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Comment: Land Registry's painful boundary dispute



On Wednesday and Thursday this week, hundreds of staff at HM Land Registry England and Wales, will strike in protest against job cuts and a government plan to privatise the bulk of its activities. The walk out may be the first sparked by the government's digital by default strategy - the job cuts will be a consequence of Land Registry's plan to make transfers of property title a self-service job for conveyancers.

Although any plans for job cuts would have enraged the PCS, the main union at Land Registry, the dispute has come to a head because of the clumsiness with which Land Registry is handling its transformation strategy.

Last week it became apparent from leaked board meeting minutes that a public consultation on splitting the agency into a 'service delivery company' under a new Office of the Chief Land Registrar, is a sham. This in turn prompts speculation about a second consultation, on a proposal to give the registry wider powers, among them to centralise the local land charges register, now run by local authorities.

At least one critic has described this as a fattening-up exercise for privatisation.

As published by the Guardian newspaper, the leaked minutes paint a picture that will delight cynics and opponents of public service reform. They appear to show Land Registry's top brass meeting just five days after the close of a consultation and taking decisions on the basis that the government's response is already known.

The main emphasis seems to be on how to win support for the service delivery plan: "Need to up game considerably on comms", the minutes record.

Most astonishing is a vignette that could come straight from Yes Minister. The minutes appear to show chief executive and HM land registrar Ed Lester trying to railroad the board into an immediate decision to take over the Millbank Tower premises of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman to house the proposed Office of the Chief Land Registrar - even though officially no decision has been taken on whether the office will be created.

To its credit the board rebuffed Lester's plea that "a decision had to be given today", saying that while "acknowledging the sound business case for the premises" it was "not prepared to sanction the commitment".

As a result, the chief land registrar will have to continue slumming it in Croydon for a while.

Some critics, in particular the trade unions, say these embarrassing revelations demonstrate that Land Registry should be left alone. However there is another argument: that Land Registry and its parent, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, are in this mess not because the reform plan is too radical but because it is not radical enough. Rather piecemeal tinkering to bring in private sector cash and cut the civil service payroll, the department could be thinking strategically. In particular, with the future of Ordnance Survey also in play, the government has a one-off opportunity to create a cadastral national land and property information system.

A possible model would be Norway's Infoland mapping, land registry and water information service. It was created by merging two electronic registers: the land register run by the courts and the cadastre run by the mapping authorities into a combined National Mapping and Cadastre Authority. Interestingly, the new combined agency is run by a wholly owned limited company, NE, which reports to the Norwegian Ministry of Justice.

The trouble with replicating that model in the UK is that it would require strategic, joined-up, cross government thinking. BIS has already shown its contempt for such an approach to land and property information by selling off the postcode address file database along with the Royal Mail. But perhaps it can redeem itself by halting Land Registry's sham consultations and looking to the wider national interest.

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