Most of us mere mortals only have to deal with the Land Registry on the rare occasion we are buying or selling a house (and given current house prices we can dream on). But supposing you have a house and for whatever reason you needed to find who owns the land your house stands on, or the open land, wasteland or coppice at the back of your house? Easy (or rather, c’est facile). You go to the local Mayor’s office and he or she will get out a huge book of maps which show all the land ownership (its fancy name is a cadastre) in your local area. Even better — you won’t be charged for this, the service is entirely free. There’s just a small problem you have to live in France to benefit from this, courtesy of a law passed by Napoleon Bonaparte which he probably sketched out on the back of an envelope while retreating from Moscow.
Try this in England or Wales and you will be either sorely disappointed or declared insane by those concerned. Getting information from the Land Registry can be painfully convoluted and expensive. The Land Registry doesn’t even have an update list of who owns what; estimates vary but there could be up to 20% of land ownership in the UK which is either undeclared or unknown.
Astonishingly, the Domesday Book of 1086 still remains the only complete cadastre of land and property available, although by now it is a little bit out of date. Even the information that is available is not always disclosed. The satirical magazine Private Eye (who I have to thank for much of the information in this article) has, for some time now, been compiling its own online cadastre of property in England and Wales owned by companies or individuals registered in overseas tax havens like the British Virgin Islands, Panama or Guernsey (check it out at www.private-eye.co.uk). After the Eye’s first findings (following a Freedom of Information request) were put online, the Land Registry drew down the portcullis refusing any further information requests on the grounds that they were “vexatious”, adding that information so far obtained had been released “in error”. However, help is on the horizon. According to the government and the Land Registry, plans are afoot to make everything easy to use, cheap, uniform, openly accessible and comprehensive. You’ve heard this before however (railways, gas, water, electricity, Royal Mail and so on). It’s called privatisation.
However the Land Registry doesn’t like using the “p” word. In early 2014, Tory Business Minister, Michael Fallon (now Secretary of State for Defence) issued a “consultation” document which proposed dividing the Land Registry into two parts. One part would deal with land registration services, and a separate office called the Chief Land Registrar would carry out regulating and fee-setting functions. The official line was that this would: 1. Make more land registration services available 2. Deliver more efficient services, including a “centralised access point for local land search charges”. 3. “Maximise the use of property data for the benefit of the economy”.
In the government’s response (in July 2014), the Land Registry was described as a “new service delivery company”, giving a clear hint of what was being proposed. The government, having now sold off just about everything that wasn’t hot or nailed down, is turning its attention to institutions which even the most ardent Thatcherite had never dreamed of privatising. Along with the Land Registry there has been talk of privatising the Ordnance Survey, the Green Investment Bank and the Met Office, although at the moment, it looks as if only the Land Registry is vulnerable. If these four are privatised the question only remains, what’s left — lollipop ladies, Hansard, providing cats for Number Ten?
As usual all the indications are that the main beneficiaries will be big business. The business secretary is now Sajid Javid, formerly of Deutsche Bank who just happen to own a large amount of offshore properties. Head honcho at the Land Registry is one Graham Farrant who has already had meetings with Cabinet Office bean counter Ed Welsh who goes by the glorious moniker of Director, Commercial Models, Efficiency and Reform group. Until joining the government in 2012 Welsh had been an investment banker with N M Rothschild and so there are no prizes for guessing which company is acting as a consultant to the Land Registry over the privatisation process.
The secrecy which has obstructed Private Eye looks to continue and the only beneficiaries will be those companies who wish to hide their land and property ownership in dodgy offshore, tax-evasion havens. As for the man and woman on the Clapham omnibus and their two up, two down in Dollis Hill, they are promised quicker, cheaper service when, for example doing the “searches” required before buying a property. Leaving aside the fact that these searches can easily be done by the individual, thereby saving a load of dosh, it hardly needs the Land Registry to be privatised to make this easier. Likewise the much-vaunted digitisation of the service can be just as easily provided without the encroachment of privatisation. Unfortunately, the impetus for privatisation already has a head of steam and, as this won’t affect Scotland (only Wales and England), any opposition coming from the Labour benches will be weakened by the absence of the Scottish Nationalists. The main union concerned, the PCS, has expressed alarm the privatisation of the Land Registry, particularly over potential job losses and has issued a pamphlet, An Alternative Vision of the Land Registry (available on the PCS website) on the issue. It is not too late for some robust opposition to develop, but time is running out.