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Communities and Local Government - Minutes of EvidenceHC 177-ii
Taken before the Communities and Local Government Select Committee
on Monday 19 March 2012
Mr Clive Betts (Chair)
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Mark Colquhoun, Detective Inspector, West Mercia Police, Lyn Collins, Regulatory Services, Consumer Protection and Investigations Team Leader, Cheshire West and Chester Council, and Katie Hooper, Private Sector Housing Team Leader, Bromsgrove District Council, gave evidence.
Q228 Chair: Good afternoon and welcome, everyone, to the third evidence session of our inquiry into park homes. Just before we begin, as a general introduction, the purpose of these oral sessions is to probe the extent and nature of the issues and problems identified in the written evidence, their causes, and possible changes to alleviate them. A transcript of the evidence given today will be published within a week. If during the oral evidence sessions serious allegations are made against identifiable persons or organisations, the Committee may, in the interests of fairness, ask any person against whom allegations are made to reply in writing to these allegations. These replies may be published by the Committee. I have also got to emphasise that reference to matters currently before the courts should not be made in these sessions, because we cannot deal with matters that are sub judice. Apart from that, everyone should have the opportunity to tell us their views on the issues we are seeking to inquire about. So to begin now, could I ask each of you if you would say who you are and the organisation you represent?
Katie Hooper: My name is Katie Hooper. I represent Bromsgrove District Council.
Mark Colquhoun: My name is Mark Colquhoun. I am a Detective Inspector with West Mercia police.
Lyn Collins: I am Lyn Collins. I am Team Leader, Public Protection with Cheshire West and Chester Council, which was made a new unitary three years ago.
Q229 Chair: Again, you are all very welcome, and thank you for the evidence you have given us so far. We have obviously had a number of concerns about the management and operation of park home sites raised with us. One of the issues that has caused a lot of contention and we have had a lot of representations about is the ability to block a sale on behalf of the owners of a site. Do you consider that to be a serious problem, and is it one that has caused you concern as well? Who would like to start off?
Mark Colquhoun: From my perspective, and from the perspective of the lessons that came out from an investigation I led in West Mercia in 2007, sale blocking was the key to the criminality that was perpetrated by those particular site owners. Without the ability to block sales, I genuinely think that the vast majority of the problems that occurred on that site would not have occurred at all. The ability to block sales, I think, can actually act as an enabler for those who want to commit what are serious criminal offences against their residents.
Lyn Collins: From Cheshire West’s point of view, we have not had a huge amount of experience of sale blocking or allegations of sale blocking, though we have had a few. However, what we have established is that the information that we have received as a council from both sides of the argument is very plausible, and that it is very difficult to get underneath the surface of the genuine nature or otherwise of the sale blocking.
Katie Hooper: I have not really had a lot of experience of sale blocking within my district other than one case a number of years ago, and there is one ongoing at the moment. The reasons behind the sale blocking and the way that the sale blocking is happening at the moment are intrinsically linked to harassment on site, so it is not in isolation.
Q230 Chair: Do you think that the role that has been given to the Residential Property Tribunal will be helpful in dealing with this issue, or is it not likely to prove effective?
Mark Colquhoun: Rewind to: what is the purpose of sale blocking? Why does it take place? Our experience was that sale blocking takes place to allow the criminal site owner to purchase a home themselves at well below market value. In our case that was the purchase of four perfectly functioning, perfectly sound homes for £1 in cash, which got given to the home owner with the comment, "Put that on the lottery and think of me." That could not have been done without sale blocking. You block the sale and you subject your residents to a campaign of harassment and intimidation. You target your residents-so it is the most vulnerable, the most frail people on that site-and you make their lives an absolute misery. In desperation, unable to get off the site, in the end the sale takes place to the park owner for that substantially reduced amount of money. That is why the sale blocking takes place.
There are two problems with the Residential Property Tribunal, as far as I see it. Firstly, there is the length of time it takes for any appeal process to go through the tribunal; is it likely or not that the sale will have been lost because the prospective purchaser will have withdrawn from the process? The second issue is: what proportion of residents have the emotional capacity to take their site owner through that process? With our experience, on our site, we only had a single resident-bearing in mind that there were 38 pitches on the site-who was prepared to put pen to paper and provide the police with evidence. We put some significant support into that site to try to get the trust and confidence of those residents, but we only had one person who would put pen to paper until the time that we arrested, charged and remanded those site owners in custody. Only once they were in prison did literally every other resident on the site then come forward and give evidence.
Within criminal investigation per se, sometimes it takes quite a lot of courage for a victim of crime to stand up, provide a statement and go to court and give evidence. However, that is usually someone whose identity is not known to the offender, and the offender does not know where they live. In these circumstances we are talking about people who are known to the site owner, who live within their property and who are accessible to them 24 hours a day. I do not think you can underestimate the fear in which some of these frail, vulnerable people hold their site owners.
Q231 Chair: So what you are really saying to us is that the Residential Property Tribunal is a well-meaning move but it is not really going to be that effective against the people who are really and totally unscrupulous in this regard.
Mark Colquhoun: Yes.
Q232 Chair: Therefore, the only solution there is, you are telling us, that the right for site owners to approve buyers ought to be removed completely.
Mark Colquhoun: In my personal opinion, yes, I think it should be. I think that would be the most effective measure that could be taken in getting rid of serious criminality within the industry.
Q233 Chair: Any comments to add to that?
Katie Hooper: I have to agree.
Lyn Collins: Sorry, I could not hear what you were saying. Were you talking about removal of the licence?
Q234 Chair: No. Are you basically saying, in agreement with Mr Colquhoun, that the right for site owners to give approval to someone new moving on to the site ought to be removed? That is something that in the end can be used in the way that has been described. Would you be content for that to happen?
Lyn Collins: Yes.
Q235 Bill Esterson: We have had evidence of a lack of action when it comes to harassment from both local authorities and the police. Would you say that the law, when it comes to harassment, is fully understood by both local authorities and police, or would you say that there is a reluctance to take action in some cases?
Lyn Collins: I think that we need to understand the context in which caravan site licensing is carried out by local authorities. It is certainly an area that is massively under-resourced. The local authority does not receive any revenue. It has a whole series of statutory inspection responsibilities that it needs to carry out, and it will prioritise those statutory responsibilities in preference to those non-required inspection obligations. I think that if the Committee can take something away today, the challenge is how this regime is properly resourced for local authorities. In terms of knowledge on harassment, I think there are pockets of good knowledge on the provisions that exist. However, to properly investigate is a lengthy process, and one where, from a personal perspective, again, you are receiving very low-level information about two sides of an equation, and it is very hard to get underneath whether the harassment is real or simply poor management.
Katie Hooper: From a local authority’s point of view, it is a power rather than a duty to investigate or report harassment and illegal eviction. As Lyn was saying, with the lack of resources, it is a percentage of an officer’s yearly workload to inspect and maintain the standards on these sites. A lot of the complaints that you may have may be, as you say, just poor management, and it is not until you delve deeper that you realise that the way that unscrupulous site owners will harass their residents is by minor offences, involving minor niggles and talking to the residents in a difficult way. As an officer, when you are taking those complaints, they are not the big acts such as physical abuse. They are very minor abuses or levels of harassment.
Q236 David Heyes: How about the police?
Mark Colquhoun: I do not think we are as effective as we should be, in that we sometimes see what appears as a single incident to be relatively minor instead of joining the dots, connecting the series and seeing that sometimes there is a bigger picture behind it. Sometimes there may not be a bigger picture behind it; sometimes it may be exactly what it appears to be on face value-a minor dispute. Sometimes it may genuinely be a civil dispute. However, organisationally, because we do not understand the industry very well, we don’t see where we fit in with it very well or how we interface with local authorities. I think there are some real risks that we just do not see the bigger picture and we do not treat what can be a series of small things that add up to something quite substantial. Often we do not recognise that and deal with it accordingly.
Q237 Bill Esterson: Sure. Who decides what is a small thing and what is a big thing?
Mark Colquhoun: Absolutely.
Q238 Bill Esterson: Now, I hear the call for greater resources from the two local authority representatives. Are there other changes that would help deal with harassment more effectively?
Lyn Collins: The only thought I can express before the Committee, and it would need a cleverer legal mind than mine to look at it, is whether there should be a duty not to harass, which might alter the burden of proof.
Mark Colquhoun: From a police perspective, the ACPO guidance, which came out two or three years ago, recommended that an initial screening exercise should be done, led by someone from a CID background, so an investigative background. As an organisation, there are certain areas of police work where something might be serious-it may not be-and we are quite comfortable with taking the approach of: deal with it as if it were serious until it proves to be otherwise. That was the tenor of that approach. In my experience today, every time I have been contacted by a colleague to discuss an issue on a park home, it is always someone who works in local policing. Local policing colleagues do a fantastic job within their remit, but their remit is not the investigation of potentially serious crime.
Q239 Bill Esterson: If you are suggesting that serious crime is involved, would you say that the sector has been infiltrated by professional criminals, and would you suggest that a special unit be set up?
Mark Colquhoun: No, I think that is beyond my remit. If you look at the behaviour of the people we dealt with-and you, as a Committee, have heard wider evidence-and if you feel that is behaviour that appears to be going on elsewhere within the industry, that behaviour would fit within the definition of serious and organised crime groups as used by the Home Office and as applied by forces. It would fit within that definition quite comfortably.
Q240 Bill Esterson: Are you better placed to share information across the country now?
Mark Colquhoun: Well, we have access to the Police National Database now, which is a massive step forward in terms of information sharing. I think the problem is perhaps that a lot of information would not be on there because, as an organisation, a lot of the time we do not recognise the behaviour as being criminal, hence we do not probably record it in the way that we should.
Q241 Bill Esterson: What is the difference between a site that is run by criminals, and one where the owner’s behaviour is-I do not want to say merely-not necessarily criminal in intent, but aggressive, or the behaviour of the owner suggests that a greed motive is behind it?
Katie Hooper: It is doing the act that gives them the most financial gain. So it is the harassment to get people off the site so that they can remove their unit and put on a bigger one. That is the difference between a good site and a bad site, particularly in our area.
Mark Colquhoun: In our experience the actions that were perpetrated on our park were considered, thought through and planned. There is a difference between someone who is perhaps just a poor site owner or has an abrasive personal style, and what took place where we were. The moment that site was bid for, everything that took place after that event was part of the business plan. I do not like to use the term "business plan", but in effect that is what they had. It was a criminal business plan, but a business plan none the less.
Q242 Bill Esterson: So it was a more systematic approach.
Mark Colquhoun: Absolutely. That is where I think the sale blocking was key, because the big money was to be made from getting the residents off the site and getting them to sell their homes. Where that takes place, it is more of an indication to me that you have got criminality as opposed to just poor management practice.
Lyn Collins: I think from a Cheshire West perspective, as I said, criminality is not something that we have had a huge amount to do with, other than the criminality of an owner being completely uninterested in their own personal management of the site, and leaving elderly residents living on top of overflowing sewers. It is the neglect of insanitary conditions as opposed to criminality, and then not being able to trace them in order to take responsibility and ownership for the sites that they are allegedly managing but sadly not managing.
Q243 Bob Blackman: Inspector Colquhoun raised the issue of screening people. Is that screening owners before they are allowed to take over park homes, or is it, as I suspect you meant, the type of potential criminal behaviour being screened by some experts rather than being allowed to lie with local police?
Mark Colquhoun: What I was referring to was when a member of the public who is a park home resident reports an allegation. If they are saying, "I am a victim of crime; I am being defrauded," someone within the organisation needs to triage that, screen it, make an initial assessment, and just look at it in sufficient detail to make a judgment as to whether we think there is prima facia evidence of criminality taking place, whether it appears to be a civil dispute, or whether it may be criminal but at a lower level. It is about, in terms of a police service response, deciding who is the best resource within the service to deal with this personal problem and help them.
Q244 Bob Blackman: But given that we have a range of police forces across the country, how do you think that could be implemented?
Mark Colquhoun: Well, the best practice guidance, which went out three years ago, talked about in the first instance someone from a criminal investigation background doing that assessment, and then, based upon their judgment, either then continuing a substantive investigation or passing it on to neighbourhood policing colleagues or whoever may be most appropriate depending upon the local set-up in that force.
Q245 Bob Blackman: Is that happening at the moment, or is that something you think should happen?
Mark Colquhoun: It is difficult for me to say. All I can say is that every time I have been contacted by another force, it has always been by someone working in local policing.
Q246 Mark Pawsey: I would like to ask some questions about the current licensing regime, where local authorities have powers under the 1960 Act. How effective is that legislation in preventing unscrupulous operators from running park home sites?
Katie Hooper: From my perspective, my opinion is that it is quite outdated and it needs to be looked at as a whole. When a site is sold, transferred or created, the site is looked at from a standards point of view, so you look at the drainage, the electricity, the number of units per hectare, but you do not look at the site owner, so there is no way of identifying whether their management skills are sufficient to deal with this site. There is no link-in with other local authorities and whether they have had issues with that site owner.
