Leaked minutes suggest that some want to steam ahead with ‘privatisation’ before official decisions are taken.

Three months ago in this space, I proposed abolishing the Whitehall department responsible for the wholly inadequate public consultation into the future of Land Registry. I now realise my proposal was too modest: I should also have invited the leaders of the body itself, specifically HM Land Registrar and chief executive Ed Lester and Mark Boyle, chairman, to consider their positions.

I reach this conclusion after reading the minutes of an off-site meeting of the Land Registry board on 25 March – five days after the consultation on converting the bulk of the registry into a ‘service delivery company’. The minutes, leaked to the Guardian newspaper, show executives steaming ahead with the assumption not just that the service delivery company option - in effect privatisation - will happen, but that one of the three options proposed by the consultation is to be picked. 

To cynics about these things, all this will come as no surprise. Government bodies don’t generally float an idea for ‘consultation’ unless it already has political buoyancy. And the three options presented for consideration are generally set out so that the favoured one falls between the barking mad and the (supposedly) unsustainable status quo.

So it is with the Land Registry proposal, which envisages splitting the agency into an Office of the Chief Land Registrar and a service delivery company, set up as a joint venture between the government and a private outsourcer. 

What is startling about the leaked minutes is the blatancy with which senior figures on the public payroll proceed on this basis when, officially, no decision has been taken. The whole tone of the record is that the decision has been made and the only question is how to present it to the outside world and the registry’s (highly sceptical) staff while mitigating risks. 

The minutes indicate that Land Registry’s formal owner, the Shareholder Executive, has made ‘a finely balanced recommendation with strong emphasis on significant risks’. These include the threat of judicial review, industrial action and timetable slippage. There are also ‘major presentational issues’ – mainly that the benefits of reform will be hidden in ‘unappreciated fee reductions’. There is a need to ‘up the game considerably on comms’.

Most intriguing is the sentence: ‘Surprised HMG not more focused on political risk.’

The minutes envisage a rapid timetable of change, with the ‘ministerial write-round’ (the process of ensuring all Whitehall departments are on side) and an outline business case approved by April, a second consultation to be completed by mid-June, followed by primary legislation to amend the Land Registration Act 2002. 

However, it appears some executives, at least, are jumping the gun. According to the minutes, Lester told the board that a decision had to be made that day on whether to proceed with the take-over of premises from the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman.

Its offices in Millbank Tower are apparently seen as a more appropriate setting for the Office of the Chief Land Registrar than the register’s current headquarters in Croydon. To its credit, the board ‘whilst acknowledging the sound business case’ was ‘not prepared to sanction the commitment’.

However much Land Registry and its parent organisations ‘up their game’ on comms, the cat is now out of the bag on this sham consultation. In my opinion, it is time to start again – preferably with new faces, too. 

Michael Cross is Gazette news editor