Coding and writing by Anna Powell-Smith.
Around 15% of the freehold land in England & Wales is unregistered. What this means is that if you go to the Land Registry and ask them ‘Who owns this piece of land?’, they simply can’t tell you, for a huge chunk of the country.
This situation is both odd and harmful for reasons that I’ll go into shortly. Part of the reason that such a strange situation has been allowed to go on is that you simply can’t see how much ‘mystery land’ there is out there. There has never been a map that highlights how much we don’t know.
I thought it was time this was rectified. So I’m pleased to announce that I’ve built the first ‘missing land’ map, ever, for England & Wales. Please take a look and then return here to see what this all means.
What does this map show?
The map shows the 5.2 million acres of England & Wales that doesn’t have a registered owner. Search the map to see the unregistered land near you – it varies from slivers of fields and gardens there, to huge rural estates.
To be clear, all this land is owned by someone – usually, the person or institution involved will hold paper deeds to prove their ownership. The ownership details just haven’t been registered with the government, which means that you can’t check the ownership online by paying £3 in the usual way.
Land Registry is working hard to get landowners to register their land, and has committed to registering 100% of England & Wales by 2030. But as now, around 15% remains unregistered.
So who owns all this unregistered land? By definition, we don’t know. But we do know that it hasn’t changed hands for years, and most of it is rural. So it is probably owned by old families or institutions: as Land Registry itself says: “Much of the land owned by the Crown, the aristocracy, and the Church has not been registered, because it has never been sold”.
In other words, we do know one thing: this land has been owned by the same people for many years.
How can we know this? Because registration of land on sale was not compulsory across England & Wales until 1990 (and on inheritance not until 1998) . So if land is still unregistered, we know it hasn’t changed hands for at least 20 years. And probably much longer, depending on when the date when the local authority introduced compulsory registration on sale.
Why does it matter?
So what is the problem with the 15% that remains unregistered? Firstly, unregistered land complicates planning and infrastructure decisions. As the Royal Town Planning Institute explains:
Land registration is extremely important for a number of reasons, including facilitating strategic development, developing environmental management at a landscape scale, and transparency. In order to successfully manage land use we need to know who owns it.
Secondly, it slows down conveyancing (the process of buying and selling property) – looking things up online is a lot faster than rummaging through old papers.
And finally, those who own it benefit from a lack of transparency not available to anyone else, since the public cannot consult the Land Registry to find out who owns the land. As Lord Coleraine, a Conservative peer, stated to the House of Lords in 1996: “unregistered land carries an anomalous privilege of privacy”.
(Side note: Although imposing registration can be problematic in countries with undocumented land use patterns, this is not the case in England & Wales. All land here already has an owner in law.)
For all these reasons, Land Registry is rightly keen to complete the register, and has made huge steps in doing so. But its progress has slowed in recent years.
Here at Who Owns England, we think there is a straightforward way to speed up the registration of the remaining 15%, which I’ll describe further below.
How was this map made?
I built this map essentially by generating the “holes” from the Land Registry’s INSPIRE Index Polygon dataset of registered freehold land. It was quite a complex technical challenge, involving a dataset of 22 million polygons.
The Index Polygons dataset can’t be mapped publicly – I’ve written before about this data and the legal challenges involved in doing anything with it. But I think there is no IP problem with showing the holes in the map.
Why is there so much unregistered land?
Time for a brief historic digression.
To understand how so much land can be missing from the central register – in a country where you must join a central register even to own a pet pig – we have to delve into the past. As always with land in England: it’s complicated.
Until the early 19th century, establishing land ownership was based on paper deeds, without a central register. If you wanted to sell a piece of land, you had to show the papers to prove you owned it. This was slow, inconvenient and uncertain, which suited the legal profession just fine, since it kept them in work .
But in the 1820s, the legal reformer James Humphreys proposed a central register of land titles, to improve efficiency. By the 1860s, the reformers won, and Her Majesty’s Land Registry was established. For the first time, landowners could choose to register their titles securely with government.
