Consultation on future of the agency closes this week, so far showing overhwelming opposition
With days to go until the deadline for submissions to the latest consultation on privatising Land Registry, objections have come in from groups as diverse as the News Media Association and the Competition & Markets Authority (CMA).
The News Media Association is concerned that privatisation could restrict access to one of the very few pieces of public data available on almost everyone who finds themselves in the news - the value of their home.
More likely to be taken seriously by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is the CMA’s objection to the form of the sell-off, as a vertically integrated 'NewCo'. The competition watchdog says that "there is a significant risk" that a business engaged in both the supply of monopoly data and commercial products based that use it "would not maintain or improve access" to the data.
The authority adds: "While these risks are not unique to privately owned monopolies, our view is that they may be sharpened by the introduction of a profit motive."
It recommends that the best way to guard against competition risks would be to split Land Registry into monopoly and commercial divisions, and preventing the monopoly business from developing commercial products.
The City of London Law Society, representing one of the world’s largest law firms, also raises competition issues in its critical response. It notes that a likely lack of impartiality and conflicts of interest arising from private sector involvement could make it difficult for Land Registry to fulfil its adjudicatory functions.
The society’s land law committee also says the consultation underestimates the technical nature of land registration. For instance, many applications to register complex transactions take several months, requiring the availability of expert staff to deal with technical registration issues as they arise.
Not fully understood
Meanwhile, data held by the registry is a “great enticement” to private organisations that would seek to use it for their own purposes. “We are concerned about what protections there will be to safeguard the interests of our citizens from a data protection perspective,” the response says. “Although the government refers to safeguards, very little information is provided in the consultation on this critical issue.”
In another submission, an outspoken former chief land registrar, John Manthorpe, points out that privatisation has been firmly considered at least three times in recent years. A 2001 quinquennial review described it as “an act of considerable folly” and it was spurned in the Land Registration Act 2002 and rejected by the Coalition Government in responding to a consultation in 2014.
Manthorpe notes that, unlike in 2014, the current consultation does not propose the status quo as an option. He says that the statutory and public function cannot be carried out by a private company: “The authors of the consultation document have not fully understood the adjudicatory nature of land registration or the scope of the registry’s role.”
Manthorpe says that the consultation’s suggestion that digital transformation will be facilitated by privatisation ignores the Registry’s track record: “In its quest to improve and simplify conveyancing the Registry has successfully developed one of the largest transactional databases in the country offering fast online enquiry services to the land register.”
He argues: “The ‘digital by default’ objectives can 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 provider.”
In another contribution to the debate, the pressure group We Own It this week published a study by the New Economics Foundation suggesting that the £1.22bn expected to be realised from the sale will be exceeded by lost surpluses from the trading fund within 25 years.
At least one response to the consultation has argued that it would be unwise to kill such a golden goose. The Conveyancing Association, which represents professionals involved with buying and selling property, says increasing the registration fee and reversing a recent halving of fees for electronic registrations would immediately double Land Registry’s income, “yet is a relatively small burden for the homebuyer in amongst the other costs and charges involved in the process”.
The association says it has responded in this way because it believes that opposition to privatisation is a lost cause.
This may be a realistic assumption. Last week’s Queen’s Speech revealed that a sale would be enabled by the Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill, due to be introduced this parliamentary session.
First, however, the government will have to respond to the consultation. Given such a chorus of disapproval, it may be hard to put a positive spin on the responses.