Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Park homes challenge

Many local families have a ‘park home’ – it’s the posh name for a fixed caravan or pre-fabricated home – on sites in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, often by the coast. And many Sheffield people have moved to live in a park home on retirement.

I have to say that these homes are infinitely better-equipped and warmer than the two-bedroom, single storey, Sheffield Council pre-fab in which I was brought up in the 1950s. This was one of the near 160,000 pre-fabricated homes built in the UK to address the post-war housing crisis, originally announced by Winston Churchill in 1944 as the Emergency Factory Made (EMF) housing programme. They cost about £1200 each to build and were designed to last 10 years, although the vast majority were still in use thirty years later. Most were stuffed with asbestos insulation.

But, back to today’s park homes.

About 160,000 people live in 84,000 park homes on nearly 2000 park home sites across England, concentrated in rural and seaside locations. Many residents are retired or elderly, with 68% aged 60 or over. The vast majority of park home sites are privately owned, with a small number owned by local authorities.

I’ve been chairing an all-party committee inquiry into park homes. We received a massive number of representations, took written and verbal evidence from residents, site owners, local councils and other interested parties. In many cases, what we learned was quite shocking. This week, we published our report.

Whilst that there are some good site operators, we found that malpractice is widespread across the sector: Complaints from residents about unfair fees, poor maintenance and site owners making it difficult for residents to sell their homes are common.

Research confirmed that a quarter of park home residents had experienced problems with maintenance, security or safety standards; that nearly a fifth of residents had experienced problems with the written contracts they had with site owners; and that residents had experienced intimidation by site owners or managers at a significant number of sites in the UK.

The most widespread problems include:
- “Sale blocking”, where a site owner prevents a resident from selling their home on the open market by withholding ‘approval’ of the prospective buyer.
- Harassment by site owners and site managers;
- A licensing regime that is out of date which allows site owners to breach licence conditions with only a maximum fine of £2,500, a wholly inadequate deterrent;
- Confusion over contractual obligations between site owners and home owners, and
- Out of date legislation which leaves residents with little or no ability to take action if the site is not properly maintained.

The Government issued a consultation paper A Better Deal for Mobile Home Owners in April for just 6 weeks. Surprisingly, given the high proportion of pensioners and the much lower than average access to the internet, the consultation paper was only available on-line.

My committee doesn’t think the Government’s proposals go far enough. We have recommended that the Government takes reserve powers so that local authorities could withdraw and withhold licences from site owners who are found not to be ‘fit and proper’.
We’ve called for a further review in three years time to see how far things have improved and determine whether these further powers should be implemented.

If you want to find out more about the government’s proposals and my committee’s findings and proposals:

A better deal for mobile home owners - Consultation

Communities and Local Government Committee Report on Park Homes