From my point of view, I think it would be an idea to put in measures that would determine whether this site owner is a fit and proper person. That might mean that you have a CRB check. From experience dealing with the same site that Mark has been describing, when I met the site owner on site, I did not actually meet the site owner but met his brother, although he described himself as the site owner. So it would be an idea to have an idea of who the site owner is and all interested parties and other sites that they own throughout the UK, so that we could link in with the other sites.
Q247 Mark Pawsey: You have suggested one or two changes to the existing legislation. Would you like to see the legislation reviewed? Is it your view that the 1960 Act and the powers you have are not currently fit for purpose?
Katie Hooper: I do not think that they are fit for purpose. I think that, for example, when there is a non-compliance on site, in order to get that non-compliance met you have to go through several prosecutions so that you can revoke the licence. But that still leaves this non-compliance, which might potentially be a dangerous issue. Maybe the gas is not appropriate or the electrics are not fit for purpose.
So it would be an idea to have greater enforcement powers. That might mean bringing improvement notices, or prohibition notices, or interim management orders into the system. Greater powers for the local authority will enable standards throughout the UK to increase, and I think that will not just benefit the residents but will enable consistency across sites, not only in my particular district but throughout the UK, so everybody is singing from the same hymn sheet and they all know what is expected of them.
Q248 Mark Pawsey: Miss Collins, what is your view about the current licensing regime?
Lyn Collins: I would support everything that Katie has said. We need enforcement that is going to deliver remedies on the ground, and that means increasing current fine levels. In some cases replacement drainage systems for these sites, which can be 30 years old, cost in the order of £38,000, so a £2,500 penalty under the caravan sites legislation is grossly inappropriate.
We can use other measures and we have; we have used the Environmental Protection Act in Cheshire West to try to increase the fine level, to increase the remedy, but sadly, that did not work either. So I think we do need a review of the legislation. It needs to include provisions such as those within current housing legislation, where local authorities can charge for the enforcement activity that they are involved in. That helps resource the local authority work better. That involves enforcement notices, works in default powers, and potentially, on order of the court, the redirection of pitch fees. I know it is a serious suggestion, and it is not something to be entered into lightly, but certainly, where site owners are not maintaining their sites, we need a way of gaining the revenue in order to pay for the necessary repairs, and those costs should not necessarily fall at the door of the local council tax payer.
Q249 Mark Pawsey: You said earlier that in this area local authorities are massively under-resourced. Why are local authorities not resourcing themselves properly to deal with what, as we have heard evidence through a number of sessions now, is a pretty serious problem?
Lyn Collins: My answer to that would be to say what I said previously. Within local authority environmental health services, those statutory inspection services are prioritised over and above those that are non-statutory. Certainly where we have got serious issues that affect public health, local authorities will step in and seek to remedy those, but we can only remedy those using the powers and provisions that we have.
Q250 Mark Pawsey: You do have the power to impose fines; a local authority can impose fines. Does the local authority keep the levies and fines? What happens to the money when a fine is levied?
Lyn Collins: Under the caravan sites legislation and the Environmental Protection Act legislation, the fines invoked by the court are not seen by the local authority. We only see the costs. Costs to Cheshire West over the last three years have been in the order of-1
Q251 Mark Pawsey: Do you think the local authority should retain the money from the fines? More importantly, we took some evidence in Bournemouth, where a site owner suggested that to prevent bad practice the fine should increase to the level of £250,000. Do you think that we should have bigger fines, and should the local authority keep the revenue?
Lyn Collins: I certainly think it sounds like a good suggestion that the local authority keeps the revenue, but I am sure you would not expect me to say anything else.
Q252 Mark Pawsey: Ms Hooper, what would your view be about a reasonable level of fine to ensure that sites are kept to the sort of standard that we would expect them to be kept to?
Katie Hooper: It would be a good idea to bring it in line with the other standard scales that you see with the Housing Act. For example, if we say that we find a site that is not licensed, you could treat it as an unlicensable house in multiple occupation, and that standard fine is £20,000. You also have a remit under that legislation that there is a rent repayment order, so for up to three years the residents could ask for their rent to be paid back to them if they were living on a site that was unlicensed.
I think they are few and far between, to be honest. For example, if you were dealing with a non-compliance and you had to serve an improvement notice, you could bring it in line with the Housing Act, and that has a standard fine of £5,000. I think that would be a reasonable amount, and I would not say no to the money if you handed it to me, to be honest.2
Q253 Mark Pawsey: In terms of your experience, are there some particular tricks and techniques that site operators can use in order to prevent action being taken against breaches of their licensing conditions? Are there things that they can do, or do do?
Katie Hooper: If we go back a little bit towards harassment, the site owners that I found would show me the hazards and show me the non-compliances with the standard conditions so that it almost gives them a foot into speaking to the residents and saying, "There is non-compliance there-the council are going to take your home away from you," and that has entered into the harassment.
Q254 Mark Pawsey: So you are bothered that you are being used by the site owner to add to the harassment of an owner.
Katie Hooper: Yes. It is a balance to make, because a lot of the non-compliances are not on the common parts of the site; they can be, but more often are not. They are on the residents’ pitches.
Q255 Mark Pawsey: But you can only take action against the site owner on non-compliance on the common parts.
Katie Hooper: Exactly. Our agreement is between the site owner and us. So if a resident is in non-compliance with the site licence conditions, we can only really take action against the site owner. That is the balance that we have to take.
Q256 Mark Pawsey: Miss Collins, are you aware of any techniques used by the industry to avoid its obligations?
Lyn Collins: I would simply say that standards of work done on a lot of sites that colleagues and I have experience of tend to be quite poor, so the technique is really just to do what appears to be sufficient work in order to meet a tick in a box on a licence condition. But in terms of drilling down behind the competency of an individual, or whether the standard of the work they have been doing-
Q257 Mark Pawsey: Should the standards be higher then, in your view?
Lyn Collins: I think they should be clearly stated. In some areas they could possibly be higher. We have got some sites where there might be 30-year-old site roads that have seen better days, and maintenance is not routinely reviewed or investment is not-
Q258 Mark Pawsey: Do you believe, as Ms Hooper, that the legislation should be reviewed?
Lyn Collins: I think the legislation should be reviewed, and there is huge scope for improvements that ensure that the less competent owners are better without necessarily creating unreasonable burdens for the good site managers.
Q259 James Morris: Can I just come back to the area of resourcing? Do you think there is an argument that local authorities should be able to charge for licences?
Katie Hooper: We currently charge, or we have the ability to charge, for houses in multiple occupation licences, so rather than it being a standard charge, you could give the local authority an ability to cover their costs. For example, we have the ability to charge for issuing notices under the Housing Act. So it is the ability rather than saying that you must charge.
Q260 James Morris: What sort of level of charge would you propose, broadly?
Katie Hooper: We currently charge about £300 for a licence for a house in multiple occupation. I think that covers just basic administration. I am hoping that you will take on board to do a prescribed form, so that when somebody is applying for a site licence or a variation to their site licence on a mobile home site, they would have a prescribed form. The administration that the local authority would charge would cover that prescribed form and the cost of inserting it in the national database.
Q261 James Morris: Would that be a substantial increase?
Katie Hooper: I may be stepping over the line, but £300 is probably a maximum. I think it is a reasonable amount.
Lyn Collins: As an authority that is currently one of the pilots under the localism agenda, I think we need to say that fees probably ought to be set locally so that local authorities can set standards around what they consider to be the right level of intervention in any site. In terms of a ballpark figure-and we did do some hourly rate work prior to my coming in today-I would have thought a fee in the order of about £500 for an initial application would cover the necessary inspection costs.
Q262 James Morris: How would you respond to the argument that, if you were to raise the fee for a licence, it would penalise both the good and the bad? Do you think it would have that effect?
Lyn Collins: In terms of an initial starter for 10, to introduce a new site fee for all new sites would be reasonable, because it is a new site setting up. If for existing sites we could introduce a risk-based inspection programme, which I know some authorities up and down the country have, including ourselves, then if the higher-risk sites-those sites where authorities are regularly being called upon to deal with public health issues, or any other issues for that matter-cannot deal with the issues that are causing them to be higher-risk, maybe after two years we should be then bringing in those requirements that they need to pay for.
Q263 James Morris: You mentioned aligning the licensing regime with the one that we have for houses in multiple occupancy. Do you think that is a model that could be applied, or is it already being applied?
Katie Hooper: The HMO licensing is already in force, and I think that is a good basis to work from. There are things that we can learn from that process.
Q264 James Morris: What sorts of things?
Katie Hooper: The nature of the things that are requested is quite arduous, things that are not necessarily important to running a house in multiple occupation, so I think it is the criteria that we use. But there is lots of good practice that has been seen from that. I think it would be good to adopt something similar, or base it on that.
Lyn Collins: I am not an expert in houses in multiple occupation, so I would not like to comment.
Q265 James Morris: You were talking about the idea of local authorities being able to directly recover some of their investigation costs from the site owner. Do you think that is a possibility?
Katie Hooper: I have not thought about that. Can you give me five minutes?
James Morris: Write to us about it if you think it is a good idea.
Lyn Collins: Certainly, where investigations have been carried out by my own authority, those investigation costs have been taken through to court and then charged, so costs have been recovered in that way. I think that Housing Act rules around notices, and recharging on notices, is a good model that can then be used around recharging for some investigation work that leads to a genuine breach, a genuine enforcement notice. I think those are possibilities.
Q266 Stephen Gilbert: The fit and proper person test applies within the licensing regime for HMOs, doesn’t it? Can you tell us how that works?
Katie Hooper: Currently we have an application form. It is not a prescribed form-every local authority has the ability to create their own form-but it is with the requests of the guidance. As part of the application form, you have a CRB check. Under those-and I am going back to memory here-you have certain checks on whether somebody has been convicted of harassment, whether they have any statutory notices in force at present, and whether they have any management orders in place. It is more about the person and whether the local authority deem them fit to manage an HMO.
Q267 Stephen Gilbert: To be very clear, that fit and proper person test is in operation in HMOs at the moment.
Katie Hooper: It is indeed, yes.
Chair: Thank you very much indeed for coming to give evidence to us this afternoon. It is appreciated.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Martin Fisher, Trading Standards Officer, Cornwall County Council, Clive Phillips, Trading Standards Officer, Kent County Council, and Sylvia Rook, Policy Officer and Joint Lead Officer for Fair Trading, Trading Standards Institute, gave evidence.
Q268 Chair: Welcome to this afternoon’s session. I think you were all in the room when I asked at the beginning about the sub judice issues, and just to be aware of them. Apart from that, can we ask you to introduce yourselves and say who you are and the organisation you represent?
Clive Phillips: My name is Clive Phillips, and I am the principal Trading Standards Officer for Kent County Council.
Sylvia Rook: My name is Sylvia Rook. I work as a policy officer for the Trading
Standards Institute, and I am also the Joint Lead Officer for Fair Trading.
Martin Fisher: Martin Fisher, Senior Trading Standards Officer for Cornwall Council.
Q269 Chair: Thank you for the evidence you have given us in writing so far. Cornwall County Council, Mr Fisher, in the evidence that you gave to us, said essentially that the Mobile Homes Act 1983 does not give residents proper protection of their statutory and contractual rights, and there are ambiguities. Perhaps you could tell us why you think that to be the case, and what evidence you have that site owners exploit these ambiguities to avoid their obligations.
Martin Fisher: The Mobile Homes Act covers a large number of issues, and gives what appear to be reasonable rights to residents. One particular issue is sales blocking, where there appears to be a good route on the face of the Act to prevent sale blocking, because a resident who has a purchaser who the site owner will not approve can go to the Residential Property Tribunal-it was the county court-and get an order against the park owner to say that the resident must be admitted to residence; there are no good grounds for blocking the sale. However, that very process is likely to cause so much frustration and delay, and reveal the park owner as a rogue, and obviously very few people will go through the process in order to become residents on a park with a bad owner.
There are issues of severe ambiguity about what are legitimate charges for sewerage, in particular; there are huge problems with the bundling of water and sewerage charges. I am not sure whether you will be aware, but there are reasonably strict rules on the price of water; if it is obtained from a standard water company utility supplier, there is very little opportunity for profits to be made there. But on private sewerage, as is often the case, the Act is distinctly opaque. It gives the residents rights to see the owner’s costs, which suggests to me that it should be roughly cost recovery, but nowhere in the Act or I think in DCLG guidance does it actually make this clear. Park owners basically attempt to charge what they like for bundled water and sewerage charges; residents cannot see the separate water billing information to enable them to separate out how much they are being charged for sewerage, so they are completely in the dark as to the reasonableness of the costs.
Q270 Chair: Are there other examples that you can give us?
Clive Phillips: In most cases where we talk about sale blocking and things like that, and anything that comes under the Mobile Homes Act, we advise residents to take their own civil action, but it is too costly, too complicated, and the residents fear for their safety. The problem we have had all along in taking any action whatsoever is that people are too fearful to come forward and give us a statement as well.
