News &

Land Registry: sell it off or open it up?

Mark Walton

Our Director, Mark Walton, sets out why we will be campaigning against the proposed privatisation of the Land Registry.

On Thursday afternoon the Government announced a new public consultation on its plans, to move Land Registry operations into the private sector.

Here we set out why we believe opening up, rather than privatising, access to Land Registry data would improve the functioning of our dysfunctional land market, drive innovation in data and land use, and support the management of land for the common good.

What Is The Land Registry?

The Land Registry is a non-ministerial department of the Government of the United Kingdom, created in 1862 to register the ownership of land and property in England and Wales. It keeps and maintains the Land Register, where more than 24 million titles – the evidence of ownership – are documented. As such it underpins the functioning of the land and mortgage markets, and the very concept of land ‘ownership’.

What Is Being Consulted On?

The current consultation is not about whether the Land Registry should be privatised, but about the form that privatisation should take. It sets out Government’s rationale for the change, proposes how a private sector Land Registry would operate, and sets out the Government’s ‘preferred model’.

Responses must be submitted by 26 May 2016.

The Rationale

The main driver for the sale is financial. The Government believes that the sale will generate in the region of £1.2bn. An argument is made that privatisation would enable digital transformation and an expansion of services, and that ‘private sector ownership could incentivise […] the creation of innovative, new products for the public.’

The Proposed Model

The ‘preferred option’, set out in the proposals, is that the Government would retain ownership of the Registers (the data), but that the responsibility to manage, and right to use, the information (along with the staff and assets) would be transferred to a new private sector company. The company would operate under a contract with the Government.

What We Think

At Shared Assets we believe that privatisation is the wrong approach and is inconsistent with the Government’s stated commitment to ‘open data’. The Land Registry is currently fit for purpose, generates a surplus, and is trusted to fulfil its role underpinning over £4tn worth of property ownership across England and Wales. The Government is selling off a critical, well functioning, national statutory service that we are all obliged to use, primarily to raise funds.

We believe the potential impacts of creating a private sector monopoly on transparency and access to this critical data set are unacceptable, and that a more imaginative, and beneficial, approach would be to open up public land registry data for the common good.

Open not private

The organisations that we work with are community enterprises managing land for the common good, often on limited resources. They need free or cheap access to land data to help them expand their activities or generate new land uses and new income streams. Better information will also help the market in land and property to operate more efficiently. Opening data would mean the loss of search fees, but these only account for 6% of the Land Registry’s income.

Driving Innovation

The consultation states that the Government wishes to drive ‘the creation of innovative, new products for the public’. It is hard to see how this is going to be achieved by creating a new monopoly supplier of information about land. Elsewhere the Government is promoting ‘open data’, such as the release of 8,000 Defra sets, as a way of achieving these outcomes.

Ensuring Transparency

There are increasing concerns that overseas ownership of land is being seen as a way of avoiding taxes and laundering money. Recent investigations into these aspects of UK land ownership by Private Eye have depended on Freedom of Information requests to obtain data. It is unclear whether a privatised Land Registry would be subject to similar transparency requirements. Opening up the data would enable public scrutiny and end the wasteful use of resources in making and responding to Freedom of Information requests.

More than housing

The consultation has a narrow focus on ‘housing supply, home ownership and economic growth’. We work with organisations who own, lease and manage woodland, farm land, public parks and open spaces. The management of Land Registry data should actively support those wider uses of land as well as housing supply and home ownership.

What others think

We are not alone in calling for Land Registry data to be made more open. Shelter argue that more transparent data would support housing provision and improve regulation of landlords in the private ranted sector, whilst the New Economics Foundation believe that the information held by the Land Registry should be ‘easier and cheaper to access so that we can all understand the land ownership structure in our local area.’

Even John Manthorpe, a former Chief Registrar, states that the Registry’s independence from commercial or specialised interests is essential. And the general public and conveyancing professionals agree. A recent Survation poll undertaken for We Own It showed 70% of respondents want the Land Registry to remain in public hands, whilst a 2014 poll for the Council for Property Search Organisations found that 97% of conveyancers think privatising the registry would be a ‘bad thing’.

Our Response

For all of these reasons we will be joining We Own It and others in campaigning against the privatisation of the Land Registry. But we’re not campaigning to maintain the status quo. We want to see the opening up of the Land Registry, making public data freely and openly available to drive innovation, improve the functioning and transparency of the UK land market, and support the management of land for the common good.

We’ll be posting more as we develop our response but in the meantime we’d love to hear from others who want to do the same.

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