Privatising the Land Registry could create a “real and unavoidable tension” between the profitability of privatised operations and the government’s open data ambitions, Bernard Jenkin, the chairman of the public administration committee, has said.
Data not for sale: Land Registry privatisation must not damage open-data agenda says Tory MP – Photo credit: PA Images
Responding to a government consultation on plans to privatise the Land Registry – which keeps an up-to-date register of property transactions in England and Wales – Jenkin became the latest figure to express concern about the move.
The government wants to move the Land Registry to the private sector by 2017 as part of wider plans to raise £5 billion for the Treasury by selling public assets, but the plans have been heavily criticised since they were announced in March.
This includes concerns over the data held by the registry, with the Open Data Institute saying that a sell-off could inhibit the government’s open data agenda and the Competition and Markets Authority has suggested that handing over control of property data to a private firm could raise monopoly concerns.
Jenkin, who chairs the cross-party Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, has now written to ministers to say that – although he is not opposed to the general principle of privatisation – “the data must remain in state ownership”.
In the letter, he noted that the government’s proposal for privatisation reiterates its commitment to making data available on a free and open basis. This includes efforts to improve ease of access and to give the public sector free access at the point of use to Land Registry data.
However, he said, “there is a real and unavoidable tension between the profitability of privatised Land Registry operations, which relies on charging the public for access, and the achievement of the objectives of open data”.
Jenkin acknowledged that the organisation had been slow in adapting to the digital revolution, and that freeing it from “the constraints of Treasury rules” could open up investment opportunities, but that this should not be seen as a “clinching argument” for privatising the agency.
He said that there were a number of areas that could be detrimental for open data, including that it would be more difficult to ensure that missing data was added to the datasets without full government control.
In addition, Jenkin said that he had “no confidence” that a privatised entity would be any more effective at releasing data than the registry currently is.
Citing as an example the privatisation of the Postcode Address File as part of the privatisation of the Royal Mail, Jenkin also pointed out that previous moves to privatise public sector bodies had not resulted in greater access to open data.
“Indeed, the experience has generally been that data has been lost, and its overall value to the economy has been diminished,” he said.
If the government does go ahead with its plan, Jenkin said, it must not allow a privatised Land Registry to make money from the sale of data, and recommended that the Office for National Statistics be offered the opportunity to take over the collation and publication of its data.
He concluded: “If the government decides to privatise Land Registry operations then in two years’ time, I expect PACAC will wish to call BIS/UKGI in to discuss what effect this move has had on the publication of data.”