Government abandons plans to privatise Land Registry

John Hewitt Jones

September 9, 2016

Land Registry

A move to privatise the Land Registry has been shelved by the government.

The department, which was created in 1862, holds more than 24 million titles showing evidence of ownership covering more than 83% of the UK’s land mass.

The policy – revealed in the Queen’s Speech in May – was due to be included in the Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill put to parliament on Wednesday evening.

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However, details of the plans were omitted from the Bill, indicating the proposal has been dropped.

Having launched, the government will run a consultation on implementation of the provisions of the Bill until midnight on 19 October.

The Bill was introduced in the Queen’s Speech in May, with government briefing notes suggesting the legislation would “enable the privatisation of Land Registry, which would support the delivery of a modern, digitally-based land registration service that will benefit the Land Registry’s customers, such as people buying or selling their home.”

The sell-off was conceived as part of a £5bn programme of efficiency savings established by the Treasury under George Osborne.

While the registry is part of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, it is self-financing.

A government source said: “No decision has been taken on the future of the Land Registry.

“A consultation on the Land Registry’s future closed in May and we are carefully considering our response. It is only right that new ministers take time to look at all their options before making a decision.”

Ray Boulger, technical manager at Jon Charcol, said: “I can’t see there would be many advantages to privatising it. There would be a school of thought that says it would be better off in public ownership. One would have to be careful about who actually owns the data and information.

“The counterpoint view, of course, would be that if privatised, more services could be introduced.

“Speaking personally, the architects I work with have always found the Land Registry to be very efficient. If you email them, you usually get a reply within 24 hours – unlike other public sector bodies.

“While the argument may be made for privatisation of public services to increase competition and efficiency, in this case the services seem pretty efficient already. My personal view is that if privatisation has been dropped it is probably better for the data remain in public ownership.”

Eddie Goldsmith, founding partner of Goldsmith Williams solicitors and former president of the Liverpool Law Society, said: “We’ve always found the Land Registry to be helpful and one of the friendlier government departments to deal with. We believe it is important for it to stay in government control and fear that privatisation could result in privatisation of our relationship.”

The decision to reverse the move was also welcomed by industry associations and transparency lobby groups concerned about the need for unfettered access to data about land ownership and housing transactions.

Trudi Elliott, chief executive of the Royal Town Planning Institute, said: “We welcome the pause in the consideration of privatising the land registry. We have consistently advocated that the land registry should be kept under public control to underpin discussion on land ownership and national housing policy, and not simply to assist individual property transactions.

“There is a powerful need for data on land ownership, especially on the ownership of land needed for development. This is vital to properly inform debates on issues such as alleged land hoarding. It is in the national interest that this remains public. “

Jeni Tennison, CEO at the Open Data Institute, added: “The ODI is pleased to see government reconsidering its plans for the Land Registry, which, along with other organisations such as Ordnance Survey and Companies House, are vital parts of our national data infrastructure.

“To maximise the value they create, their data should be as open as possible while respecting privacy. This will assist with a number of key policy goals such as combatting tax avoidance, improved housing, better public services, supporting private sector innovation and economic growth.

“We hope to see a firm commitment from government to support these organisations, and others, as they continue their transition to open models.”

The Bill, introduced into parliament last night, is designed to strengthen the neighbourhood planning process by streamlining the process for changing plans and satisfying pre-commencement planning conditions.

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