Land registry privatisation ‘could speed digital innovation’

Privatising the Land Registry could spark the introduction of more digital products which make use of its data, according to a government consultation.

Ministers have launched a consultation on moving the non-ministerial department into the private sector as part of its drive for £5bn of asset sales by March 2020.

The consultation document on the proposed sale says that digital transformation could be brought about within the public sector, but that private sector expertise could speed the process.

It said: “A new owner could bring new knowledge and investment into the organisation and could ensure Land Registry accelerates its transformation into a more efficient and effective service delivery organisation with clear contractual obligations and controls to meet appropriate standards.

“This could enable it to maximise the potential of the information it holds and diversify the services it offers, whether it is for professional customers or private individuals trying to buy or sell property. All these factors could support an improved, faster transformation into the digital world, and deliver an improved service to customers.”

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The government said that as the Land Registry becomes more digital, the potential value of its data increases.

Any new owner would be expected to make progress on the current move to consolidate and digitise local land charges data held by local authorities into a single register.

The government said: “We believe there are other opportunities for Land Registry to take on further registers, including some outside the UK, and the proposed change could create conditions for them to do so.”

“With the right protections, private sector ownership could incentivise the organisation to make the most of this potential, maximising the accessibility of Land Registry’s data and driving the creation of innovative, new products for the public.”

The Land Register is a government-owned register setting out the ownership of land and property in England and Wales, of which 87% is registered.

The government said that under any privatisation, the registers would continue to be owned by the government.

In 2014/15, Land Registry costs were £260.5m, with revenue worth £297.1m.

Non-statutory functions brought in a further £4.6m, with a number of datasets currently provided to the public free of charge in support of the government’s Open Data agenda.

The number of staff employed by the department has fallen from 12,000 in the 1990s to around 4,100 full time equivalents today, which the government attributes to the move from a paper based system to an electronic approach.

The consultation said: “The next stage of Land Registry’s transformation, whether under public or private sector ownership, would be to become a truly digital organisation, reducing the need for clerical or administration staff and with professional staff free to focus on exercising judgement on technical land registration issues where required.”

Ministers said they would also ensure that Land Registry data remains subject to a high standard of data security procedures.

PCS – the largest of the civil service unions – has already hit out at the consultation, pointing out that the previous attempt to gather views on privatisation under the coalition government met with few calls for change.

The union said: “The major concerns expressed then, still remain: that the Land Registry is successful, popular and trusted; it is crucial to the property market and self-financing; no case can be made for putting at risk what clearly works by introducing the profit motive into the sensitive area of state registration of land.”

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said the plans appeared to be driven “by short-term political choice, not economic necessity”.

“Homebuyers and owners rely on the Land Registry to provide an impartial professional service and it must remain under public control, free from any profit motive and conflict of interest,” he added.

Colin Marrs

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