Sylvia Rook: I think one of the things to bear in mind is that a lot of the people who live on these sites are vulnerable, and the Mobile Homes Act is a purely civil piece of legislation, so it is down to the individuals themselves to take action. A lot of them do not know how to, and a lot of them do not know how to complain. The big problem for Trading Standards is to try to fit it into existing legislation. There are a number of issues with getting witness statements from people who are vulnerable, confused, and who do not understand what rights they have anyway. When you look at the statistics for the number of complaints that are received, it is certainly much smaller than the number of complaints we know that there are. If you talk to anybody who knows somebody in a mobile home, they have horror stories, but they did not know who they could turn to and who they could complain to.
Q271 Chair: Are you really saying to us that the whole Trading Standards action or the powers that you have are not really the most suitable for dealing with these sorts of problems-that you are making the best you can of a difficult situation, and really we ought to be looking for a tougher licensing regime to try to deal with these issues? From your experience, is that what we should be aiming towards?
Sylvia Rook: The problem with a licensing regime is how you deal with it-whether it is a positive or a negative licensing regime. The Consumer Credit Act has a licensing regime: anybody who issues or deals with credit has to get a licence issued by the Office of Fair Trading. Very stringent checks are taken against them to make sure that they are fit and proper. That involves communication with Trading Standards; it is not just a matter of their criminal background but all their associates as well. The problem is that if you just look at an individual you do not get a good picture, and they will always certify themselves as being a fit and proper person.
Q272 Chair: We will come on to that in more detail in a second. Just in terms of the limited powers that you have under the Trading Standards action, is this a real problem for you?
Martin Fisher: I think the first thing is actually getting the evidence. First of all, as has been said, residents do not know where to go to. The main portal to Trading Standards is at the moment Consumer Direct, shortly to be replaced by citizens advice bureaux. But in my experience, Consumer Direct did not recognise complaints about mobile homes and mobile home park operations as being a consumer matter. I do not think residents think it is a matter of consumer law; they think it is somewhere around housing, and they tend to go to district councils as the licensing authority, which is not the direct route to Trading Standards in a two-tier authority.
Then, if you do have complaints-and there will be relatively few of them, in fact very few of them, certainly historically-you then need witnesses who are prepared to step up and give evidence in court, generally, certainly for criminal prosecution under Trading Standards law.
Clive Phillips: Trading Standards do have the ability to take action under several pieces of legislation, but the Mobile Homes Act is not specified legislation under the Enterprise Act; I am sure Martin will come to that point later. It does not make it clear to Trading Standards up and down the country what action they can take under the Enterprise Act. I think that could be a little bit clearer.
Martin Fisher: Yes, in court action we have taken, the Enterprise Act talks about breaches of contract as one of the triggers for Enterprise Act action, and contracts under the Mobile Homes Act, even though statutorily prescribed, are contracts, and that is why we use that gateway. But Clive is correct in saying that there is nothing currently in the Enterprise Act to flag up mobile homes or holiday homes-another issue-as a proper subject for action under the Enterprise Act. It would be good to have that flag that breach of the Mobile Homes Act is a matter that local authorities can take forward.
Q273 Chair: And you have used that route successfully.
Martin Fisher: In one case, yes. We obtained a court order under the Enterprise Act covering breaches of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations, breaches of contract expressed in implied terms under the Mobile Homes Act, harassment and tort of negligence.
Q274 Simon Danczuk: What do you think of this idea of a fit and proper person test?
Martin Fisher: It looks good on its face, but I think there are a number of deep problems with it. First of all, the people who we have received complaints about and who you have had representations about already have a licence, so kind of retrospectively imposing a fit and proper person test might be tricky. The fundamental power of rogue owners, unscrupulous owners, lies in the fact that they own the land. Taking away their power to have their name on the licence will not alter the ownership question at all, and obviously it would be a major task for Parliament to actually take away legal ownership. I suspect that there would be such an outcry that it would be impossible, simply because of the seven-figure sums often involved.
Then you have the issue of defining what is a fit and proper person, or what constitutes a non-fit and proper person. On the licensing front, it is reasonable to say that some sort of history of non-compliance with direct orders to carry out works is a good trigger, but I suspect that the parliamentary draughtsmen would require something like convictions or perhaps Enterprise Act orders against the site owner, and probably in considerable quantity and at a proper level of seriousness. All this legislation can embrace relatively minor breaches and very serious breaches. I do not know of any rogue park owners with convictions. They may have them.
The next point is that the HMO fit and proper person test depends, first and foremost, on self-certification. It asks the question whether the person applying has convictions. Housing officers, as I understand it, have no access to criminal records. I believe finding that false information has been given may be grounds for revocation of the licence, but it is essentially a self-certification aspect, all of which diminishes the usefulness even before you get to the point, which I think a licensing colleague made earlier, that there will always be somebody with a clean record who will come forward to hold the licence.
Sylvia Rook: I think I have made my point there already: there are a number of issues with issuing licenses. It is like when somebody has a CRB check; it just shows that at that point they have not been caught, rather than the fact that they have not done something. Sorry, I should not say that, but this is a view to look at. I think that is the issue with a lot of these things. Bearing in mind that the issues we are talking about quite often are harassment of residents, you are not going to get people who are going to stand up and give evidence, and if people are not going to give evidence, you are not going to get convictions. Therefore, there will always appear to be a fit and proper person.
As I said, with the consumer credit licensing regime, there are other checks that can be made in relation to numbers of complaints, and Trading Standards can say if they believe that a person should not hold a consumer credit licence. That also looks at their associates, not just them. If you wanted to go along a licensing regime, it would have to be much broader than the one that is currently being suggested.
Clive Phillips: I would definitely support the licensing idea, along the lines of the OFT. Again, they do not just check the licensee but known associates and family members. They come to Trading Standards and they ask, "Have you got any information about these people? Are you happy for these people to hold a licence?" Something very similar could be introduced at a local authority level.
Just making a comparison with an alcohol licence, if you have an alcohol licence and you breach that, the local authority have the power to put conditions on your licence, to review your licence and to revoke your licence. So I cannot see why that would not be possible, and I think that is probably the way to go.
Q275 Simon Danczuk: Taking that further, you were talking earlier about ownership of the land, Martin. What about the possibility of local authorities stepping in and running the site, perhaps collecting pitch fees and utilising those in terms of resources to be able to run the site, irrespective of who the owner of the site is?
Martin Fisher: I think that is valuable on the licensing point, because licensing, as I think you have heard, deals with the safety, etc. of physical structures. It does not currently deal with bad behaviour or fair trading crime, sort of thing. If it did-if we are still tied in with the fit and proper person test-it is the matter of first of all setting what would be a sufficient breach of that legislation, and then local authorities actually managing to get convictions, which is exceedingly difficult under the current fair trading law framework, lack of witnesses and intimidation of witnesses being a particular problem.
Clive Phillips: A licensing structure would not require prosecutions or anything like that. It would just need evidence of breach of conditions, which is infinitely easier.
Q276 Simon Danczuk: From what we have heard so far in terms of rogue site owners, they clearly do not appear to be fit and proper people to be running sites, do they? If other changes were made at the same time, it might be easier, as you are suggesting, Clive, to apply this test.
Clive Phillips: Absolutely. Even if it is retrospectively introduced, once those conditions are applied to each site from a certain day, if you breach those conditions you have new conditions added, and if you breach them you will lose your licence. The new licence will then have to be issued to someone who is not associated with that person or that company. If there is an issue with ownership, eventually the place would have to be sold, and in the meantime the local authority-I do not know; I cannot speak on their behalf-might want to take over pitch fees.
Martin Fisher: It is still a matter of defining what the evidence is to say that the person is not a fit and proper person, and I think that Parliament would insist on it being a pretty exactly defined set of criteria, not just the local authority’s opinion, and that is probably right constitutionally. But actually knowing how to draw that line is, I think, the tricky thing.
Q277 Heidi Alexander: Can I just ask you about your opinions on the contractual arrangements between the site owners and the people who own the mobile homes? We have taken quite a lot of evidence that suggests that home owners are not really aware of what that contract sets out, and I know there are implied terms in the contract from the 1983 Act. Do you think that local authorities should have a role in making home owners aware of their rights? Do you think that is a role for the local authority or not?
Martin Fisher: I think local authorities can give information about rights, but it will probably tend to be looked at once residents have encountered problems. It is fairly difficult. I think that we in Trading Standards all know this-that there is information readily available on all sorts of tricky transactions, from buying a car upwards, but people do not usually go looking for it. There are arguments for involving solicitors, but they are not widely used in park home purchases, and I believe that park home owners will often say that you do not really need one. That may well be true for the good park owners, but it is certainly not true for the unscrupulous and the rogues.
Q278 Heidi Alexander: Do you think, Clive, that it is more an issue about getting appropriate legal advice, or do you see that informing role, and raising people’s awareness when they are thinking about buying a home, as for solicitors to do or for the local authority to do?
Clive Phillips: It could be either. If you go to a decent park, and there are quite a few out there, they will sit down and have a meeting with the prospective purchasers, and they will go through all of this. I mean, it is a tick-box exercise, but it is a necessary one for a legitimate trader. I do not want to go back to credit legislation again, but if you sign up to a credit agreement, in law you are supposed to give certain information. You could relate it to this and say, ‘In certain circumstances you must give this information, and you must make sure that they sign to say that they understand it.’ But I am not too sure about whether that role would fall to solicitors.
Q279 Heidi Alexander: Do you have information made available on your websites, or in leaflet format, for people who are considering purchasing a home about sites in your local authority area where you have had concerns because you have had people making complaints, etc? Do you publicise where there is that history of complaints about a particular site owner?
Clive Phillips: In Kent Trading Standards we do not, but it is not our responsibility to govern park homes in our area-that would be the local borough. I know that they provide information. There is a lot of information on other Government websites. If people come to us, we point them in the direction of those websites.
Sylvia Rook: One of the concerns is that, when somebody buys a home, there is estate agency legislation-there is a wealth of legislation. Nobody would dream of buying a house without getting a solicitor involved to check all the small print. For whatever reason, again, partly because of the vulnerability of a lot of the residents, they think it is just like buying a caravan, and they do not realise the implications of the agreement. I think the only way to make it better would be to make it a legal requirement that they should get legal advice before they sign. If you made it akin to the new timeshare legislation and you gave a cooling-off period, where people have to be able to take away the information and have 14 days to change their minds, so they can get legal advice, that might give people the ability to check to make sure what they are signing up to. A lot of it happens there and then; you sign things, you think you have bought your nice home, and you do not realise all the implications of what you have done.
Martin Fisher: There is the split of sales of units by the park owner, and private sales through estate agents. There are complications in putting a duty on to the park owner, who is not directly involved as a party to the contract, insisting that he has to give information. To turn it round, that might be an opportunity for him to give disinformation as well. If he can argue that he is required to meet somebody coming on to his park, that is part of the problem you will be well aware of at the moment with interference with private sales. There have been suggestions that a solicitor can be the port of call, but I think it is quite difficult to get statutory information into a contract between two private persons.
Q280 Chair: Have you any suggestions about how that might be done?
Martin Fisher: I think it is difficult. I have no immediate suggestions.
Q281 Bob Blackman: Sylvia, you were saying that you felt there should be a legal requirement for some form of contract to be in place.
Sylvia Rook: There is a legal requirement for them to have documentation.
Q282 Bob Blackman: There are implied terms, and we have heard evidence that suggests that not all site owners provide the people coming on to these parks with any documentation at all. I have to say, I find it difficult to understand why people will part with large sums of money without the protection of these documents. Do any of you agree with the position of saying that there should be a standard legal contract for the provision of these pitches on these parks, in which case it would be relatively simple and straightforward, and the vulnerable people would be protected? But it would require, I think, some further legislation. If the Government were prepared to go down that line, from your expert perspective, is that something that you would like to see?
Martin Fisher: I think one thing to identify is that, in a private sale, at least in theory, the contract that the purchaser gets is the contract of the person they are buying from. It is an assignment of the pre-existing contract, and therefore the park owner is not obviously involved in issuing any paperwork. Again, this is an ambiguity within the Act. Some people read it as saying that every time a new resident comes on, the park owner has to reissue contract paperwork, but some park owners would love that, because it would be an opportunity to raise pitch fees. At the moment, in theory, a well-instructed private buyer makes sure that he or she gets the outgoing owner’s contract, and I have seen contracts that have obviously been passed on, hand to hand, for 20 years. Whether there is actually a duty on the park owner to reissue that paperwork is doubtful, I think.
Q283 Bob Blackman: There are obviously two areas. One is a new pitch, or a new contract between a site owner and the people moving on, and then there is the other, when someone is moving out of a home and they are selling it to someone else. In the case of a new pitch, new site or new mobile unit, or whatever it is, then there could be a legal requirement that the site owner has to provide a specified formal contract.
Martin Fisher: That is there at the moment.
Q284 Bob Blackman: If that proper legal documentation was put in place in the first place, it would be a normal position of having an assignment of that contract to another party, which would be your private sale. The duty would then be on the individual who was selling to assign it properly, and therefore there is no requirement for the site owner to be involved at all.
Martin Fisher: In theory, yes, that is what ought to happen between a living outgoing owner with papers in good order and an alert purchaser, but not every outgoing owner is compos mentis and has kept their documents neat and tidy, and you can also, of course, get sales by executors or even by charities who have inherited the property, and whether they will actually get hold of the original contract is possibly fairly doubtful.
