Withdrawal of cack-handed sell-off plan should not close all options for reform.
It looks as if an apology may be due. Two months ago in, in this slot, I dismissed as ‘a sham’ the government’s consultation on the future commercial model of Land Registry. All the signs were that the agency was steaming ahead regardless of the consultation's outcome, on the assumption that it would be split into a ‘service delivery company’ overseen by a new, rump, ‘office of the chief land registrar’. The only questions open for discussion were what sort of entity the new service company would be – and even that debate looked pretty loaded.
Remarkably, however, the government’s response to the consultation admits this is not on. Noting that ‘further consideration would be valuable’ it says ‘at this time, no decision has been taken to change Land Registry’s model’.
It would be nice to think that ministers took this decision after soberly collating all 304 formal responses to the eight-week consultation and agreeing with the overwhelming majority that there was no rationale for changing an entity which is not only a vital part of the national infrastructure but also makes money for the Treasury.
Alas, more short-term political considerations seem to have been at work. The industry secretary, Vince Cable, under fire for last year’s botched sale of Royal Mail shares, let it be known he would have nothing to do with the plan. He seems to have persuaded his Conservative colleague Michael Fallon (now defence secretary) that the proposals were too complex legally and too fraught with danger to be pushed through in a half-baked way.
Opponents of the plan, such as the PCS trade union, claimed victory. This may be premature, though. The government’s response makes it clear that change could still return to the agenda. It says ‘there are significant benefits in creating an arm’s-length service delivery company to transform and modernise the way in which land registration is carried out in the UK, as well as to support new opportunities for the business to play a wider role in the property market’.
The stated rationale is that Land Registry is going through a ‘very significant digital transformation’ - incredibly, 50% of applications to change the register are still received by post, and many of the electronic ones as PDF documents - and that modernisation will cost money and require radical changes in management.
Whoever wins next year's general election, the temptation to hive this effort off to an arm’s-length operation will remain. And, while it was absolutely right that this government’s blinkered and rushed proposals have been shelved, the registry as it currently exists should not necessarily be preserved in aspic.
One possibility worth considering is amalgamating the registry with the digital MasterMap maintained by Ordnance Survey, another likely candidate for privatisation, to create a national cadastral database on the continental model. (It would be nice to include the national postcode address database, too, but in another Cable blunder, this was sold off as part of Royal Mail.)
My personal preference would be for such an entity to remain government owned and constrained from commercial activities, with its data being open for exploitation by a vigorously competitive private sector, but no doubt other more expert minds will have their own ideas.
The important thing, however, is that reform is properly considered and not rammed through by a ‘consultation’ like the one which has just closed. Which I say, on reflection without apology, was a sham.
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor