Who owns England?

The holes in the map: England’s unregistered land

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.

From the map: unregistered land in north Norfolk

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) [1]. 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 [2][3].

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.

Title certificate from 1905, designed by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale. © HM Land Registry, used with permission.

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” [4].

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.