The only problem was that almost no-one bothered. The process was onerous, and registrations barely trickled in. So in 1897 the Land Transfer Act was introduced, giving local authorities the power to impose compulsory registration. But again few counties did so, amid opposition from the legal profession.
Registration on sale did not finally become compulsory everywhere for nearly a century, on 1 December 1990 – “the day,” one Chief Land Registrar wrote ecstatically, “all my predecessors had dreamt of” .
In 1998, the Blair government also made registration compulsory when land was inherited, as well as when it was sold. This speeded up progress, along with a push by Land Registry to get existing landowners to register.
In early 2005, the area of the country registered was under 50% (PDF); as of today, it’s just over 85%.
A simple proposal: completing the map
While Land Registry has committed to comprehensive registration by 2030, it has no powers to enforce it, progress has slowed in the past few years, and it is unclear how it can achieve 100% coverage.
Here at Who Owns England, we think one simple solution would bring a great deal of land onto the register at a stroke: the government should require all land to be registered, with details of its beneficial owner, before it can receive farm subsidies.
This change would not only simplify planning and conveyancing, it is fair: if public money is used to support and improve land, we should know who benefits from it.
Happily, this proposal has been put forward as an amendment to the current Agriculture Bill by Caroline Lucas MP, with support from the Royal Town Planning Institute:
If you agree, please write to your MP and ask them to support the amendment when it comes before Parliament.
Explore the map of England’s unregistered land at unregistered.whoownsengland.org
1. A Short History of Land Registration in England and Wales (PDF copy via the National Archives), Peter Mayer and Alan Pemberton, HM Land Registry, London, 2000.
2. Lawyers and the Making of English Land Law, 1832-1940, J. Stuart Anderson, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1992.
3. Marketable Values: Inventing the Property Market in Modern Britain, Desmond Fitz-Gibbon, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2018.
4. Ten Chief Land Registrars, 1862-1996, Peter Mayer, HM Land Registry, London, 1996.
31 thoughts on “The holes in the map: England’s unregistered land”
Reblogged this on Preston Byrne and commented:
A fantastic introduction to registered and unregistered land in England, for the uninitiated.
Didn’t the Government have a period in the 1970’s when unclaimed land reverted back to the Crown if no one claimed it.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Unclaimed isn’t the same as unregistered though.
1) Is there a reason for the limit on zooming (which appears to be around z=12)? As it stands, it’s not possible to see the detailed outlines of plots. Open Street Map goes all the way to z=19.
2) Is there a reason the unregistered map does not have a control to expanded it to full screen? The window provided is rather small on my 1920 x 1080 screen.
Hi ARB – thanks for the comments. Answers:
1) I deliberately restricted the zoom level to avoid confusion over slivers/artefacts from data processing (some present in source data too!). I don’t want bad data to cause people personal stress. The best way to get more detail that is definitely accurate is to use the raw INSPIRE data, as described in this post: https://anna.ps/blog/how-to-use-land-registry-data-to-explore-land-ownership-near-you
2) Good idea! I’ll add one next time I update it.
Or: any putative owner who does not show up to register their land within a year of bill passage, will have the land declared unowned and auctioned off by the government to the highest bidder.
The 1873 Return of Owners of Land (second Domesday Book) would be a good starting point to discover ownership of unregistered land in the UK
Yes 🙂 See Guy’s post on modern Domesdays: https://whoownsengland.org/2017/03/05/a-guide-to-modern-domesdays/ The 1873 ROL only lists acres owned by landowner and county, though, no maps, so it might not be that much use for tracking down a particular field in practice.
Hi Anna, I would be very happy to encourage MPs to support Caroline Lucas’ amendment to the Agriculture Bill. I understand that this is now at Committee stage. Do you know its timetable for further passage through parliament?
Thanks Peter! I only know what’s here I’m afraid… which says the date has yet to be decided. https://services.parliament.uk/Bills/2017-19/agriculture.html
If 50% of land was registered in 2005, and now it’s 85%, does this mean that 35% of land in England and Wales has been sold or inherited – changed hands in some way – in the last 14 years? or do people just register there land anyway for other reasons.
