THE BLOG

Sale of Land Registry Is Risk to Every Homeowner and Business

11/04/2016 10:53 | Updated 18 April 2016

Anyone who owns a home or business premises, buys land or needs to find out who has, should be worried by Government plans to sell off the Land Registry.

For more than 150 years it has been the ultimate, impartial, trusted record of land ownership; in other words, a basic building block of our society.

A sale threatens to undermine public confidence and introduces a vulnerability into every property transaction. At a very basic level, do we even want a private company to become the gatekeeper to such important data about every property owner in the UK? What will they be tempted to do with that information?

But the problems with privatisation go deeper, raising concerns about rising fees, and the security of information that is vital to the economic and personal lifeblood of the nation.

With property fraud a major concern, and cybercrime rising, it is essential that a service as fundamental as recording and guaranteeing ownership of the nation's homes and places of work is not left to the mercy of market forces.

Neither should it be left to the whims of a commercial organisation that might extort additional subsidy from the Government, fail to perform its agreed functions or find itself not viable as a business at the first downturn. 

These are real risks. Property cycles mean that, as a business, the Land Registry's core activity - and hence its income - is subject to significant peaks and troughs that are entirely uncontrollable. 

We should take note when the former Chief Land Registrar, John Manthorpe, warns that privatisation is "misguided" and misunderstands the significance of the service.

The Land Registry is more than just a record of ownership, he notes, but involved with a daily churn of activity around leases, sales, mortgages, inheritance, and family disputes. It alone has the extraordinary power to record, change and extinguish ownership rights.

Lawyers and others in the property industry had hoped that the shelving of privatisation plans two years ago meant the end of an ill-thought through idea.

When the Government consulted then, respondents overwhelmingly - 91% - disagreed that privatisation would result in more efficiency. In addition, 89% said they were uncomfortable with the private sector processing registration information.

However, the idea has been revived, with a consultation paper sneaked out at Easter. Experience suggests that 'consultation' is often a euphemism for 'already decided'.

There is certainly no dissembling about motivation: A sale would "maximise a sizeable return to Government to reduce debt." So this is not about improving standards by letting in the private sector, or about the public benefit, at all. Rather it is about selling off more of the family silver.

The Land Registry has struggled to recover from a significant period of uncertainty. It should be allowed to carry out the vital functions that underpin a system that is seen throughout the world as open, transparent and reliable.

While there is always scope for improvements or modernisation, the introduction of new owners whose primary focus must be profit, is unlikely to result in a system better able to guarantee title to land, or indeed to materially improve efficiency or value for money in the long term.

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