Plans for the Land Registry to take over local authorities' responsibility for crucial land searches could be bad news for councils and home buyers alike, respondents to a consultation have said.
The idea, set out in a consultation which closed this week, is for the registry to set up a central digital register of local land charges (LLCs), one of the two main local authority searches required as part of the conveyancing process. The registry, which is subject to a separate consultation on being transformed into a 'service delivery company' also sought opinions on being granted 'wider powers'.
At present, local authorities are responsible for administering and charging for LLCs and so-called Con 29 searches. The registry said that centralising the local land charges register would speed it up and mean that users were charged standard fees. However several respondents were sceptical about how this would work in practice.
One respondent, a former chief land registrar, said that the new central system would still require local authorities to input data, but they would no longer be remunerated for doing this. "As a result they will cut staff and so the timeliness of data being input to the register is likely to suffer," he said.
The Council of Property Search Organisations, a trade association for the property search agency, said that the quality of data would suffer because Land Registry planned only to digitise records going back 15 years. This would mean that 430,000 buildings that were listed before 1999 would not show up on searches for people buying these properties.
Other significant issues that may not show up if registered before 1999 include conservation areas, tree preservation orders, noise abatement orders and private sewers. James Sherwood-Rogers, the council's chairman, said: "The very real consequence is that people could find themselves buying a listed property without knowing it as this will not show up on a Land Registry search if the listing took place more than 15 years ago.
The result of this could be alarming - an unwitting buyer making illegal alterations, adding on a conservatory or even knocking down part of the listed building. This could be an expensive mistake when English Heritage find out and it puts at risk our most valuable and historic housing stock."
The Law Society, which represents solicitors, questioned the practicality of the new arrangement and the impact on local authorities. 'If this proposal were to be implemented, Land Registry would be receiving updates from nearly 350 local authorities. This represents a large amount of data that would be submitted to Land Registry and incorporated onto the register.' It says the consultation does does not say how often this will happen, or how long it will take to update the register.
It is also voices suspicion of the Land Registry's ambitions to spread its remit. 'There may be benefit to solicitors and others if this were to result in a standardised fee and turnaround time, the fact that it operates other monopoly services could stifle market forces and restrict competition in this area, contrary to government policy.'
The former Land Registrar, John Manthorpe, who led the registry between 1985 and 1996, said that the government's 'digital by default' objectives could be better achieved by retaining "this experienced and successful computing operation within the Land Registry rather than risk the overruns on time and budget likely with any substitute provide"r.
Manthorpe said the registry "has successfully developed one of the largest transactional databases in the country offering fast online enquiry services to the land register. Meanwhile the registry's computing centre at Plymouth has been recognised as an award winning success. There has been very little turnover of specialist staff - many of whom had a land registration background. Unlike government computing centres in London staff were not constantly lost to the private sector. It is not an exaggeration to say that the Registry's successful computerisation of the land register, its fast online enquiry services and the development of on line lodgement succeeded where others in government, dependent on major outsourcing to private IT companies, either foundered or came in over budget and out of time. It would be wrong to disrupt this successful specialist unit on which the property market depends."
A parallel consultation, on turning the bulk of the registry into a service company with possible private shareholding, closes on 20 March.