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