Q285 Chair: One technical point, and then we must move on. Where a sale is a sale from an existing park home owner to a new park home owner who takes over that particular park home, and the implied terms of the contract have changed in between, where does the responsibility lie to update the contract with the new implied terms?
Martin Fisher: I suppose that is an argument for saying that the contract should be reissued. I do not think I know enough law to say. That is an argument for saying that there could be a duty on the park owner to reissue the paperwork, but as I say, that is fine in getting the new implied terms from the Mobile Homes Act into play, but one would need to be very careful about opportunities to change the pitch fee.
Q286 Heather Wheeler: You have almost already alluded to the issue of the owner’s ability to block sales of homes. Do you think that is at the basis of what most of the problems are, when we have rogue owners?
Martin Fisher: There are huge numbers of reports in your evidence about blocking of sales. It is certainly something that I have seen actively in Cornwall, on a number of parks belonging to a number of different owners. What puzzles me is the precise reason it is done. Mark Colquhoun will have talked about the high profit to be made out of forcing residents off parks, but some of what I have seen seems just to be used as a method of oppression. I have seen notices displayed on parks saying essentially, "I am going to block sales by anybody in a residents’ association, or in particular any member of a residents’ association who I think owes me money." This is where there are legitimate arguments, at least, about whether the park owner is actually overcharging, and they just seem to use blocking of sales to destabilise residents’ associations and basically give the whole park an impression that they live completely under the thumb of the owner. The actual profit being made out of it is in some cases quite difficult to evidence.
Clive Phillips: We have witnessed it quite a bit, and I agree that it is used as a tool to make profit, to get people to leave-whatever suits their fancy. The problem is that it is not clear what the criteria are for the owner to decide whether someone is a fit person to come on to the park and take over the residency of the home. My opinion is that the criteria of the residents of the park should perhaps be listed in the site licence, and if it needs to be changed, the local authority and the park residents need to be included in a decision.
Sylvia Rook: It is a clear problem. It is fine for the site owner to say that they do not want people coming on who have criminal records, for example, but that is not what is happening. Quite often you do not know the reason, and they make it very difficult for anybody to sell. We are aware of people who have just walked away and left the property, and we are aware of a number of people who have actually lost huge amounts of money because in the end they just cannot sell.
Q287 Mark Pawsey: Is the answer to do away with the opportunity for the owner to block a sale at all?
Sylvia Rook: I think it could be reasonable to say that they might not want people on their site who have criminal records for affray or something. I can understand the reason why it is there in the first place, but clearly it is being used as a tool in a way that was not intended.
Martin Fisher: I think the two criteria that are well established are that a good park owner has a legitimate right to make sure that anybody coming on satisfies the age criteria and that basically they have the means to pay. Beyond that I am not really aware of very much. Criminal record checks might possibly be a good thing for residents, but there are so many opportunities to raise completely irrelevant issues, and indeed there is no actual need to raise any issues at all. What might just look like bureaucratic incompetence will get the message over that this is not a site owner to be trusted and relied on. I am also aware of a park owner who routes potential incoming residents to information about his own misdeeds.
Q288 Mark Pawsey: We have had evidence that the sale blocking can work in a beneficial way, by making sure that, where there is a park where there are elderly residents, the sales are not made to people under a certain age. I am not clear where you stand on this. Are you in favour of sale blocking or not?
Martin Fisher: I am not in any way in favour of sale blocking. I would love the whole context for meeting and influence to disappear, but I think there are legitimate concerns about owners not being able to check certain factors.
Q289 Mark Pawsey: So is there a way in which this age requirement, for example, could be maintained without this extraordinary power that site owners have?
Clive Phillips: As I said a moment ago, if the criteria are set from the start, everybody knows who can come on to the park. If it is on the licence that they only accept people over 50 years old, then everybody knows. It is this issue where nobody knows why these potential residents have not come back. In fact I do know why in some circumstances, because they have been threatened or given misinformation, but if it is clear and written down somewhere, I do not see why it could be an issue.
Q290 Mark Pawsey: So you would all like to see the power of sale blocking go.
Martin Fisher: Absolutely.
Sylvia Rook: It is the terminology you are using: "sale blocking-carte blanche, they should not do anything". If you have a site that is for people over the age of 50 or 60, it is reasonable for the site owner to say that they do not want 18-year-old lads taking over a caravan. That is not sale blocking; that is just setting clear criteria. I think we have to be careful with terminology. The term "sale blocking" makes it sound as if it is a completely negative thing. We are saying that the terminology and the criteria should be clear, and it should be upfront so that everybody knows where they stand before they move on.
Martin Fisher: There are also problems with private sales. If I, as a current resident, sell to somebody who is under age and who has three children, and the money has changed hands and the new owners come in, I have gone with the money and it is very difficult to achieve justice between the park owner, the people who have paid money to me, and the other residents who do not want the new owners and their screaming kids.
Q291 Stephen Gilbert: Mr Fisher, you just said a second ago that you thought it would be reasonable for site owners to take CRB checks on potential residents. Earlier in your evidence you suggested that it would be very difficult to have a licensing regime that included a CRB check on site owners. Are you really sitting there and suggesting that the park owners can CRB-check potential residents, but site owners should not be CRB-checked?
Martin Fisher: I agree that there is a gap there. I do not actually know of park owners doing CRB checks. If CRB checks are necessary in a licensing structure, I think the route is that the person being checked has to ask for the record and then submit it. That would work, but you still have issues in that many of the extended families of rogue owners will have a clean record and maybe some of the rogues actually have a clean criminal record at the moment. I do not know.
Q292 Stephen Gilbert: Do you see any merit, then, in Ms Rook’s and Mr Phillips’ idea of a broader check that could form the basis of it, including associates, friends and family and others?
Martin Fisher: It is all based on self-declaration by the licence owner. It would increase the pressure, but it still does not deal with the actual issue as of now of land ownership.
Q293 Chair: Back on this issue of the approval of sales, and indeed of sales between an existing home owner and another person, which the site owner does not have any say in, in some cases, but which could go wrong, would there be a case for a third party to approve sales, so you could not get the blocking, but equally the owner of the site could be assured that someone moving in was not under 50 and met the criteria?
Martin Fisher: That might work, yes. I think the Residential Property Tribunal has been suggested as one avenue towards that. It sounds possible to me, but obviously there would be arguments about costs somewhere.
Clive Phillips: I think I agree. If there is a dispute, go to arbitration, use an ombudsman, but if the park owner is happy with the new resident and they fit the criteria and the licence, I do not see the point in introducing extra people unless there is a dispute.
Chair: Thank you all for your evidence this evening.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Alfie Best, Chairman, Wyldecrest, David Sunderland, Estates Manager, Wyldecrest, Jeffrey Small senior, Owner, JBS Park Homes, Jeffrey Small junior, Owner, JBS Park Homes, and Gary Self, General Manager, JBS Park Homes, gave evidence.
Q294 Chair: Good afternoon. I would like to thank all of you for coming to this final session this afternoon of the inquiry into park homes. I think you were all in the room when I made the initial statement about the purpose of our evidence session and asked everyone to be careful about issues that may be sub judice, because we are not allowed to deal with those. I want to say at the beginning that there have clearly been in the amount of evidence, and we have received a lot of it in writing, some serious allegations made about the running of park homes and the practice of those people who run them, including those related to the companies that are being represented here today. This afternoon is an opportunity for you to put forward your point of view and to tell us what you think about the situation-whether you think there are things that are wrong and need putting right-but also of course to contradict and give your view of any of the allegations that have been made that you think are incorrect. It is, therefore, an opportunity for you to tell us your views and what you think.
To begin with, to try to get some understanding of the situation, perhaps to Mr Small senior and Mr Best, could you give us some idea of the size and scale of the operations: how many sites you own, how many homes, how many residents this covers, and some idea of your annual turnover as well? Just a feel for the size and scope of your business would be a good start.
Jeffrey Small senior: I am Mr Small senior. I own 17 parks throughout the West Country with my son, and we have somewhere in the region of 1,200 residents. The turnover, the rent roll, would be in excess of £1 million per year.
Q295 Chair: How many sites is that?
Jeffrey Small senior: We have 17 parks with approximately 1,200 pitches, which is a rent roll of over £1 million per year.
Q296 Chair: Thank you. I should also have said thank you very much for saying who you were and the organisation that you represent. Thank you for reminding me of that as well. That is a good start. Mr Best, could just say who you are and the organisation that you represent, and then could you deal with that question?
Alfie Best: I am the chairman of Wyldecrest Parks. We own and operate 31 parks from the South to Scotland and Wales. We operate 37 parks throughout the country, some of which are not owned-they are under licence-but we actually own 31. We have in excess of 4,000 residents, and our annual turnover is circa £15 million.
Q297 Chair: Is that for all the companies in your group?
Alfie Best: Yes.
Q298 Chair: Perhaps I should ask the other three of you just to say who you are and the organisation you represent before we move on to the next question. I should have done that at the beginning.
David Sunderland: I am David Sunderland. I am the estates director for Wyldecrest.
Jeffrey Small junior: I am Jeffrey Small junior. I own 17 parks along with my dad across the West Country.
Gary Self: I am Gary Self, the general manager of JBS Park Homes.
Q299 Chair: Just in terms of the money you make-the profit you actually make on your sites-what are the most profitable activities you are engaged in? Is it the pitch fees that you collect, is it selling new homes, or is it a 10% commission on the sales of existing homes? What is the most profitable part?
Jeffrey Small senior: There is no most profitable part. It is all built into the turnover of the site. Some years, when the sales are down, as they are now-for the last five years we have been in a recession-the sales aspect has been minimised. It would be difficult for me to say at this stage. I am not an accountant, and I do not deal with the accountant’s part of it, so it would be difficult for me to answer any questions that relate to the accountancy side of it, or the profit and loss margins. I am not qualified-I would not know what I was talking about.
Q300 Chair: Can somebody from the company then answer the financial questions? Mr Self, Mr Small, do you know that?
Jeffrey Small junior: Not so much the financial questions, but you have got the rent roll, you have got the sales, and you have got the commission and the value of the parks, but I cannot give you the actual figures.
Jeffrey Small senior: I could get you a breakdown if you wanted a breakdown.3
Q301 Chair: Yes, if you could provide that, it would be very useful.
Jeffrey Small senior: If I was pre-warned that the Committee wanted to see a breakdown of our financial affairs, I would have fetched them along with me.
Q302 Chair: That would be helpful. Mr Best, on the same issue?
Alfie Best: It really does depend on each park that you operate. Our revenue is streamed from three revenue streams: one from pitch fee, one from the 10% commission on resale of second-hand and used park homes, and purchase and sale of new park homes. We have one park that was owned by a rogue park owner. In my opinion there is no such thing as a rogue park owner; they are criminals. They will be in any industry, whether it is the park industry, any other housing industry, or any other aspect of criminality. This particular park that I am talking about is in Oxford, and is called Ladycroft Park. We have owned it for approximately five years, it is a very notorious park, and I believe that we have done a fantastic job in turning it around. When we purchased it, the residents were in turmoil, and as we have heard in evidence here today, people were in fear of their lives, as in, homes were being set on fire. It is the criminality, and they are criminals. They are not rogue park owners-they are criminals.
On that particular park, the revenue earned has been from the sale of new homes, because we purchased it with 50% existing home owners and 50% was a development part of the park. We have spent a substantial amount of money on the park, with roads, drains and new bases, because the park has allowed us, with the income stream from the sale of new homes, to reinvest in that park. So even though we took it over, I say that we have done a fantastic job, which I think is remitted with the residents who are still there, previous and new. We have another park, which I am very passionate about, because it is one of the first ones that we bought. We are very new to the industry-we are only 10 years old as a company. That is in Romford, and I must say that regained only really the pitch fee. I think that we have not physically sold a new home on there for in excess of seven years.
Q303 Chair: In the last, say, 12 months, have your organisations had an existing home, which you bought from the existing owner-
Alfie Best: Sorry, is the question directed at me or Mr Small?
Chair: Well, both of you can answer the question.
Jeffrey Small senior: We have inherited a lot of problems on our parks.
Q304 Chair: Have you actually bought any homes that you then demolished, and then put a new home on the site?
Alfie Best: Yes.
Jeffrey Small senior: Yes.
Q305 Chair: How much money typically would you make out of that sort of operation?
Jeffrey Small senior: It depends what we have got to pay for the old units. When we buy the old unit off, we have got to put all new infrastructure in, put new concrete bases down.
Q306 Chair: How much would it cost you? What is the typical price you pay for an existing home?
Jeffrey Small senior: We try to work on a 20% profit margin.
Q307 Chair: How much would you pay for an existing home that you then demolish?
Jeffrey Small senior: It depends what condition it is in. There could be some that are £5,000, and some could be £20,000.
Q308 Chair: Between £5,000 and £20,000.
Jeffrey Small senior: Here, between £2,000 and £20,000.
Q309 Chair: So how much would it cost you to demolish and put a new home on the site?
Jeffrey Small senior: If we paid £20,000 to have a new home, we try to sell that one offsite for accommodation at a farm or something, to try to recoup some of the expenditure back in. But then we have got to put new infrastructure into the park, put new concrete bases in. Then we have got to purchase a new home and get that one and start building. We have been working on about a 20% profit margin.
Q310 Chair: And how much would you actually sell the new home for?
Jeffrey Small senior: That depends on what part of the country it was. We operate from Hereford down to Cornwall.
Q311 Chair: Any average sort of figure?
Jeffrey Small senior: They would average, in the present market, £140,000 down to perhaps £80,000, depending on the size, and the make and model of the unit.
Q312 Chair: About 20%. Would you agree with those sorts of figures, Mr Best?
Alfie Best: I would say that our figures are higher than that. We do not purchase an inordinate amount of homes back, because of the amount of plots that we have and some of the home parks that we have bought in. For instance, we heard from the police officer who I believe was sitting here earlier with regard to the very widely known case of the two gentlemen-if I can call them that-that went to prison. We purchased one of those parks from the receivers. On that particular park there is a gain. We have filled the vacant plots.
We tend to buy vacant parks and fill them with redevelopments. But yes, we do buy homes back, but the plots that we buy tend to be ones that can fit two homes on. For instance, if it is a very large plot, then we would pay £10,000 to £20,000, sometimes even £50,000, if we can fit two homes on that plot, it complies with the site licence and it complies with the planning. Then it is financially viable to do so.
It stems also from the purchase of the park, and what you have paid for the park. That works out at a purchase price per pitch. The average purchase price of a mobile home park is anything from £30,000 to £50,000 per plot. That is how you would value a park; that is a rule of thumb. You then gauge in what the relative annual pitch fee is, the annual run of 10% commissions that are drawn in, and if there is a possibility for any redevelopment on the park. Redevelopment can mean an extension, and we, as you will hear from my estates director, aggressively look to redevelop parks on virgin areas of the park that are undeveloped, if they had garages, or overlarge car parks.
When we came into this industry, we found it was a cottage-style industry. If I can refer to Heidi Alexander, you made a point that is extremely dear to my heart, because it is about knowledge. Park owners believe that this is the legislation, and these are the correct criteria. The owner of the home believes that it is a different piece of legislation. It is about everybody being educated and understanding what the rule of thumb is from the start.
Q313 Chair: Let’s move on to some different questions. Finally on this point, are you, Mr Small, a member of any trade association, or have you ever been a member of an association?
Jeffrey Small senior: I was a member of the NHPA when we were smaller, when we did not have so many pitches, but we have approximately 1,200 pitches, and it would be too costly financially now to subscribe to them.
Q314 Chair: So you are not a member now.
Jeffrey Small senior: I am not, no.
Q315 Chair: Did you leave or did they ask you to leave?
Jeffrey Small senior: No, I left. I have got a perfectly good relationship with the NHPA and all the organisations-the BHA.
Q316 Bob Blackman: Most of my questions are going to be directed to you, Mr Best, so rest on your laurels slightly for a moment. Can I clarify one thing that you said earlier about the number of parks you own and the number you operate? I heard that you own 31 and you operate 37.
Alfie Best: That is correct.
Q317 Bob Blackman: Is that six that you do not own-that you license-or is it 37 that you do not own?
Alfie Best: No, no; we own 31, and we operate a further six.
Q318 Bob Blackman: A Companies House search suggests that there are some 13 different companies using Wyldecrest in some shape or form. Could you just talk us through your corporate structure? How many companies are live, and what do they actually do?
Alfie Best: We have a parent company, which is Shelfside (Holdings). This is a holding company, and what sits below that is Wyldecrest Parks Management, which is the management structure that manages the day-to-day running of the parks. Then we own Mobile Living. We also own Shelfside Holding (Northern), which owns the northern holding of the Scottish parks. Below that sits the trading company, which is Wyldecrest Parks (Northern). We then own Best Park Home Finance, which also operates and issues finance to the residents, because it is obviously very difficult for residents to purchase homes in this market and obtain finance. I am trying to think of the list of companies.
Q319 Bob Blackman: That is very interesting, because you have already gone on to a whole series of companies that I have not included in my list of 13, and indeed I am told that there is another company called Berg Limited-Berg Investments Limited.
Alfie Best: Wyldecrest Parks was with Paul Roberts. We asked them to step in and set up, and run alongside with us, to do park home refurbishments. We regard Wyldecrest as a brand. We have spent a lot of money advertising, sponsoring tournament events, so we have nurtured that brand, and we have not always got it right.
Q320 Bob Blackman: I will just cut across you, because I am sure we could spend quite a long time this afternoon on this. The issue is: are all these parks that you operate run by one company, or do you split up the sites between different companies that you operate?
Alfie Best: No, they are split between different companies because, as we have gone along, we have purchased new companies.
Q321 Bob Blackman: There seem to be a series of companies that use the Wyldecrest name in some shape or form that have either been dissolved or struck off. Is there a reason for that?
Alfie Best: There are some companies that we have worked in conjunction with that we have not been in control of, unfortunately, as every business falls foul at some point.
Q322 Bob Blackman: Have you been involved personally as a director of all these different companies?
Alfie Best: Not all of them, no.
Q323 Bob Blackman: There is obviously a concern here that these companies seem to have come on, been set up and then dissolved, and then moved on, which suggests that there is something wrong with the way the companies are being operated-I do not know-but it also ties up with the fact that there is a large list of county court judgments against some of these companies, dating back not years but just 12 months or so.
Alfie Best: We have found that one of the companies has some county court judgments registered against it that actually belong to our trading company, and we have been trying to investigate those and clear them, which is what we have been doing. But there are other county courts judgements that have been run up by the directors and operators of those companies that we have no knowledge of, and have nothing at all to do with us.
Q324 Bob Blackman: I just want to be clear, so we get this on the record. Wyldecrest companies, Wyldecrest Properties Limited, have £132,085 in unpaid county court judgments. Are you saying that is nothing to do with you?
Alfie Best: No; I am saying that there is approximately-and obviously I am speaking from memory-
Q325 Bob Blackman: I understand that, and that is why I want to be very careful about what your involvement is in that company.
Alfie Best: If I can refer you to hypothetically one county court judgment, which was for £56,000, which was for Tingdene Homes. Tingdene contacted us and confirmed that we had a dispute going on and that they had county-courted the wrong company. We then got in touch with them, sat down, had a meeting, and that has now been cleared.
Q326 Bob Blackman: So that has been through the courts.
Alfie Best: That is Tingdene Homes. That will give you an idea that, when we are aware of it, we deal with it. We are a new company; we are 10 years old.
Q327 Bob Blackman: I do not necessarily want to go through these details, because it is unfair on you. I just want to make clear whether these are proper to your company and whether they are appropriate. There is also Wyldecrest Parks Limited, which has £42,188 in unpaid county court judgments.
Alfie Best: I think the two companies that you are talking about in question are actually Wyldecrest Properties Limited and Wyldecrest Parks Limited. Is that correct?
Q328 Bob Blackman: Correct. And also Berg Investments Limited.
Alfie Best: That is the same company as Wyldecrest Parks, because Wyldecrest Parks changed its name to Berg Investments. Is that correct? In actual fact we are talking about two companies.
Q329 Bob Blackman: Yes. Well, you tell me. You are the one involved with these companies.
Alfie Best: Well, Wyldecrest Parks was set up with Paul Roberts to do refurbishment on park homes on our parks, and other parks around the country that they run. We trade under the banner of Wyldecrest. There are county court judgments that have gone astray, but we are now sifting through those as we speak, and we have been doing so for the past three months, to find out which ones actually belong to us. Unfortunately, it came to a very bitter end with me and the operators of those companies.
Q330 Bob Blackman: Are you a director of Wyldecrest Parks Limited? Is your wife?
Alfie Best: My wife was, yes.
Q331 Bob Blackman: So she is a connected party with that organisation.
Alfie Best: Yes, of course.
Q332 Bob Blackman: Similarly with the other one, Wyldecrest Properties?
Alfie Best: Wyldecrest Properties was set up to do maintenance around the parks, and we paid them from time to time to do that.
Q333 Bob Blackman: You were a company director.
Alfie Best: Only for a short period of time. I think that was some two years ago. If I can just say, I think that there are several other Wyldecrest companies that have been set up that are nothing to do with us. They are just trading under our banner.
Q334 Bob Blackman: That is very helpful. I think it would be very helpful for us if you itemised in some shape or form, subsequent to this, which of those companies you are involved in and which you are not.4 We certainly do not, as a Committee, want to be in a position of accusing you of being improper in any shape or form when the companies are nothing to do with you. I think that would be quite helpful. In terms of the licence conditions, who is responsible for keeping the licence conditions correctly adhered to?
Alfie Best: Wyldecrest Parks Management.
Q335 Bob Blackman: Who specifically as an individual? Is that you or Mr Sunderland?
Alfie Best: David Sunderland.
David Sunderland: Yes.
Q336 Bob Blackman: So, for every site where there is a licence, Mr Sunderland, you are responsible for ensuring all the conditions are-
David Sunderland: I look after the site licensing conditions.
Q337 Bob Blackman: Fine, that is quite helpful. Mr Small, is that the same position in the sites that you operate?
Jeffrey Small senior: Yes.
Q338 Bob Blackman: Sorry, is that you or your son?
Jeffrey Small senior: It is a joint effort.
Q339 Bob Blackman: Is there not a requirement for a named individual to be responsible for the enforcement of the conditions?
Jeffrey Small senior: JBS is under three partnerships. We have one that is JB Small; we have got JB&J Small; and we have got J Small. They are split into three parts: there are five parks in one, there are five parks in the other, and there are seven in the joint venture. Under my five parks I would be dealing with mine, my son would be dealing with his, and the joint venture is a joint venture.
Q340 Bob Blackman: But if there were any conditions, there would be a known person-
Jeffrey Small senior: When it comes down to it, I am generally at the end of the queue, and I get all the-
Q341 Bob Blackman: So there is no obscurity? If someone has a complaint to make, they know where to go to.
Jeffrey Small senior: That is right.
Jeffrey Small junior: We have got a complaints procedure in place, and if we get a complaint someone will notify us by e-mail or telephone or write to us, and we would deal with it as soon as possible.
Q342 Bob Blackman: All your pitch-holders would know who to go to.
Jeffrey Small junior: Yes. We have kept the same name all the time we have been trading.
Jeffrey Small senior: I have been in the industry for 35 years, and I have seen the industry go from caravans to luxury park homes, so I am pretty well up on it.
Q343 Bob Blackman: Can I ask you-I will start with you, Mr Small-about outstanding utility bills or any other bills that are associated with the ownership of the park? Are there any unpaid bills outstanding on any of your sites?
Jeffrey Small senior: At the present time, we have an issue with South West Water. We had one meter coming into the park, and the previous owner allowed the residents to go down to B&Q and get their own water meters installed. They would not calibrate it, and so they were not giving us a true reading. Over the last three years we have been billing the residents for the amount of water they have been using.
Q344 Bob Blackman: So the position is that the residents are getting a bill for the water that they have used, or you think they have used, but you may be in dispute with the water company.
Jeffrey Small senior: No, because the residents have not been paying us.
Q345 Bob Blackman: They have not paid you. But you have billed them.
Jeffrey Small senior: We have billed them for the water they have used. We had a meeting with the council, the Trading Standards and also the residents. We came to the conclusion that the only fair way we could-
Chair: I do apologise. It was nothing you said, Mr Small, just to reassure you. We are going to have a Division in the House, so we will be back in about 10 minutes. If I could ask you to wait for us, we will return.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Chair: We can resume. Some of our colleagues are still on their way back from voting, but they will be with us in due course.
Q346 Bob Blackman: Mr Small, I think that when the bell went, you were explaining the circumstances with South West Water.
Jeffrey Small senior: That is right, yes. We purchased a park, and on purchasing the park we found the previous owner allowed the residents to go down and get their own water meters and put them in without being calibrated. These readings were not true; they were not paying the true water bill, so this tallied up. We have now got South West Water to supply new water meters that are placed beside the old one, which is going to give the residents a much clearer reading of what they have used, and they can pay their proper dues, and we can pass the money over then to South West Water.
Q347 Bob Blackman: Is that the only site on which there is a dispute about utility bills?
Jeffrey Small senior: We have got 17 parks, and we are paying electricity, water and gas bills all the time.
Q348 Bob Blackman: In relation to the parks that you operate, every one of your residents receives a regular bill for the utilities, either from you or maybe directly from the utilities companies.
Jeffrey Small senior: That is right, yes. In one particular site we bill quarterly for the water, a service charge, and gas consumption.
Q349 Bob Blackman: There is no withholding of bills or anything like that. So there is no extended period of delay between the bills being incurred and residents receiving them, in your parks.
Jeffrey Small senior: No. We send them on a regular basis. It is in our interest to send the bills out; the quicker we send the bills out, the quicker we recuperate the monies.
Q350 Bob Blackman: That is fine, thank you. Mr Best, is the same true in the parks that you operate?
Alfie Best: Sorry, could you ask the question again?
Q351 Bob Blackman: Essentially, who is responsible for the utility bills, and if it is your company that is receiving the bills, do you then bill the various different residents directly for those bills in a timely manner?
Alfie Best: I will answer that in two points. In certain parks, the resident is responsible for the meter themselves, so they would be self-billed residents that would have the opportunity to be able to pick whichever utility company they wish to go with. Then there is the second type of park, where it is billed from one meter and then subdivided to each meter, to each park home. That meter is then read, and the residents are then billed on a quarterly basis. That is collected by our accounts team; we have six people that work in accounts, and they pretty well run that operation from rent collection. These are day-to-day transactions and businesses that should run streamlined.
Q352 Bob Blackman: Do any of the sites that you operate have any outstanding bills in dispute with the utility companies?
Alfie Best: Specifically, I could not tell you. We do have one park at the moment where residents are refusing to pay. It is a park that we have just taken over in the last 12 months. They are alleging that their water was paid for with their electricity. That is something that I know our accounts is dealing with, because obviously that is not the case. It cannot be the case.
Q353 Bob Blackman: Are any of your parks in a position whereby you failed to bill your residents for the utilities?
Alfie Best: No.
Q354 Bob Blackman: There are no outstanding bills.
Alfie Best: No. If there is, I do not know about it.
Q355 Bob Blackman: That is fine; it is not a trick question. I am just trying to get it on the record, because for certain areas of the country we have heard evidence-not about your company, please note-of where park owners have withheld bills. I just want to make sure that there are no issues for you. Can I move on to one last area? Mr Small, do you charge deposits for people moving on to your parks?
Jeffrey Small senior: No.
Q356 Bob Blackman: You do not charge any deposits at all, not on any of the parks that you operate.
Jeffrey Small senior: No. The only deposit we receive if someone comes and purchases a new home from us is the deposit on that new home, but we do not receive a deposit for coming on to the park.
Q357 Bob Blackman: Mr Best?
Alfie Best: Yes, we do. We charge a deposit.
Q358 Bob Blackman: Is that on every park, or just on specific ones?
Alfie Best: On every new home that is sold, we take a holding deposit.
Q359 Bob Blackman: How much?
Alfie Best: £1,000 deposit.
Q360 Bob Blackman: What is the deposit for?
Alfie Best: It is a financial deposit that we hold if they do not pay their pitch fee.
Q361 Bob Blackman: When is it refunded?
Alfie Best: When they move.
Q362 Bob Blackman: So you get the benefit of the £1,000 for the duration of their living on the park.
Alfie Best: Yes, we do, and when it is returned, it is returned with interest.
Q363 Bob Blackman: We have heard from Mr Small that his company does not do that. Is that general in the industry?
Alfie Best: It is general with our company. At Wyldecrest, we credit-check our new residents that come on to the park, and we also sit down and operate a procedure where we try to educate all new residents who are coming on to our park with the 1983 Act, the park home rules, and the legislation that we believe is correct.
Q364 Bob Blackman: Are you taking legal advice about whether this deposit is an implied term of the legislation or not?
Alfie Best: It is a financial agreement that we are entering into, and it is the new 1983 Mobile Homes Act that they are entering into. It is not an assignment, so how that agreement is written is between us, our solicitor and the new incoming tenant.
Q365 Bob Blackman: So if someone sells their home privately-
Alfie Best: We do not implement that, because that is an assignment.
Q366 Bob Blackman: So this would presumably be a new mobile home, and you take £1,000 deposit from those people.
Alfie Best: Yes.
Q367 Bob Blackman: That sounds to me quite draconian, because of the cost of these homes. Are they paying the full cost of the home when they arrive?
Alfie Best: Yes, except for when they are taking finance out, obviously.
Q368 Bob Blackman: This £1,000 deposit is, therefore, not against the value of the home.
Alfie Best: No.
Q369 Bob Blackman: It is for securing a site.
Alfie Best: Let me validate the answer for that. It is not a deposit that is taken, as in you give a deposit to hold the plot or the home. It is a financial deposit that we hold in our deposit account.
Q370 Bob Blackman: What is the typical pitch fee, then, that someone would be paying in a year, or a month?
Alfie Best: It would really depend on which park and the area that the park is in.
Q371 Bob Blackman: But the £1,000 deposit is the same wherever you are in the country.
Alfie Best: Yes, we take £1,000 across the board. If you were, say, talking about a park in Cheshire, I can say that the pitch fee there would be approximately £120.
Q372 Bob Blackman: Is that £120 a month?
Alfie Best: Per month.
Q373 Bob Blackman: Broadly speaking, you are saying that would be equivalent to 10 months, or just under.
Alfie Best: Yes. If you were talking about a park in Guildford, the pitch fee could be approximately £185.
Q374 Bob Blackman: That would be more like six months.
Alfie Best: Yes.
Q375 Bob Blackman: But you do not vary the terms.
Alfie Best: No.
Q376 Bob Blackman: What, then, is your justification for this £1,000? I think we should have it on the record.
Alfie Best: Basically, if the resident, for whatever reason, passes away, and we cannot receive our pitch fee, we are not financially encumbered by not receiving it.
Q377 Bob Blackman: This is, therefore, an insurance for you in case someone dies.
Alfie Best: That is correct-or leaves without paying.
Q378 Bob Blackman: Or leaves without paying the pitch fee. For what sort of period?
Alfie Best: Until the home is sold, or they move from their home and sell it to the next party.
Q379 Bob Blackman: To be clear, no one can move on to a new site in one of your parks without paying this £1,000 deposit.
Alfie Best: Nobody can move into a new park home on any of our parks without paying the security deposit. No.
Q380 Chair: Mr Best, does Best Park Home Finance have a consumer credit licence?
Alfie Best: Yes, it does.
Q381 Chair: So it conforms in every respect.
Alfie Best: Yes, it does.
Q382 Chair: You seem like a pretty clued up sort of guy, Mr Best, yet you expect us to believe today that you, as chairman of a company, were not aware of county court judgments against companies you own?
Alfie Best: No, I was aware of them. We have been aware of them for some four months, and we have been dealing with them for some four months, because some of the county courts were misdirected to the wrong company.
Q383 Chair: You were not aware of the misdirection at the beginning.
Alfie Best: No.
Q384 Chair: Then you were not aware of the conditions that led to the county court judgments that were valid before they occurred.
Alfie Best: Some of them, yes we were, and we were dealing with those. The moment that we became notified and knew about them, and we knew that those county courts were directed at the wrong company, we started dealing with them.
Q385 Chair: But you did not take any action to stop the other ones, which were directed at the right companies, i.e. by putting the problems right before they started.
Alfie Best: Unfortunately, we did not know about them.
Q386 Stephen Gilbert: In the evidence we have had so far over the course of the inquiry, terms like "rogue site owner" and "good site owner" get bandied about quite a lot. Would you all consider yourselves to be good site owners?
Jeffrey Small junior: I would, yes.
Jeffrey Small senior: I have been in the business for 35 years, and I have always.
David Sunderland: Yes, absolutely.
Q387 Stephen Gilbert: Is that based on an annual survey of resident satisfaction? Do you contact the residents who live on your sites and ask them how they see you?
Jeffrey Small senior: It is based on the fact that I can visit any of our parks, and I can walk down through there and speak to everyone on it in a pleasant manner, apart from one person.
Q388 Stephen Gilbert: Mr Best, do you do an annual residents’ survey? Do you get in touch with your residents and get feedback on how they perceive you as landlords?
Alfie Best: As a matter of fact, yes we do. We have carried out a survey, not globally on every park but on parts of parks and on some parks, on why there is misrepresentation. Some residents believe that an electrical fault on their home is the responsibility of the park operator, for instance. What we found was that any residents who had moved from a leasehold property understood the 1983 Act much more than somebody who had moved from a freehold property. This is because they assumed that the freehold property circumstances were exactly the same as for a park, which is obviously not the case.
Q389 Stephen Gilbert: No, indeed. Bearing in mind, Mr Small, that you do not conduct the kind of survey that Mr Best says that he does, you may be surprised to know that some of your residents have told this inquiry that they are afraid to leave their homes when you and Mr Small junior visit, or, in Mr Best’s case, that the management create a climate of fear on the sites that you are responsible for. Do you recognise that picture?
Jeffrey Small senior: No, I do not. I would strenuously deny that, and I would beg anyone to come here and put that to our face. It is a total pack of lies.
Jeffrey Small junior: No one could possibly say under oath that we have harassed anyone or been involved in wrongdoings with anyone. Apart from a couple of teething problems, there have never been any major problems whatsoever.
Jeffrey Small senior: We operate as a family business, a family concern-we always have. One of the main things that we have always prided ourselves on is contact with the residents. I have got residents on some of our parks who have seen my children grow up. Every time I see them they ask, "How are the girls? How is the son?" To have that put to me, to be honest, is a big surprise.
Q390 Stephen Gilbert: I think, Mr Small, that they put it to us that they are afraid to leave their homes because they are afraid to put it to you directly. It is interesting that you do not even give them the opportunity to, because you do not conduct an annual survey of your residents, unlike Mr Best, who presumably, because he is in regular contact with his residents, will know that they live in a climate of fear on his sites.
David Sunderland: Sorry, can I just add something there? I have listened to a lot of the submissions that have been put in this week and last week. It is an opportunity to perhaps look at the other side of the equation. What I find I am dealing with on a day-to-day basis are a lot of residents, or particular residents’ associations, who are vexatious and unreasonable towards us. I have in front of me-I will not say which site it is-literature that is being put out by the residents’ association of one of the sites. The title of this paragraph that we have is "Harassment and bullying by Wyldecrest site owners, employees and site manager".
I had a meeting about a month ago with the residents’ association and the local MP, and I put it fairly directly to the chair of the residents’ association and asked him to name names. The only name he mentioned was the park manager. We believe that there was a campaign by the residents’ association against the park manager because they do not like him, and we took along with us testimonials from residents, which amounted to 71, to say that he was doing a fantastic job and that people were happy with him. I am sure that he is not happy with everyone, but he was unable to name any other names. I asked him the very direct question, "Why are you frightening residents by exaggerating, perhaps, small issues?" There was no answer forthcoming from it.
My understanding from a lot of what is going on, and there is a root cause of it as well, is that the residents’ associations such as IPHAS and NAPHR very much take a strong approach, and that is where they get their lead from.
Q391 Stephen Gilbert: I will certainly take a look at the evidence that we have had in, but-I stand to be corrected by the Committee-I am not sure that we have received any anonymous evidence from site managers who claim they are being bullied by residents’ associations. The point I am trying to make, gentlemen, is that your residents are too scared to talk to you about issues about the management of their sites. One of the themes that has run through this inquiry so far is whether a fit and proper person test may better define your obligations as site owners, but also what the residents may be able to expect from you, and put those expectations in a clearer format. Do you think that has some merit?
Jeffrey Small senior: No, I do not think so. To be honest with you, I think, from what I have seen of it, the Committee are taking a very tunnel view of things. They are placing all the problems at the feet of the site operators, which is completely wrong. This industry is run by-we have the site operator, the council, which is the licence provider, and we also have the residents’ associations.
Regarding the residents’ associations, I can produce evidence that residents on the park are petrified to walk outside their homes, the same as you said to me, because the chairperson of the residents’ association is abusive to them. If they do not join the association, they are outcasts. They are discounted from the everyday activities of the site because they will not join the associations. We have had people who will pack up and leave-they have left the sites for the same reason.
When you keep on saying that we should have a fit and proper person to come and run these parks, I think about where we should start. We are in business and we are used to dealing with business. The chairpersons of the residents’ associations have no business skills whatsoever. They come into a residential park, they set up a residents’ association. Half of them are self-selected chairpersons: they don’t get voted in; they select themselves. They use bullying tactics and all kinds of tactics to get residents to follow them.
Q392 Stephen Gilbert: I appreciate that comment, Mr Small, that the residents’ associations are bullying the residents. Would you, Mr Best, see some value in the introduction of a fit and proper person test?
Alfie Best: Yes, I would. I believe that would be a good way forward, as in a fit and proper person. I can give some credence to what Mr Small says. With residents’ associations, either you are with them or against them. Some of them are very good, and, speaking from experience, some residents’ associations that we work with are very good and very knowledgeable. Unfortunately, there are some that are not. The problem is the misinformation that is given out. We operate family parks, retirement parks and semi-retirement parks. But this issue goes much wider, because it is not just about the park owner, the residents’ association and the site licensing.
If I can just raise one point, for instance, we had an RPT meeting, a Residential Property Tribunal, where we were taken to an RPT by the residents’ association of Radcliffe Park regarding a resident who had moved on to the site. Unfortunately, we did not do our job correctly, and we allowed someone to move on to the site with a dog. It was only a small Jack Russell, but even so, the park rules state that there are no dogs allowed on the park. It was not the purchase of a new home; it was the purchase of a resale of a resident’s home. We have an interview procedure, a tick box that the park manager carries out, and that procedure is documented throughout all of our parks. We therefore have a systematic procedure that works across the board.
