Thanks to the Housing White Paper, an Open Land Registry is now much closer

Image: Front cover of John Bateman’s ‘The Acre-ocracy of England’, 1876. Source.

Yesterday’s Housing White Paper contained important provisions for the release of land ownership data – provisions which could transform our understanding of who owns this country. A much more open Land Registry is now on the cards. This is a major and very welcome turnaround: only last summer, it looked like the Land Registry could be privatised. Instead, a 150-year-old dream of revealing who owns England, a dream that began with the likes of Henry George and the Victorian land reformers, is now closer than ever to reality.

Here’s my analysis of what the White Paper proposes on opening up land ownership data:

“A.30 … HM Land Registry will be modernised to become a digital and data-driven registration business within the public sector. This is central to achieving genuine transparency on land ownership and control. HM Land Registry is committed to becoming the world’s leading land registry for speed, simplicity and an open approach to data.”

We had some hint that this was coming from a line in Autumn Statement 2016: “the government has decided that HM Land Registry should focus on becoming a more digital data-driven registration business, and to do this will remain in the public sector.”

The key new word here, though, is ‘open’. If the Land Registry is going to adopt an Open Data approach to the information it holds, that’s a seriously good step forward. It means making land ownership data not only free to access, but also usefully accessible – e.g. it’s downloadable, structured, and easy to analyse.

“A.31…. The Government will examine how HM Land Registry and the Ordnance Survey can work more closely together to provide a more effective digital land and property data service. This work will assess how their combined land and property data can be made more openly available to the benefit of developers, home buyers and others.”

Getting the Ordnance Survey to also buy in to efforts to open up land ownership data is crucial. One digital mapping guru has called Ordnance Survey “the great vampire squid wrapped around the face of UK public-interest technology”. OS licensing restricts the publication of maps showing land parcels (called INSPIRE polygons). It’s not much use knowing that someone owns a field if you can’t show where that field is: that’s what a map is for. Getting OS to accept Open Data principles on land ownership mapping is going to be tough, but for Ministers to be calling for it is a welcome push in that direction.

“A.32… the Government will ensure completion of the Land Register… and will aim to achieve comprehensive registration by 2030”

The Land Registry was set up in 1862 – yet 150 years later, it’s still not completed its register of who owns land in this country. That’s crazy. Around 80% of land in England and Wales is registered, with 20% ‘missing’ from the books. So this announcement – which sounds like it could form the centrepiece for a new corporate strategy for the Land Registry – is welcome, and well past time. However, it sets a disappointingly distant target date – 2030 is, after all, another 13 years away. And there’s no indication of how the Land Register will be completed. Currently, land is only registered when it changes hands. There are millions of acres of ancestral estates which haven’t changed hands in hundreds of years. Getting landowners like these to register their land will require a change in the threshold for registration – such as by making it obligatory if you receive farm subsidies, or simply making it illegal to own land that isn’t registered. But that’s not yet on the cards, it seems.

“…All publicly-held land in the areas of greatest housing need will be registered by 2020, with the rest to follow by 2025. As an interim step, the Government will collate and make openly available a complete list of all unregistered publicly held land by April 2018”

Cracking on with registering public sector land offers some welcome down-payment towards the (too-distant) goal of completing the Land Register by 2030. It’s frankly a scandal that many Local Authorities don’t know what they own themselves, or even where they do, that they haven’t registered it. As previously explored on Who Owns England, central government’s record and maps of the land it owns is fairly good (though not yet fully open); but council land is woefully opaque. I’m currently working on compiling Local Authority asset registers of their land and property. Hopefully it’ll be a useful tool for chivvying the government into accelerating their registration drive.

“A.33… the Government proposes to improve the availability of data about wider interests in land. There are numerous ways of exercising control over land, short of ownership, such as through an option to purchase land or as a beneficiary of a restrictive covenant… Therefore, the Government will consult on improving the transparency of contractual arrangements used to control land.”

This is a welcome step forward to tackling land banking by developers, and uncovering currently hidden ‘Option Agreements’ that developers have signed with landowners. As I’ve written about recently, many large housing developers don’t appear to own their massive land banks outright, but instead are likely relying on Option Agreements. A public register of Option Agreements on land is something that homeless charity Shelter have long called for.

(I’m assuming that the Government will be running a separate consultation on these proposals, as they don’t crop up in any of the consultation questions for the Housing White Paper.)

“A.35. In addition, HM Land Registry will make available, free of charge, its commercial and corporate ownership data set, and the overseas ownership data set. These data sets contain data on 3.5 million titles to land held under all ownership categories with the exception of private individuals, charities and trustees.”

Saving the best til last, eh? This is wonderful news. It means the Land Registry will – it appears without further ado – be releasing, for free, data on who owns tens of millions of acres of England and Wales. Every company, every corporate body, every offshore firm that owns a patch of land here will suddenly be open to the light of public scrutiny.

It’s not everything, of course. As they make clear, private individuals will be exempt – and remember, that includes the Duke of Westminster (owner of 140,000 acres) and Prince Charles (owner of 130,000 acres via the Duchy of Cornwall), because their vast estates are registered in their personal names. And they’re just the tip of the iceberg. So huge swathes of England and Wales that lie in the hands of aristocratic families will stay under wraps – for now. But a precedent has been set, a Rubicon crossed.

When I started this blog six months ago, I didn’t think there’d be such positive change so quickly. But it’s happening. We’re going to find out who owns England. A dream that started with Henry George and the Victorian land reformers is now tantalisingly close to becoming reality.

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