Piecing together who owns England is rather like doing a jigsaw puzzle. And like with most jigsaw puzzles, there are, alas, pieces missing.
The Land Registry – despite being set up in 1862 – has still not finished registering all land in England and Wales. In fact, its register is only about 80% complete. The land area of England and Wales combined is some 37.3 million acres, so with 20% unregistered, that’s some 7.5 million acres that are still ‘missing’.
That’s because registration is only compulsory when land changes hands (a law that was brought in in 1925, and updated in 2002). There are large swathes of England that haven’t been bought or sold in centuries, as they’ve remained in the hands of aristocratic families, the Church or the Crown. So, unless the owners have voluntarily registered their interest in the land, they may be absent from the record.
This doesn’t make them ‘no man’s land’ – no land in England is strictly ownerless; after all, since the Norman Conquest, the Crown has claimed ultimate ownership of all English land. And other, ancient documentation will invariably underpin an aristocratic or ecclesiastical claim upon land. But it does make it irritatingly difficult for us mere peasants to pin down the owners of England’s missing acres.
The Land Registry’s blog on the subject offers some good practical tips on how to investigate the ownership of unregistered land, such as by checking the electoral register or simply asking around locally. But there are other ways too. Let’s explore these with an illustrative example.
Who owns these missing acres in Cornwall?
The map below is the INSPIRE map of Cornwall, showing all the registered land parcels. As you can see, it has a number of rather large holes in it.
This information is subject to Crown copyright and is reproduced with the permission of Land Registry. (INSPIRE index polygons have restrictions on publication as they contain Ordnance Survey licensed data: I am reproducing a screengrab of this map here to illustrate the information that’s missing, rather than the info it contains. If OS contact me requesting I remove the map, I will do so.)
Let’s zoom in on one of those gaps in the map:
Putting this into Google Earth allows us to see what’s in the empty space:
That gives us a clear lead – Boconnoc, the name of a stately house in the middle of the unregistered land. Lo and behold, some swift googling reveals that this is Boconnoc House, a Grade II listed building, with a surrounding estate of farmland, deer park, lake and gardens totalling some 7,500 acres. It is mentioned in Domesday and came into the hands of the current owners, the Fortescue family, in the early 19th century – the transfer of land therefore preceding the creation of the Land Registry and avoiding any obligation to register ownership. (Sadly, one of the current owners was found shot dead on the estate last year, in circumstances that appear to have been suicide.)
There are other ways to check whether this initial guess is correct. Using Google Maps to draw around the edge of the ‘missing acres’ allows us to calculate the area – some 5,900 acres, not far off the stated size of the Boconnoc Estate. It’s not unreasonable to think that some of the Estate may have been acquired more recently – perhaps some of the fields around its periphery – and so these could have been registered, and not show up as ‘gaps’ in the INSPIRE map.
Another way to cross-check is to look at Environmental Stewardship payment maps (the red layer in the screenshot below):
This reveals farm subsidy recipients on some of the unregistered land, offering another potential route to identifying local landowners. However, as it often the case, the recipients of Environmental Stewardship near Boconnoc seem to be tenant farmers, rather than the owners of the land they farm.
Searching the Government’s database of all farm subsidy recipients – not just those receiving Environmental Stewardship money – uncovers a little more. It shows the Boconnoc Estate was given over £50,000 in farm subsidies in 2015, mostly for ‘non-productive investments’ and single area payments. This confirms that they are likely owners of a large area of land, as basic farm subsidies are tied closely to land area. What it doesn’t tell us is where that land is exactly – we’ll only get to see that if the Government is forced to release the Rural Land Register as open data (and it should).
Finishing the jigsaw
The example of the Boconnoc Estate shows that it’s still possible to fill in some of the missing pieces of the jigsaw even when land goes unregistered. But it’s plainly a time-consuming exercise to have to do this from scratch, and many of England’s ‘missing acres’ are much harder to pin down.
Clearly, it would be much better if the Land Registry got on with completing its register (and 150 years after it started, it’s about time!). That’s something the union PCS, which represents unionised staff at the Land Registry, has been calling for for some time [PDF]. Now, at last, sources suggest management are listening and keen to finish the job.
To speed the task, I’d suggest a tweak to land registration rules is needed: so that registration is compulsory not simply when land changes hands, but that you have to register your land if you’re in receipt of public funds – like farm subsidies. As the example of Boconnoc shows, that would fill in some sizeable missing parts of the jigsaw.