We were taken to an RPT meeting because the resident moved on to the park with a dog. If we had interjected-and, to be fair, if we had known that the resident had a dog, we would have objected-that would have been seen as sale blocking. There has to be more transparency with what is correct. For instance, on the Government website, Mr Grant Shapps has put that the park owner cannot interview incoming residents. We have actually been to court and the decision was in our favour-that the park owner should interview, and has the right to interview.
Q393 Stephen Gilbert: In fact in some of the earlier evidence we had this afternoon, some witnesses were suggesting that sale confirmations were appropriate to make sure age restrictions were maintained or, in your case, the restriction on pets is maintained. Getting back to the fit and proper person test, what do you think, Mr Best, that test should be?
Alfie Best: I believe that there should be some sort of professionalism competency for people to work to. There is in most other industries, whether you are a builder or a plumber, or any other type of professional, and I see it as a step forward to regulate the industry. But in regulating the industry, you must have a point where the residents’ associations are regulated as well, otherwise you have a two-tier system, with one that is regulated and one that is not. There has to be a transparency point between them both.
Q394 Stephen Gilbert: Do you think, for example, that cautions or convictions would, or should, disbar somebody under a fit and proper person test?
Alfie Best: It depends purely on what those are. My answer to you is: yes, I do, and I would like to take that a little bit further, because I think I know what the next question is. There obviously need to be reasons why, what the circumstances are, and whether or not the truth has been told.
Q395 Stephen Gilbert: Mr Small, do you think that, for example, a caution or a criminal conviction should disbar you from being a site owner?
Jeffrey Small senior: It depends how serious the convictions are.
Q396 Stephen Gilbert: If we had that test in place-
Jeffrey Small senior: To be honest with you, I do not think that putting a test in place to try to find a fit and proper person is going to cure the problems. That will not be a cure. Somehow we have got to get all the authorities working together. That is going to be the cure. It is not just saying, "He is a fit and proper person to run that site." If he is the fit and proper person, perhaps the RA chap isn’t a fit and proper person.
Q397 Stephen Gilbert: If we had a fit and proper person test that excluded people from being fit and proper if they had criminal convictions or a criminal record, would you pass that test?
Jeffrey Small junior: Yes.
Jeffrey Small senior: Yes, I would.
Alfie Best: Yes, I would.
David Sunderland: Yes.
Q398 Stephen Gilbert: Mr Best, I think you were arrested on Wednesday 19 October for physically assaulting a woman, one of your residents. It caused you to be arrested by Hertfordshire police, where you were given a criminal record by virtue of being cautioned. Are you not familiar with that incident?
Alfie Best: I am, and that is not correct. Let me answer for you. What actually happened was this. We own Scatterdells Park at Bovingdon. We applied for the site licence to be increased. The council refused, and we took the council to court. We won, and we were awarded £18,000 of damages and £15,000 of costs. Some three months later we then undertook to carry out the work and a particular lady decided to protest, and put herself underneath the tree when the workmen turned up on site.
I was driving around the M25, was phoned and told. I went to the site and removed the resident from underneath the tree while the tree surgeons were carrying out their work. The police arrived on site and did not arrest me. At no point was I arrested. The police asked if I would like to attend the police station the following day, which I did, and which I then was not arrested for. I was not interviewed under caution; I have seen what has been printed and it is a complete fabrication. Allow me to finish. The police said that the lady wanted to take it to court, and would I accept a caution or go to court? I accepted the caution, which, I was led to believe by the police, does not give me a criminal record.
Q399 Stephen Gilbert: With the possible suggestion that it was not an arrest and you went to the station of your own volition, you accept that you have a caution for assaulting one of your residents.
Alfie Best: Obviously, yes.
Q400 Stephen Gilbert: That instance of you being arrested, as I understand it, or of going to the station voluntarily rather, was with Hertfordshire police. Is there another incident where you were asked to attend Abingdon police station in Oxford?
Alfie Best: Yes, that is true.
Q401 Stephen Gilbert: Mr Best, with the best will in the world, you suggested that the police have certainly spoken to you a couple of times about your behaviour with your residents. You have confirmed with my colleague that you have around about £175,000 in unpaid county court judgments against you. Is it not understandable that some people think that you are not a fit and proper person to run any of these sites?
Alfie Best: If you review back, the county court judgments are not against us. We are investigating and paying the ones that are against us, and we have paid them; I think we have paid over 50% of the ones we found were registered and correctly against us. That, to me, would be somebody of honesty and integrity, as the others are registered against companies that are not connected with us.
Q402 Heidi Alexander: Mr Best, when did you first become involved with Wyldecrest?
Alfie Best: In 2001.
Q403 Heidi Alexander: You are telling me and the rest of the Committee that you only became aware of these county court judgments in the last three months.
Alfie Best: These county courts, from the best of my knowledge, are only within the last six months.
Q404 Heidi Alexander: Having been involved with the company for the best part of a decade, how can it be that you, as the chairman of the organisation, do not really have any grip on what county court judgments are being taken out and alleged against your company?
Alfie Best: We have some number of companies. We have a complete structural tier within our company: we have a finance director, a managing director, estates director. We obviously have all our accounts. I do not deal with the day-to-day accounts and bills.
Q405 Heidi Alexander: Does it not worry you, in terms of your reputation, that there are all these county court judgments kicking around against your company? What steps have you taken to change the structures in place within your company to make sure that this does not arise again?
Alfie Best: Obviously, as a new company, Wyldecrest is aggressively looking at every avenue, and yes, it does concern us, and it does worry me a great deal that things slip through the net. When you think of a company that has 13 or 14 different companies in different tiers, and we employ 22 people, then unfortunately things slip by.
Q406 Heidi Alexander: It seems that quite a lot has slipped through the net. Let me ask you some questions-perhaps you first, Mr Best-about the process that takes place when somebody wants to sell their home. Can you just talk me through how it works in terms of your company?
Alfie Best: For our company, we ask each resident to fill in an intention-to-sell form. That way we know what is going on around the parks. That is done via the park manager who resides on most of our parks-most of our park managers live on site. We then approach them to see if they would like us to market the property for them, for which we charge 2% estate agency fee. If they do not wish us to market it, then we do not put it on our website and do not actively market it, and they can go to an estate agent of their choice. When they actively find a customer, then obviously they would speak to the park manager, who would vet them and interview them, and the sale would proceed.
Q407 Heidi Alexander: Do they have to come for an interview? Do you always conduct an interview with a prospective purchaser?
Alfie Best: Yes.
Q408 Heidi Alexander: Say there were 10 people who wanted to sell their home. Of those 10 prospective purchasers, how many would you say that you block on an annual basis and say, "We don’t think that person is a suitable purchaser"? One in 10? Five in 10?
Alfie Best: Maybe one or two out of 10.
Q409 Heidi Alexander: What would be the main reasons for that?
Alfie Best: If they do not comply with the rules of the park: animals, dogs, over-age-all of that type of criteria.
Q410 Heidi Alexander: What is the smallest amount that you have ever paid for a park home?
Alfie Best: Free.
Q411 Heidi Alexander: You got it for free? Why was that?
Alfie Best: The home was in such a state of disrepair that the people left it.
Q412 Heidi Alexander: There are obviously a lot of allegations that are made about park home site owners actually choosing to force somebody’s price down so that they can get their hands on the home, put a new home up, hike the pitch fee up. Do you ever do that?
Alfie Best: No.
Q413 Heidi Alexander: You can categorically say that you have never done that.
Alfie Best: Categorically.
Q414 Heidi Alexander: What would you say to the resident of a Wyldecrest park, an elderly man, who has written to us saying that basically you forced him-and he named you, personally-to sell a home to you for £2,000 that was then sold for £68,000? He did so on the understanding that you would put him into a new home and found himself being forced into a very dilapidated home. I do not want to name names, but are you familiar with this case?
Alfie Best: Not at all, because I do not ever buy any homes back. I have never bought a home back.
Q415 Heidi Alexander: You have never bought a home back.
Alfie Best: No.
Q416 Heidi Alexander: Earlier in your evidence, you said that you do not purchase an inordinate number of homes back. That is actually two quite different things.
Alfie Best: That is correct. I meant globally within our company, but I do not deal with any buybacks.
Q417 Heidi Alexander: Your company, then, has quite a few buybacks.
Alfie Best: Not quite a few; some, and that is dealt with by Mr David Sunderland or the park manager that is on the site.
Q418 Heidi Alexander: You were also saying earlier that you think information is really important for people when they are purchasing a home.
Alfie Best: Yes.
Q419 Heidi Alexander: Can you explain to me why, when someone was going through an approval process and trying to request the assignment of their agreement to somebody else, you actually wrote to the seller’s solicitor, advising the solicitors that their services were not needed? Can you ever recall doing that, or are you aware of anyone in your company ever doing that? Mr Sunderland, perhaps you are aware of that sort of situation.
David Sunderland: Not that I can think of.
Alfie Best: Sorry-you are saying that our company, or somebody in our company, wrote to a solicitor.
Q420 Heidi Alexander: That is what we have been told in written evidence that has been submitted to us. It says that "the park owner"-i.e. you, Wyldecrest-"during an approval process and request of the assignment, wrote to the seller’s solicitor advising them that their services were not needed, as it was their intention to put a new agreement in place".
Alfie Best: I do not believe that is correct.
Q421 Heidi Alexander: Will you carry out investigations when you return, to find out whether indeed that has ever happened?
Alfie Best: That is not going to be possible unless I know the park or a little bit more information about it. But, yes, I would like the information because I do not think it is correct. But yes, obviously.
Q422 Heidi Alexander: Obviously some of the evidence that has been submitted to us has been redacted, but if you wish to conduct investigations, it might be that the Committee staff could go back to the individual who made that submission.
Alfie Best: Yes, please.
Q423 Mark Pawsey: I want to ask some questions about pitch fees, but first of all I would like to ask Mr Best a couple of quick questions. You have gone from nowhere in this industry, over 10 years, to the second biggest in a very short space of time. What is your formula? What are you doing that the other guys are not doing? How have you grown so fast?
Alfie Best: We put everything in place to allow the transactions of the process to go through. Whether it be finance, at the moment, or our part-exchange scheme, we put everything in place to allow us to move forward, and we are looking for very good opportunities within the market to purchase parks. One of our shareholders within our Northern company is HSBC Bank, and that is when they invited us to take over the management and running of it, because it had gone into receivership.
Q424 Mark Pawsey: So are you better resourced than your competitors?
Alfie Best: I believe so, yes.
Q425 Mark Pawsey: What is the great attraction of park homes for you as a businessman? Is it because of the very substantial profits that are available?
Alfie Best: I will elaborate on that a little bit. Let’s say that there is a park with 100 units. You would work out the value of each plot, so an average of about £40,000 per plot. From the outset, parks are not good investments, because if a park is producing £150 per month pitch fee, and there are 100 plots at £40,000 each, that is £1,800 per annum for each plot. Deduct £500 for an average maintenance fee, and it is approximately a third on maintenance. That is one of the other confusions, as some residents believe that the pitch fee is not a pitch fee, and that it is actually a maintenance charge. That is not correct-it is actually a pitch fee. It is the park operator’s duty to carry out maintenance on the park, but again, not improvements. This is where we found that most leaseholders of properties that had moved from flats or leasehold properties much better understood the acquisition of a park home.
If you then have £1,300 per annum, that equates to something like 3% return. When you then take out a mortgage on a property in this market, I think everybody knows that it is closer to 4.5%.
Q426 Mark Pawsey: Are you trying to suggest to me that it is not as profitable as we are suggesting?
Alfie Best: No, I am trying to give you a complete breakdown of the mechanics of how the business actually works. You say that it is a very profitable business, but a business is only as good as the people that are running it. Our policy is to improve the parks, and that has shown out. We have not charged the residents for the improvements that have been made on our parks. There has not been one single charge, across any park, that we have made for improvements, which have been substantial. By doing that, that increases the value of the park homes for the residents, allowing us to get a bigger 10%. That is the mechanics behind it.
Q427 Mark Pawsey: I want to move on to pitch fees, and I am conscious that we have not heard from Mr Self yet. You have probably come a fair old way. Mr Best has just referred to a pitch fee of £150. Is that an average figure? How do you go about calculating a pitch fee?
Gary Self: I would say our average pitch fee is approximately £120 a month. We have a set standard that we come into.
Q428 Mark Pawsey: How do you go about calculating that figure?
Gary Self: It is really an average of the parks that we have accumulated. Bear in mind that a lot of our pitch fees had been put in place prior to the parks being bought by J&B Small.
Q429 Mark Pawsey: They are all historical.
Gary Self: That is right.
Q430 Mark Pawsey: How do you get to increase the pitch fee?
Gary Self: We do it once per annum, based on the RPI and a review.
Q431 Mark Pawsey: Are you able to increase pitch fees beyond that level?
Gary Self: No, of course not.
Q432 Mark Pawsey: There is no evidence that people would increase the pitch fee just by imposing that on a resident.
Gary Self: No, I have never seen that.
Jeffrey Small senior: We never increase the pitch fee to the full amount of RPI. We always keep it below.
