The Government’s plans to privatise the Land Registry will lose the public resources and control if they go ahead. Moreover, our research suggests that communities and land-based social enterprises will be amongst the biggest losers.
In our recent response to the Government’s consultation on privatising the Land Registry, we argue that the plans would be against the public interest for a number of reasons. We also argue that much greater gains could be secured if public ownership and management of the records was retained, and the Land Registry was released as open data. To back up this argument, we drew on evidence from groups like the Open Data Institute, New Economics Foundation and even the Government’s own Open Data Strategy. In this blog, we highlight how our own research has highlighted the benefits of opening up this resource for groups aiming to improve land use in the UK.
In the last year we’ve been exploring how to get better access to information on land for groups using it to produce social, environmental and economic value. We’ve consulted groups including food growers, woodlands and parks managers, and renewable energy producers. They have told us what information is most important to them, and how much access they have to it at the moment. The need for information on ownership comes up in almost every conversation.
Knowing who owns land is crucial to being able to engage with it. The following are just some of the reasons ownership information is important to these groups:
- If a groups is looking for a new site to grow food on, they need to know who owns the land around them.
- If a neighbour’s activities are contaminating their land, they need to know who to contact about changing it, or who to complain about.
- Groups often want to engage local landowners in supporting a project, or in pursuing shared objectives.
- They might want to know about plans for future developments, to understand how that would impact their projects.
- Knowing whether the land is owned by an individual, company or public sector organisation, has a bearing on how they approach communications with them.
Knowing who owns land is crucial to being able to engage with it.Tweet this
Access to Land Registry data varied between the organisations we spoke to. Some felt that the search fees were low enough to justify accessing the occasional record. For others, particularly smaller and less well resourced organisations, even this relatively small fee and the corresponding hassle of applying, was enough to prevent them accessing the records. Even for groups who were prepared to pay, accessing the Land Registry regularly or accessing multiple records at a time were normally not considered feasible.
As is all too familiar to railway users, fee increases often follow moves towards privatisation. Accessing the data might be affordable for bigger private sector organisations even if prices went up. However, we have to consider the effects on other groups. For the groups we spoke to, any increases in fees would certainly limit their access to the data. If search fees went up it is important to acknowledge that these common good land users would be amongst the biggest losers.
On the other hand, if the Land Register was released as open data, this could greatly increase the use and utility of the data. Rather than having the pay to see who owns each of the parcels of land around them, groups could easily get an overview of the owners and ownership patterns. New analyses and applications could be developed from the open data. Just as the release of the Price Paid data unleashed a wave of innovative enterprises like Rightmove, the release of the remaining data could kick start new enterprises. It could help tackle the housing crisis by making it easier to acquire land, it could help communities engage landowners when developing neighbourhood plans, and it could help the groups we work with use land to help people and the environment.
Furthermore, since search fees represent only 6% of Land Registry revenue, releasing ownership records as open data would not even challenge the ability of the organisation to make a profit for the public. The additional social and economic value created by such a move would greatly outweigh this relatively small reduction in income.
Rather than taking this information further away from public control, the Government should be seeking to increase the quality and accessibility of this data. This objective would be best served by keeping management of the Land Registry in public hands and building on the progress that has already been made.
We will publish the full findings of our project on access to information on land later in the summer. It will discuss the most important information common good land users need, along with what data is available, and how it could be made more accessible. Sign up to our newsletter or follow us on Facebook and Twitter, to be updated on this and all our other projects.