wrong, and any enforcement is often affected by a lack of transparency and opaque structures.
However, unlike the situation with most leaseholds, park home owners also report, as we have heard, experiencing or being threatened with violence and other illegal activity. We saw that most prominently in the disgraceful treatment of Sonia McColl, a leading campaigner for park homes reform. After campaigning for action on rogue park owners, Sonia had to sell her park home and move due to death threats. She then, astonishingly, had her entire home stolen while waiting for it to be delivered to her new site. She was made an OBE for services to society, but I think society has let her down. I asked her what issues she would like to raise with the Minister; she wants to know, first, when the consumer prices index instead of the retail prices index will be used to calculate the increase in pitch fee, and secondly when independent research will be done on the 10% commission payable to site owners on the sale of residence properties. She will be happy to share the Minister’s response with the 30,000 residents on her database.
I want to give the Minister time to respond, so I will say only a little more. The Government have recognised the systemic problems with park homes, and have promised to legislate on areas such as pitch fee reviews, but they have not done so yet. They have been promising for some time to get a grip on the wider leasehold scandal, but there has been no primary legislation on it. Stronger laws are worthless if they are not enforced; I am sure that the Minister will talk about the duties of local authorities, but in their own recent analysis the Government admitted that the 2013 licensing and inspection powers are not being applied because of a lack of dedicated resource in councils. That is not really a surprise, given the billions of pounds of cuts made to local authorities under this Government.
I hope that the Minister will outline when her Department will introduce the legislation that was promised back in October, and will say how she will support councils that are too strapped for funds to enforce it. The Conservative party claims to be the party of home ownership, but here we are again, talking about homeowners being exploited, mis-selling, exploitative contract terms and excessive fees and commissions charged to residents who were told that they were buying a home, with all the rights and freedoms that that affords. This is the third time today that the Government have been challenged by a member of their own party about the treatment of homeowners on their watch. I look forward to hearing when they will act on their promises.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) on securing this important debate and on her tireless work on rights and protections for holiday caravan owners. Fifteen other Members have made estimable contributions, and I commend them all; they really know their stuff, and it has been a great debate.
Last year, my hon. Friend brought to my attention her concerns about some terrible issues facing holiday caravan owners on a mixed-use caravan site in her constituency. Since then, she and I have had fruitful discussions to better understand the issues. Some of those issues fall within the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy; I extend my thanks to the Minister for small business, consumers and corporate responsibility—the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst)—for her interest in the matter. We have already had discussions and agreed several actions for both our Departments, and we hope to update my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent on them over the coming weeks.
Several important issues have been raised today about the rights of holiday caravan owners and the challenges that they face. The Government have already introduced significant protections for holiday caravan owners. Planning permission may be granted for part of a site to be used for holiday purposes and other parts for residential purposes; I understand that my hon. Friend’s concerns relate to such mixed-use sites. Sadly, our discussion will not include the information that Sonia McColl was after, because we are talking about holiday sites.
Those who live permanently on the residential part of a mixed-use site are protected under the Mobile Homes Act 1983, but as we have heard, that protection does not extend to holiday caravan owners on the site. The local authority will also issue a site licence once planning permission has been granted, but before I talk about site licensing, let me address my hon. Friend’s queries about the rights of holiday caravan owners.
As my hon. Friend highlighted, some holiday caravan owners end up living permanently on their holiday sites, for complex reasons. Some consumers see holiday caravans as a cheaper option—my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) mentioned the disgraceful situation facing first-time buyers—and may buy them without seeking legal advice, which obviously should not happen. Some holiday caravan owners can end up living permanently on the holiday site because they have been mis-sold their holiday caravan by a rogue site owner who has presented it as being suitable for residential use. That can put them under huge financial pressure, so I understand the suggestion to tackle the problem by extending the protections of the 1983 Act.
The mobile homes legislation, which sets out the contractual relationship between a site owner and a resident, applies only to those on sites with planning permission for residential use. Applying it to all holiday caravan owners would mean such accommodation no longer being available in the tourism sector. As we have heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) and for Wells (James Heappey), and from my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne), it is important that we protect the holiday sector and the many benefits that it provides.
The Government have already introduced significant protections for holiday caravan owners under consumer legislation. What is required is to ensure that prospective purchasers of holiday caravans are aware of the rights and responsibilities available to them under consumer law. The rules, which are designed to protect individual buyers from unfair commercial practices, are set out in the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. Breaches of those rules are a criminal offence. In 2014, they were supplemented to provide a private right of redress for consumers who have fallen victim to misleading commercial practices such as presenting a holiday caravan as a permanent residence, hiding information, or providing information in an unclear, ambiguous or untimely way.
As ever, the hon. Gentleman brings luminosity to the problem.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent knows, enforcement of the legislation is the responsibility of the local authority trading standards service. There are already strong penalties for mis-selling by providing misleading advice or omitting material information: it is a criminal offence punishable by a fine on summary conviction, up to the statutory maximum, or up to two years’ imprisonment, as my hon. Friends the Members for Waveney (Peter Aldous) and for Wells mentioned.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Towards the end of my brief speech, I will answer her as best I can.
Another measure that I know is of interest to hon. Members is the fit and proper person test. We have also heard of cases of harassment and intimidation of holiday caravan owners; harassment is a criminal and civil offence, so I advise anyone being harassed to immediately contact the police.
Let me expand on the caravan site licensing requirements that I mentioned earlier in relation to the fit and proper person test. Under the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960, all caravan sites in England, except those exempted, are required to have a site licence in addition to planning permission. The purpose of licensing is to ensure that sites are safe for residents and other users.
The Mobile Homes Act 2013 amended the 1960 Act to introduce a new local authority site licensing regime, which applies to all “relevant protected sites”, including sites with planning permission for residential use only, as well as mixed-use sites with planning permission for both holiday and residential use. Local authorities’ powers include the ability to issue compliance notices if a site owner breaches their site licence conditions. If an owner fails to comply with a notice, the local authority can prosecute them; if convicted, they face an unlimited fine. The 2013 Act also made provision to introduce a fit and proper person test for site owners and managers of all relevant protected sites, including mixed sites. I know that Members will be pleased to learn that we will publish a technical consultation in the summer and legislate to introduce the scheme when parliamentary time allows.
The issues that we have discussed today are very complex, but I reassure hon. Members that the Government are committed to improving the sector. We have already introduced important legislation to strengthen the rights of consumers, but we know that there is more work to be done. I will continue to work with the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood, to consider what other measures can be taken on consumer protection, to raise consumers’ awareness of their rights when purchasing holiday caravans and traders’ awareness of their legal obligations.
I will arrange a further meeting with my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent to update her on the actions that I have set out to undertake. Once again, I congratulate her on securing this debate on such a hugely important matter. It is a pleasure to be in Westminster Hall again.
I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. I feel that it has been a very balanced conversation: it has made it clear that the vast majority of those who operate holiday home sites do so in an appropriate and thoughtful way and look after the users of their park homes, but that we need to crack down on the unscrupulous owners.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).