Q433 Mark Pawsey: You are entitled to increase to RPI, though.
Jeffrey Small senior: We are entitled to; if the RPI this year, for instance, was 5%, we would increase it perhaps 4%. We would always keep it below.
Q434 Mark Pawsey: We have taken some evidence from a resident of one of your sites who told us that you arbitrarily increase the pitch fee, without any reference to RPI. Would you say that is accurate information?
Jeffrey Small senior: No. We always contact the Office for National Statistics in Newport , and they give us the RPI every year.
Q435 Mark Pawsey: There are, then, no circumstances under which an existing park home resident’s pitch fee could increase by any more than RPI.
Jeffrey Small senior: No. They would not go beyond, unless we took them to court and we had done improvements on the park that were beneficial to the resident.
Q436 Mark Pawsey: Have you ever encountered opposition to the increase in the pitch fee on the RPI basis?
Gary Self: Recently, yes.
Q437 Mark Pawsey: What action would you take where you encounter opposition?
Gary Self: We obviously know our position in terms of the legal position we can go through. We have found that residents are relying on the Government fact sheets, and they are using the contents of those to refuse to pay a review. They seem to be classing this review as an increase when, of course, it is a review within RPI. We would like to see clearer fact sheets put out there that explain the issues.
Q438 Mark Pawsey: Tell me a bit more about these fact sheets.
Gary Self: They are Government fact sheets. There is one on housing. This particular one is based on the pitch fee and the review process, and it states the residents’ rights to appeal any changes to their pitch fee. It sets out that if the pitch fee is above RPI, i.e. we have simply increased the fee-
Q439 Mark Pawsey: Which you say you never do.
Gary Self: No. But the residents recently are taking that and throwing it back to us when we have done a review within RPI in the review period.
Q440 Mark Pawsey: Presumably you write to the-
Gary Self: Yes, we give 28 days’ notice.
Q441 Mark Pawsey: You write to who, sorry? Did you say that you wrote to the tenant?
Gary Self: The resident, yes.
Q442 Mark Pawsey: I thought you used the word "tenant". These people are not tenants, are they, Mr Self?
Gary Self: No, they are residents.
Mark Pawsey: Did you use the word "tenant"?
Gary Self: I don’t think so, no.
Mark Pawsey: I thought I heard the word "tenant".
Jeffrey Small senior: May I explain one thing? I think where a lot of residents are a bit confused, and I think it should be explained more clearly, is that if for instance the pitch fee last year was £100 and for argument’s sake inflation this year was 5%, that puts an additional £5 a month on the ground rent. The resident thinks that we are getting an extra £5 a month.
Q443 Mark Pawsey: But you are. What is happening to the £5?
Jeffrey Small senior: No, we are not. The RPI is in place to keep the £100 the same this year as it was last year. We can buy the same with £105 this year as we could with £100 last year. That is what the RPI is for, to keep us in line with inflation. Otherwise we would be charging £100 last year, and if we went on for four or five years without increasing, that £100 would be devalued down to about £60.
Q444 Mark Pawsey: Absolutely. That is the nature of the RPI increase. The amount that the park home residents are paying has increased, and it has gone to you as the site owner. There cannot be any dispute about that.
Jeffrey Small senior: No. This is done to keep us in line with inflation.
Q445 Mark Pawsey: Absolutely. Nobody is disputing that, but you are saying that people are objecting to that.
Jeffrey Small senior: They do because they think that they are putting an extra £5 in our pocket, when they are not.
Q446 Mark Pawsey: Who is getting the £5, Mr Small?
Jeffrey Small junior: Inflation.
Jeffrey Small senior: It is the inflation rate.
Q447 Mark Pawsey: But it is coming to you as revenue; we are accepting that it is inflation, but it is your income. You get the pitch fee. If it goes up by RPI, your income increases.
Jeffrey Small senior: We can only do with the extra £5 increase what we could do with the increase last year. We are not getting any better for it; we are not getting any benefit for it.
Jeffrey Small junior: Everything is going up in general, so we are just covering our cost. What would happen in 10 years’ time?
Q448 Mark Pawsey: Residents are paying more. What is your attitude to residents’ associations?
Jeffrey Small senior: We have residents’ associations and we work very well with them. They are an asset to the site. I have got to say that. They fetch the community together, and they do a lot for the park. But we have got two that are not assets. They cause more strife and more worry on the park because they are not used to dealing with this kind of business. They get bored with themselves and they look for something to do. They look out the window and they think, "I could do this differently from Mr Small," and that is where it starts.
Q449 Mark Pawsey: Is it not in your interests to encourage strong and active residents’ associations?
Jeffrey Small senior: We can encourage associations. We have meetings generally with associations. But we have two associations that we could not get on with. If I said to them, "That paper’s white," they would say it is black.
Q450 Simon Danczuk: Mr Small, in June last year you were found guilty of numerous breaches of the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act and failure to comply with an improvement notice served under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 during a magistrates court hearing. That is correct, isn’t it?
Jeffrey Small senior: Yes, that is correct.
Q451 Simon Danczuk: Have you rectified these breaches of the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act? Has everything been corrected?
Jeffrey Small senior: Yes, everything has been rectified. There was a timescale involved, and the contractor was doing the work for us. I had to call my own contractor; he had to drive 50 miles a day and had to set it up.
Q452 Simon Danczuk: In an electrical inspection as part of that, the council identified 13 code 1 defects, which were for urgent attention, and a further 43 code 2 defects. You had failed to provide adequate emergency information; failed to provide adequate lighting on the park; the roads were in poor condition; serious risk to site users. During the court case it said that they heard evidence of previous convictions for similar offences.
Jeffrey Small senior: No.
Q453 Simon Danczuk: Is that not true?
Jeffrey Small senior: Not for similar offences.
Q454 Simon Danczuk: For different offences.
Jeffrey Small senior: I had a previous offence where I was away on holiday and we had a contractor come in. He scrapped some homes, and he started a fire in a smokeless zone. That was the conviction.
Simon Danczuk: Do you really think, Mr Small, that you are capable of running this type of business?
Jeffrey Small senior: Do you think you could run it better?
Q455 Simon Danczuk: I am asking you. Do you think you are capable of running this type of business?
Jeffrey Small senior: I do, yes.
Q456 Simon Danczuk: Mr Best, you have talked about, quite understandably, being one of the largest operators in this field. You do the macro stuff in the business; you are the chairman. It is a complex business, £15 million; you have a broad-brush approach to running a business; you have a finance director and everything else. Tell me why, then, you get down to a micromanagement level to the point where you are wrestling with a woman around a tree in Hertfordshire.
Alfie Best: Forgive me for saying this. I do not know all of my residents around the park.
Q457 Simon Danczuk: I bet you know her.
Alfie Best: Yes. This was a point I bitterly regret, actually going to the park. I should have let somebody else go there and remove her from the tree. But sometimes there is a clash of personality, and I must confess that I was quite upset at the time. It was because of this resident that we actually ended up taking the council to court, and this person then virtually picketed a tree to stop the workmen from carrying out their work. To be fair, she was endangering her life.
Q458 Simon Danczuk: Finally, just a brief question. We have had site owners that have not been complained about in terms of evidence. Why do you think we have had many complaints about your businesses?
Jeffrey Small senior: I would like to answer my side of it. I was talking to Mr White beforehand. We have 1,200 residents, and I believe that the amount of complaints was somewhere in the region of two dozen-that is the figure I was given. That works out at approximately 2.5%. I would defy any other business in the country who runs it on the same sort of scale as we do to have 2.5% complaints. If you were to go into any council office and look up their records for their council estates, I am sure you would find much larger problems in their books than we have in ours.
Q228 Simon Danczuk: Mr Best, why are they complaining about your business but not other people’s businesses?
Alfie Best: I am unsure how many complaints you have had, and I have not asked, because we try to carry out our own investigation. Recently, when we received some complaints, we employed our own public relations officer to visit all of our parks and speak to all of our residents’ associations, which has been done, to try to filter out and find out exactly what the problems are. We are not perfect, and I take that on the chin. We are doing the very best that we can do. When we fall down and make mistakes, we are happy to put our hands up and admit to them. That is about the best I can say.
Q229 Chair: Mr Small junior, you said earlier that you were not involved in any issues of harassment, and have not been. But on 27 January of last year, at Exeter county court, you accepted a county court order, which, among other things, provided that you must not breach the terms of the agreements, including harassing another person. Did you accept that?
Jeffrey Small junior: That is correct-I accepted it, because I did not have anything to hide. I have been in this business for 20 to 25 years; I have never done anything wrong, I had nothing to hide, and why would I not accept it?
Q230 Chair: You did not challenge the order that was against you, your father and your mother.
Jeffrey Small junior: I did not challenge the order because I had nothing to hide. I have never done anything wrong, and I wanted to trade lawfully.
Q231 Chair: If you had done nothing wrong, why did you not challenge the order?
Jeffrey Small senior: What would we have achieved by challenging the order? We trade lawfully anyway.
Q232 Chair: Why do you think the county council brought the action for the order?
Jeffrey Small senior: This was put in by-can I say it?-a rogue Trading Standards officer, who is under investigation at present. He is in the building at present. He has made damaging remarks on the television on "Rip Off Britain", which are being investigated.
Jeffrey Small junior: We seem to be targeted. I know park owners have been targeted, but we seem to be targeted as well by some residents and some Trading Standards officers.
Jeffrey Small senior: We are being harassed.
Q233 Chair: So you are being picked on by your residents and by officials.
Jeffrey Small junior: Yes, we are.
Jeffrey Small senior: We have got a joint venture from one resident, who is a chairperson, and one Trading Standards person, who has been victimising us right from the start.
Q234 Chair: Why?
Jeffrey Small senior: I do not know.
Jeffrey Small junior: It will come out.
Jeffrey Small senior: It will come out in the end because they are being investigated, and at the end of the day there will be a legal court case.
Q235 Chair: But there is no action pending at this stage.
Jeffrey Small senior: It is pending.
Jeffrey Small junior: It is pending, yes.
Jeffrey Small senior: He actually knows about it.
Q236 Chair: You have started action.
Jeffrey Small senior: Yes, we have.
Q237 Chair: We probably cannot enter any further into that in that case.
Jeffrey Small senior: I would like to say, with all due respect to the Committee, we are coming and giving our side of the story. You have got the police giving their side of the story; you have Trading Standards and various people coming and giving their side of the story. I think you would achieve a lot more if you were to set up an investigation team to visit the sites, to visit the parks in person and speak directly to the residents. I think you would get a true view then of what is going on in the industry and who is creating problems-is it the site owner or is it the associations? You would get a much broader view of it; if you visited the parks and spoke to the residents in person, you would get a better understanding.
As of now we are putting our case forward-you either believe us or you do not. Trading Standards and the police are putting their cases forward. You are not getting a true picture. Visit the parks for yourselves, and speak to the residents yourselves, with no-one else there-no site owner, no site manager or RAs there. Just speak to them and you will get a true picture of what is happening there. A lot of the complaints you are receiving are all from one body, which is the residents’ association, with just names behind it. The person has not written the complaint. It is a standard letter by the RA that they put in front of them; some are confused, they do not know what they are doing, and they will just sign anything, and off they go.
Q238 Chair: I want to give you your chance to have your say.
Jeffrey Small senior: I could talk for a week.
Q239 Chair: Mr Best, is there anything else you would like to add? I just want to make sure that it is fair-that you can see that you have had every chance to put your side of the case as well.
Alfie Best: From my point of view there are some very good residents’ associations, and I concur with Mr Small that there needs to be a broader view of the residents across the board as opposed to one or two residents that have issues. But I can say, from my knowledge and my own company, Wyldecrest Parks, that we have a lot of happy residents and a lot of good residents across the board. I think that the solution to the problem from my point of view is transparency of the agreement that they are entering into. That is my opinion.
Q240 Chair: To make sure that this is absolutely fair, is there anything else that you would like to say that you have not had a chance to say so far?
Jeffrey Small senior: We always employ a solicitor. When someone comes to us and they buy a new home or are contemplating buying a second-hand home, we always insist-we do not ask-that they use a solicitor. For the amount of money that is involved nowadays, people will have peace of mind. I would not feel happy just going to someone and giving them a cheque for X number of pounds. When I got into bed at night, I would start to think and worry. We always insist that they go to a solicitor, we use a solicitor, and off we go.
Getting back to getting fed misleading information, in the last session there was someone sitting here, Brian-I forget his name. He was representing some association, and I saw it on Skype. He made one comment there in which he said that the site owner gets 10% commission that is tax-free. We all know that is not right-that is wrong. If he is giving that information to his followers, what other dud information is he passing through to his followers that is not correct? It comes down to this: if anybody should be put in front of a test for a fit and proper person, it should be the residents’ association or the members of any governing bodies.
Chair: You have made your points, and I think we are going to have a vote very shortly, so we are probably going to have to wind it up there. I think you all had a fair chance today.
 Note from witness: Costs awarded to Cheshire West over the last three years have been in the order of £7,000, however these have not fully covered the costs of site response and interventions.
 Note from witness: The Local Authority would not refuse the income.