As explained eslsewhere in the site, several counties have details of estates related to footpath access, which is shown on Anna’s map. EG Berkshire
just had a quick look at the map.i live in Warwick and can tell you pretty confidently that the land at milverton,leamington spa belongs to the heber-percy family of hodnet hall staffs.the land at Sherborne near Warwick belongs to the smith-rylands family who also have commercial and residential interests in birmingham.
A lot of the land ‘unregistered’ are protected parks, woodland, railways and hedgerows. Clearly a lot of the owners are known (councils, woodland trust, etc). Frankly if keeping these unregistered helps protect them then that is a very good thing. However I’m not convinced your data is accurate in some of these cases.
I don’t think that land being unregistered is protecting it – quite the opposite. We have some unregistered land near us and a neighbour is trying to annex it into their plot, which is a shame because it is a wooded patch with lots of wildlife. Having a battle trying to stop them.
The NHS is trying to sell Brighton General Hospital land and buildings but it turns out they didn’t pay a penny to acquire the Brighton Municipal Hospital as was from the city Corporation (as was) so surely they should just give it back to our council if they are no longer using it for a hospital. Moreover no transfer documents can be located from Corporation to NHS following a number of FOI requests to interested parties..
When Labour nationalised municipal services in the 1940s no compensation was paid. It was seen as a transfer within the public sector that didn’t require any money to change hands. This was true of hospitals, also electricity and gas departments. (And water departments in 1974.) The councils had any outstanding debt written off, that’s all. In relation to unregistered land, there are no transfer documents where title passes directly by Act of Parliament.
I think there are errors in this map.
I’m from Cheadle Hulme and as a child lived on the Ramilies Estate which was a private housing estate built in the 1960s. The bulk of Malborough Rd is in red which would suggest it is unregistered. However, this cannot be the case, as it is lined with semi-detached houses like the rest of the estate, almost all of which will have changed ownership several times since they were built.
On closer inspection another big splodge of red covers houses on land between Lorna Rd and Ladybridge Rd.
The biggest splodge of red in Cheadle Hulme is the Hursthead estate, again covered in privately owned suburban houses.
There are either errors in the data used, or the logic used to produce this map.
It’s a good effort, but probably not one to be relied on that much for stats. I can see clearly lots of railway stations, sidings and car parks (CH Station, Stockport Station, Longsight, Piccadilly etc), which again are in red. When I worked at BR, they were the largest landowner in the UK. Railtrack or whoever own them now, probably never bothered registering the land they own because it would be herculean task.
Looking to the south (e.g. Patrixbourne) and east (e.g. Cop Street) of Canterbury in Kent I wonder of the large parcels of unregistered land are something to do with the Diocese of Canterbury?
The whole premise of land ownership is a work of fiction. No one owns the Earth. Why is Man the only species that has to pay another of his species for the “right” of having somewhere to dwell? If any one has the first title deed given by God, I’d love to see it. It’s time humanity awakens to this this ludicrous fallacy of land ownership.
This is a really interesting article. I work in flood risk and have recently had a complaint from a resident of water ingress though an external wall into the property. There is ponding the other side of the wall on a narrow path, and when I went to check land ownership I found it to be unregistered. Likely the developer didn’t register the path when the estate was built, and as it was so long ago they are almost certainly out of business. That puts me in a difficult position as I have to tell the resident that nobody is responsible for the standing water causing problems in their home.
I do have a question for you if you have the time – do you have any idea what would happen to a piece of land that could not be registered, such as this instance, because the land owners have gone out of business and no longer exist?
Can you camp or park overnight on unregistered land? If not, are there specific places in England where you can camp for free?
Unregistered land does not mean it is not owned and therefore apart from specific areas where camping is allowed the lad is subject to the same legal protection with respect to trespass as anywhere else. Of course, some unregistered land may not be owned by anyone but it is very unlikely.
I’ve lived in England for 15 years and have never heard of “unregistered” land. Very interesting!! The question also arose, is there such a thing in the United States?! I need to study this issue, for general development. Maybe there are such things there, too.