Ongoing opposition to government plans to privatise the UK Land Registry

For the second time in two years campaigners are petitioning against the government’s plans to privatise the Land Registry.  The petition signed by some 225,000 people is to be handed in Business Secretary Sajid Javid on Thursday 26th May.  Following a similar petition issued during the time of the coalition government, previous plans were scrapped but have been picked up again causing many to voice their opposition.


What does the land registry do?

As stated on their website it is the duty of the Land Registry to keep and maintain the Land Register, where more than 24 million titles (the evidence of ownership) are documented.

Individuals or organisations who become landowners or own interests in land must apply to the land registry to:

  • register unregistered land
  • register a new owner of a registered property following a sale
  • register an interest affecting registered land, such as a mortgage, a lease or a right of way

They consider each application and take account of the law in order to decide whether and how to register the application.  They also record any ownership changes, mortgages or leases that affect the land.  In addition anyone who suffers loss because of an error or omission in the register, or because the register needs to be corrected, will normally be compensated.


Why is privatisation opposed?

Various reasons have been put forward in opposition to the privatisation including:

  • worries about the security of their data if sold into private hands
  • concerns costs to access the register would likely rise if the service becomes for profit
  • the service may lose its impartiality
  • it brings in a revenue for the Treasury of £100m each year and costs the tax payer nothing


What are people saying?

Individuals as well as organisations have voiced their concerns including the President of the Land Registry branch of the PCS Union, Michael Kavanagh.  He was quoted as saying, “Land registration must remain an impartial and trusted role of the state, free from commercial exploitation and conflict of interest. Privatisation would inevitably lead to increased fees for the public if the motive shifted from the public services to profit.”  This is a sentiment shared by IPSA, the trade body for Independent Search Agents given that there will be no competition leading to the cost of searches to the home buyer rising.

Many solicitors have also come forward to question the proposals and the potential negative impact upon their clients not just in terms of increased cost.  The President of the Law Society Jonathan Smithers said, “Privatisation of the Land Registry would mark a significant change to a vital piece of our nation’s infrastructure.  The ability of any owner or company to have certainty about the ownership and status of land is central to the way our economy functions”.

The plans have been criticised by the competition watchdog Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) who have warned that allowing a private firm to take possession of property ownership information could give that new owner a monopoly on commercially valuable data with no incentive to improve access to it.  While the CMA has no powers to block the proposed privatisation the watchdog has said its preferred option was for the Land Registry to remain in public ownership.

There are warnings too from the News Media Association that privatisation could be a threat to investigative journalism because a privatised Land Registry could be removed from Freedom of Information laws.  Journalists argue this would create greater barriers to investigating who owns property in Britain.

The subject is politically sensitive as well.  ‘We Own It’, a campaign group for keeping public services public, run for people not profit, have published a report stating that “Selling off the UK public assets such as the Land Registry will leave the government’s finances worse off in the long-term as cash from the sale is outstripped by future profits”.

With so much opposition against the plans we will have to wait to see what the government response will be and how the plans might proceed.