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Land Registry: Data For Sale

UPDATE: Since this article was written coalition tensions appear to have slowed moves towards privatisation. The underlying issues remain, however.


UPDATE: Since this article was written coalition tensions appear to have slowed moves towards privatisation. The underlying issues remain, however.


Outside the pages of The Land, the Land Registry is not often in the headlines. The government body with a statutory duty to “keep a register of title to freehold and leasehold land throughout England and Wales” does not sound very newsworthy, and many might think it was failing in its duties if it was.

Now though, civil servants are striking in protest at plans to turn the Land Registry into a Government Owned Company or ‘GovCo’, following a feasibility study by consultants KPMG that recommended this as the obvious route to privatisation. (Coincidentally, several members of the shareholding executive which currently run the Land Registry within the government department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) come from KPMG.)

Despite assurances from BIS, leaked documents suggest that the option of keeping the Registry as a fully public body is no longer even on the table. Internal reorganisation has already included the appointment of a company secretary, a post not required under the current structure, in readiness for the transition. It seems the the only alternative to the GovCo route being considered is a ‘joint venture’ which would see Land Registry services provided by an existing company, presumably an outsourcing giant such as Capita or Serco.

Either version, whether creating a GovCo and later sellling it, or hiving off the bulk of the Registry to a private partner company, will result in all the data on who owns what land or property in England and Wales, and how much they paid for it, being held and administered for profit by a private company. Privatisation of the Land Registry has already been considered and rejected seven times, and a review in 2000 shrewdly concluded that it would be “an act of considerable folly”. But the most recent consultation, tellingly if boringly entitled Introduction of a Land Registry Service Delivery Company asked not whether to privatise, but merely how best to do it. So, what exactly is this supposed to achieve?

Sell, Sell, Sell

Reading between the lines of the consultation document, and the Registry’s recent five year business plan, there is a clear desire to introduce a new corporate management model which would raise pay at the top and reduce it at the bottom, while reducing the total number of employees. This would of course be much harder to push through within the public sector. The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), and MPs (including several Tories) with Land Registry offices in their constituencies, are rightly concerned that privatisation will serve to make these cuts possible.

But there is no public interest argument for cost-cutting, given that the Registry last year returned a healthy profit of £100 million to the Treasury. Another supposed reason for change is the ongoing digitisation of land and property registration services, possibly including “self-service conveyancing” for housebuyers. It would be wonderful to see the Registry’s website provide easier, cheaper and more comprehensive search capabilities, but this certainly does not require moving it into the private sector, or getting rid of the human beings behind the service.

Some excitable cynics have suggested that the change is actually all part of the great fracking conspiracy, and that the new privatised Registry would be positioned to give away drilling rights with no questions asked, but there seems no good evidence for this. Laws have already been changed to allow frackers to drill under land without the owner’s permission (and soon without even notifying them), and the privatisation drive seems in any case to predate the current fracking rush.

History shows of course that privatisation does not require the existence of good reasons: ideology and greed will suffice. Rail is the most often quoted example, and one which clearly shows the pigheadedness of this government as well as previous ones. For instance, the public train operator which has successfully run the East Coast line after two private operators failed has recently been barred on principle from even bidding to retain the franchise. Clearly this is not about “what works”.

Quite a few of the 23 million titles held by the Land Registry relate to ex-council houses, sold under what is arguably still the biggest privatisation of them all, and the one with the most far-reaching detrimental consequences. Physical public assets such as railways and houses have now been largely moved into the private sector (with schools and hospitals well on the way), and the focus of the plunder has moved on to less obvious targets like the Probation Service and now the Land Registry.

Insult to Injury

Still, as the repository of what cadastral information there is for England and Wales, the Land Registry is of particular interest to The Land. Together with the campaign group TLIO, we have for years been promoting the benefits of an open cadastral map of land and property ownership, as found in many other countries, so that anyone and everyone can freely find out who owns what.

We have often speculated that government’s reason for resisting such openness is a reluctance to reveal the spectacular inequalities of land ownership in this country. As Paul Kingsnorth put it, drawing on the work of Kevin Cahill, “less than 1% of the population owns 70% of the land, running Britain a close second to Brazil for the title of the country with the most unequal land distribution on Earth”.

A political desire to hide the embarrassing facts has no doubt been a factor, but recent skulduggery suggests more basic, if equally indefensible motivations. The consultation document and business plan make numerous vague references to unspecified “new business activities”. These include what Michael Fallon, the Minister in charge (and the man who privatised the Royal Mail), has called “maximising the reuse of property data for the benefit of the wider economy”. Behind this obfuscation lies a recognition that there is massive commercial value in the monopoly control of all that data. Under privatisation, that value will be directed into the pockets of the private sector.

This is not just another minor government agency like the Forensic Science Service, whose ill-advised sale might help cook the books in some small way before the next general election. A better comparison is perhaps with HM Revenue and Customs, whose data is now apparently also for sale. Like HMRC, HM Land Registry has a legally maintained monopoly on the confidential data which is now to be seen as its ‘product’. For those lucky enough to get a piece of the action, these massive datasets could be a virtual goldmine.

The PCS Alternative Vision for HM Land Registry argues that “the land register – currently covering around 80 per cent of the land in England and Wales – must be completed to create a quasi Domesday Book for the 21st century”. This would, says the union’s Michael Kavanagh, “allow for a proper public debate on land ownership, and pave the way for regulation of the planning of land use in the future, something which the Land Registry could carry out for the public good.”

Indeed. The Land would add, for the avoidance of doubt, that the completed register should be freely accessible to all. But rather than acting for the public good, a privatised Land Registry would have a strong incentive to keep details of land and property ownership hidden, in order to retain the data as a saleable commercial asset. This would add the insult of profiteering to the existing injuries of inequality and secrecy.