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Osborne cautious on data business sales



Contrary to expectations, the Spending Review has proposed only tentative steps towards privatisation

Against expectations, Chancellor George Osborne’s Autumn Statement and Spending Review has not ushered in a radical programme of selling off the government’s portfolio of data businesses.

The Blue Book on the review, published by the Treasury today, mentions only two long-mooted candidates for privatisation, Ordnance Survey and HM Land Registry, and makes only tentative commitments for both.

For Ordnance Survey, the statement says only that the government will: “Develop options to bring private capital into the Ordnance Survey before 2020.”

This suggests that the national map maker is not seen as contributing to the chancellor’s central goal of eliminating the budget deficit by 2019-20. The most likely option is for the core public task of maintaining the Master Map database will remain in the public sector, but ways will be sought to spin off value added digital and paper mapping products in ventures with the private sector. Such ventures can expect rigorous scrutiny for anti-competitive behaviour.

For Land Registry, the proposals are rather more concrete. The Blue Book says the government will ‘consult on options to move operations of the Land Registry to the private sector from 2017’, subject to a value for money assessment.

Head start

Here the government has a head start because it consulted on options last year before putting privatisation on hold - a decision widely attributed to then business secretary Vince Cable.

The middle option from last year’s consultation proposed splitting Land Registry between a core Office of the Chief Land Registrar, which would remain in the public sector, and a “service delivery company” run by a private contractor”. This is almost certain to be resolved, albeit with tweaks added by the department’s new adviser, investment bank Rothschild, if the 2017 target is to be met.

The prospect received a cool reaction, and not just from civil service trade unions. Andrew Lloyd, managing director of property search specialist Search Acumen, said: "Any move to privatise Land Registry operations must not be allowed to put barriers in the way of access to property and land data, which is vital to understanding the market and improving its performance.”

Pointing out that the registry already makes a profit for the Treasury, he said: “Now is not the time to pull the rug out from under Land Registry’s feet.”



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