Land Registry is not for meddling

Topics: Government

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  • Michael Cross

Privatisation plans for a critical national asset could create a monster.

As the house neo-liberal, I generally cheer when ministers announce plans to transfer public functions to the private sector. However the government's plan to spin Land Registry off into a 'service delivery company' is cause for concern. My fear is that the change would achieve few of the advantages of privatisation while potentially imperilling a crucial national asset.

The underlying philosophy is sound enough: the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills proposes creating a customer-contractor split. Thus the land register would be run by a new commercially minded entity answerable to an Office of the Chief Land Registrar, which would remain part of the government and be responsible for overall policy and fees.  

However, experience shows that this kind of arrangement works only when there is a clear split between the customer and contractors. The contractors - note the plural - must genuinely compete, and the customer must retain authority to set overall policy allong with expertise to know when it is being ripped off. 

Under the current proposals, the split is anything but clear. The problem is that Land Registry is a key part of the critical national infrastructure and ministers know they cannot get away with flogging it to Amazon or Google. The 26-page plan put out for consultation last week bends over backwards to demonstrate that the new company will continue to be state controlled and enjoy an intimate relationship with the chief land registrar.   

Indeed several functions would be shared after the split – these include keeping a register of title, dealing with objections and responsibility for the consequences of complaints arising from alleged maladministration.

As usual with these exercises, the government suggests three models for the new delivery company: it could be 100% state-owned, jointly owned by the state and a private partner, and wholly government owned but with its day-to-day responsibilities outsourced. With the third model clearly the bonkers option - a double layer of responsibility for an outsourcing contract is a recipe for blame-shifting and disaster - and the first too much like the status quo, the public-private partnership is clearly the favoured option.

But what would a private partner bring to the necessarily monopoly business of land registration? The consultation document talks airily of ambitions of freeing the registrar to 'become an efficient, digital and data-centric organisation which can play a wider role in the property market'. Efficient, digital and data centric are fine (the registry will argue that it has already travelled far in that direction), but 'a wider role in the property market' rings alarm bells.

Rather than creating a favoured state monopoly, I would prefer the government to be nurturing an ecosystem of competitive businesses, all with equal access to Land Registry data. Of course this would involve retaining more of the core register in the public sector, free of commercial temptations. The government's apparent reluctance to consider this option suggests that the whole programme is less about innovation than about cutting the civil service payroll by 4,000 posts.

That may be a worthwhile goal, but it has to be set against the risk to the integrity of the register. Solicitors should be the first to appreciate the importance of not taking this for granted. 

And if we're looking for ways to cut the civil service, a more promising avenue might be abolishing the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, starting with the authors of this wholly inadequate consultation. 

Gazette readers will no doubt have more nuanced, and informed, suggestions. The consultation is available here. It closes on 20 March. 

Michael Cross is Gazette news editor

Readers' comments (22)

  • Why not privatise everything? The government seem determined to give away all our assets and services to the self-serving private sector, so why not go the whole hog? Anyone fancy being King or Queen? Bids on the back of a betting slip to Conservative Central Office, marked 'sleaze'. All donations come with a free knighthood.

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  • This is a very depressing piece of news. Whilst I'm not normally a great advocate of the public sector the Land Registry are in my experience an excellent organisation. They're efficient, they've actually cut (and are cutting further) their fees, the people I deal with are helpful and courteous and their portal system works very well indeed.

    In other words an ideal target for the management consultants and private equity investors to destroy whilst lining their own pockets at the taxpayer's expense.

    If it ain't broke don't fix it.

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  • Instead of selling it, the Government should develop and expand HMLR and use it as a tool to simplify and speed up residential property transactions.

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  • The huge fraud claims caused by electronic conveyancing, and the very real danger of conflict of interests, as the overriding duty of these corporations is to make a quick buck, and not to property law, makes this proposal terrifying..

    We are effectively privatising our private land ownership worth trillions..

    Titles and interests to land depend on the most complex legal knowledge, and problems like in old Hong Kong do not come to light until they are contested, if ever.

    Can these tenders' insurance withstand such claims, and if they cannot who will sort out the mess?

    Remember we are playing with the citizen's and country's most valuable asset- property.


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  • The land registry is relatively cheap professional and competent and makes a profit. It serves a central plank of land ownership and though most land is now registered not all is so registered yet. It provides a state guarantee of title. Many of its functions cannot be transferred to the private sector. If profit is not a dirty word why should a state owned body not make a profit and even a large and increasing profit. Why throw that away to some private company? This is a silly idea which should be binned now. The idea that state owned bodies cannot be commercial needs attacking. Just let the land registry get on with its work take the dividend and leave it alone!

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  • These proposals evidence that Thatcher's children are alive and well. Title to land should not be compromised in any way as the public must be protected. Is nothing sacred ?

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  • I sometimes deal with the Fylde office and I've always been pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to speak to someone and how knowledgeable and helpful the staff are. Any mistakes are swiftly rectified and apologised for. Other organisations, both public and private sector, could learn a lot from the Land Registry. As MICHAEL ANTHONY LOVERIDGE said, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

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  • It should be anathema to privatise core functions of HMG (Courts, HMLR, Companies House, etc). These are all Crown functions, part of the central public responsibility of the State, and they are thus wholly unsuitable for privatisation. What's wrong with the existing statutory "Trading Funds" arrangement? I urge readers to respond to the HMG "consultation" invitation, open for only two months.

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  • This is ideological nonsence from a government that doesnt know where to stop their ideologically driven agenda.

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  • I'm genuinely confused by this. Why does the Land Registry need selling off? As I understand it, it doesn't cost the tax payer huge amounts of money, is very well run and a pleasure to deal with nowadays.

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