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Land Registry Sale - National Interest or Quick Buck?

26/05/2016 10:53

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There's been plenty written about the government's desire to sell off the Land Registry - including by my fellow Huffpo blogger Jeremy Raj - but some arresting new research has just been published by the New Economics Foundation and pressure group We Own It.

This suggests that a sell off, now, of the Land Registry would see the public short changed "as the value of the scarified surpluses will have exceeded the value money received from the sale." Heady stuff, particularly as the raison d'etre of the sale was specifically to raise funds.

That the government has taken this stance when Land Registry's business is booming, surpluses increasing, costs under control, and productivity rising shows just what a premium is being put on achieving so-far elusive financial targets associated with the national debt. "A strong economy lies at the heart of good government" begins the introduction to the consultative document on the proposed sell-off.

In other words, and as Aditya Chakrabortty very recently described, everything must go or we are all doomed. And the £1.225bn Land Registry is expected to yield makes a big dent in the Chancellor's £5bn target for sell offs announced in the autumn statement last year.

But as this new report sets out, the government seems to get it wrong in the terms of its own argument. And you can see where the critics are coming from; There are many "ifs and buts" surrounding the government's plans. Lots of optimistic conjecture, especially about future growth and how the government will retain control of key data, rather than hard fact.

Recent history is not reassuring, as the Public Accounts Committee's criticism of the last big public sale - Royal Mail - set out starkly.

And, of course, once you have sold off an asset, banked the proceeds, you cannot do so again - even when if it continues to make significant profits and its business - which is absolutely linked to housing market activity - is strong for the foreseeable future.

When these financial arguments are lined up beside policy issues, you begin to sense that the government may have a problem here. Those policy arguments centre around integrity (a similar proposal in 2014 was scrapped, and this new consultation was launched arguably at a time to guarantee maximum stealth), risk (potential instability in property transactions, new and untested regulatory arrangements) and transparency (more public data disappearing behind a private wall).

But for me, even more worrying than the contradictions been the stated aims and the likely outcomes is the potential - well, likely - impact on two elements key to maintaining good governance in our country. Sounds melodramatic, but bear with me.

Since around 1066, the state has recognised that it needs to keep a strong grasp on its knowledge of who owns what. William the Conqueror commissioned a little thing called the Domesday Book to do just that. Why would any government not feel this knowledge is important? Why would any government not see the need to be sure - really sure - it had a handle on this.

Because is not knowing who owns what land, and what property is built on that land surely at the heart of good, strong, transparent government in our property-based democracy? That's surely worth more than a quick buck, however it's dressed up?

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