Land Registry has bent slightly to critics, but questions remain over its future.
Some credit where it is due. Following a public consultation, Land Registry (as it now calls itself) has taken heed of some criticisms expressed by respondents to its consultation on taking over land search functions from local authorities.
Its proposals, published yesterday, to become the sole provider of local land charges (LLCs) official search results contain two concessions.
First, and most immediately welcome, it has agreed that most property buyers need information going back more than a decade and a half. As a result, the original proposal to limit to 15 years the period covered by an LLC official search has been dropped. (There is no indication of what any new cut-off will be.)
Secondly, the proposal to simplify the definition of an LLC as part of an amendment to the Local Land Charges Act 1975, one of the statutes due to be amended under the Infrastructure Bill announced in this month’s Queen's Speech, has been abandoned.
Land Registry seems to have accepted that this was an issue best left to the Law Society and the conveyancing industry or the Law Commission.
Despite these concessions, Land Registry is unrepentant on the main thrust of its ambitions, to create ‘a wider role for LR in the property sector’. Under this plan, it will become sole registering authority for LLCs and sole provider of LLC official search results, removing the role of local authorities in this part of the search process. The agency reckons it can run a composite land charges register for 20% less than the current cost to local authorities and provide results in a standard electronic format, on predictable timescales, at fixed costs.
In theory, this should be good news for solicitors. The question now is whether the new arrangements will work, and what their long-term impact will be.
Here, it is hard to be optimistic.
As many respondents to the consultation pointed out, the centralisation of land charges will involve setting up a massive, mission-critical central IT system. Local authorities’ cooperation will be vital, despite the fact that they stand to lose out. ‘This will mean extra expense for the local authority with less income,’ one council observed. Another pointed out: ‘This proposal would mean discarding current publicly funded IT systems which perform satisfactorily, whilst committing millions of pounds to a major IT project whose success is far from assured and the need for which is unproven.’
A conveyancing professional commented that the changes would add to workload, requiring the separation of local search applications into two parts: local authorities will still be responsible for CON29 enquiries. ‘All you are doing is making the process harder,’ one professional said.
These grumbles - only a small selection from the Land Registry’s own summary, let alone the overwhelmingly hostile weight of submissions to the consultation - are important. One lesson from the dismal history of government IT projects is the need for stakeholder engagement.
By the way it has handled this consultation, together with a separate, accompanying one on part-privatisation (we're still waiting for the outcome on that), Land Registry has managed to alienate its users, its staff and its local authority partners.
This is not a good place to start. Many hearts and minds will have to be won before preparatory work on the transition begins next spring.
Land Registry's plans, and response to the consultation, are available at the Land Registry site.
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor