Because of a loophole in planning regulations, mobile home parks have sprung up in protected beautry spots
Mobile homes generally have a bad press. This is partly down to the association with illegal gypsy camps, building sites and sprawling seaside caravan sites. At worst, mobile home parks can be unsightly shanty towns that are outside normal planning regulations. And because of a loophole in the law, they have sprung up in protected beauty spots where any form of housing development would be out of the question.

To the untrained eye there is little obvious difference between a bungalow and a top-of-the-range park home, with its bay windows and tiled roof. Wheels and supports are tastefully hidden behind a brick wall, while inside, fireplaces and fitted kitchen give no clue to the home's real identity.

So why not build a bungalow and be done with it? One vital reason is price - a fully fitted mobile home costs as little as pounds 30,000 from the factory and older, second-hand homes can be found for around pounds 20,000.

According to the British Holiday & Home Parks Association, around 205,000 people - 80 per cent of them retired - live on mobile home parks in Britain. The appeal lies not just in the price, but in the location of many parks in unspoilt rural and coastal surroundings where housing development is either not permitted or is prohibitively expensive.

Planning laws only recognised caravan sites as a development control issue in 1960. But caravan parks established before 1960 could not be refused a site licence, and because the definition of a caravan is so vague, it is still possible for sites designated for holiday caravans to be developed as permanent residential mobile home parks without additional planning permission.

In the New Forest, just such a development recently raised a storm of local protest when a field in the green belt near Lymington was bought by park home manufacturers, Wonderland Homes, for the development of an estate of 64 residential mobile homes.

"What had been a field with half a dozen caravans hidden behind a hedge has now been turned into a small housing estate," explains Michael Stilton, head of development control at New Forest District Council (NFDC). "The caravan site had been little used, but it had an open-ended consent so the council was unable to stop it being changed to residential use."

Pat Packer, marketing manager of Wonderland, believes that the quality of Knightcrest Park will overcome anxieties about its impact on the environment. "We have a quality award from the National Park Homes Council, so that governs the standard of landscaping," she says.

Like most park home estates, Knightcrest is aimed at retired couples and has strict regulations controlling pets, traffic and noise. Residents may not use their park homes for business purposes or let them out and children are absolutely forbidden. The objective is to create a peaceful retirement village close to the sea and surrounded by the Forest.

For those willing to conform to the rules, Knightcrest homes start at pounds 57,000 for a one-bedroom 640 sq ft unit to pounds 83,000 for a two-bed, two- bathroom luxuriously appointed mobile home. The price includes a 99-year lease on a private landscaped plot complete with shed and paved driveway. Compared to park homes in other parts of the country this is expensive, but Mrs Packer points out that the price is roughly half the cost of a two-bedroom bungalow in the area.

Landowners have complete control over their private residential enclave, a situation that sometimes led to abuse of power before the introduction of the Mobile Homes Act in 1983. Mobile home owners now have security of tenure for the life of their home and the right to sell it on or leave it to certain members of their family, although most landlords demand a 10 per cent cut of the sale price.

Most councils now treat applications for residential mobile home sites as they would a housing development application. But there is still a significant difference in the amount of control planners can exercise over caravan sites.

"If we get an application for 12 houses, we know what the houses will look like and where they will be built on the site," explains Mr Stilton of NFDC. "But on a residential caravan site the only rules governing lay- out and density of use are those imposed by health and safety regulations."