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Why privatising the Land Registry could be a costly mistake

Nottingham Trent University's Nigel Hudson questions the wisdom of selling off such a prime national asset

Despite a less than enthusiastic response from the property sector, the government is still looking to privatise the Land Registry. While the timeframe looks to have been shifted back a touch – a Junior Minister at the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (George Freeman) told MPs last week that a decision will be made ‘later this year’ – the official Tory party line is still to sell the service into private hands.

Here Nottingham Trent University’s Nigel Hudson questions the wisdom of selling off such a prime national asset…

It’s a busy time in UK politics; the nation is still getting to grips with the fallout from Brexit, both major parties are facing bitter leadership contests, and the union is looking more fragile than ever. Yet amid this turmoil, MPs carry on with the business of government, while Brexit threatens to act as a smokescreen, shielding other important topics from public scrutiny.

One such matter is the move to privatise the Land Registry, which has been in state hands for hundreds of years. Established in 1925, the Land Registry is a record which holds and maintains the data for 24m property titles across England and Wales. It provides vital information about the ownership of 87% of land, which is worth a total of £4 trillion – including £1 trillion in mortgages.

In 2014/15 alone, the Land Registry cost almost £261m to run – but it also generated £297m of revenue from fees for the use of its services, such as title searches. As such, it’s no longer seen just as a function of government, but as an important asset in a world where data – and the ability to leverage data – is very valuable.

  • Short term thinking

As MPs gather to discuss the issue, Labour MP David Lammy has warned that the government is “looking to sell off the family silver to turn a short-term profit, to try and make their sums add up”. And he’s not entirely wrong.

UK Chancellor George Osborne is looking to sell up to £5 billion of corporate and financial assets by March 2020, to help reduce the nation’s deficit. Despite the failure of previous attempts, the government has pressed ahead with consultations to move Land Registry’s operations to the private sector from 2017. The consultation closed at the end of May, and the responses which have been made public were less than enthusiastic about the prospect.

For one thing, private sector leaders and city lawyers have warned that any buyer would surely seek to retain exclusive rights to the Land Registry data for themselves, rather than continuing to make it accessible to all. On a more positive note, ideas about how to improve the service have also been put forward.

The Conveyancing Association, for instance, suggested a “land registration tax” (perhaps an unfortunate use of words, given the public’s dislike of taxation) as a way of increasing the Land Registry’s revenue.

This would “immediately” double the Land Registry’s income, which could also cover the recent shortfall from the halving of fees for electronic registrations. According to the trade association, such a tax would be “a relatively small burden for the homebuyer in amongst the other costs and charges involved in the process”.

  • If it ain’t broke…

The feedback from the consultation makes a strong case against privatisation – as does the petition signed by 250,000 members of the public, which was handed to Business Secretary Sajid Javid in May.

Moreover, it’s unclear why the government feels it necessary to privatise the Land Registry in order to achieve efficiency. Those working at the Land Registry have significant experience and expertise in that field (excuse the pun). They have presided over a period of great change in the delivery of their service, and built a valuable, state-owned asset in the process.

There is a great fear that privatisation will lead to redundancies among the Land Registry’s 4,578 staff, who are based in 14 offices across England and Wales. Unsurprisingly, trade unions have come out against the proposals warning that job cuts will result from any purchase by a private enterprise.

If – as the government acknowledged in its consultation – “data can be a real driver of innovation and growth”, then why not retain ownership of the operation and increase revenue for the good of the nation?

  • Dodgy deals?

As well as causing concerns for staff, 65 cross-party MPs have signed a letter warning that the sale would enable “shady offshore entities to buy up property” in the UK. Approximately 40,000 properties in London alone are registered in the names of offshore companies, whose ultimate ownership is unclear. Ministers are concerned that privatising the Land Registry would make it even harder to regulate property ownership in the UK.

Then there is the question of data security; it’s not obvious that privatisation will lead to a better service, particularly given the recent trials and tribulations of G4S in the case of the prison service. The Land Registry contains publicly accessible information such as property prices. But it also holds private data such as mortgage account numbers. The question is, can we trust a commercial organisation with this sensitive data?

Even if the prospective buyer’s security is up to scratch, there’s still a risk that this data would be exploited to make larger profits. The government has said that it will still prescribe fees for the Land Registry; although this will keep costs down for users, it means that the only ways for a commercial organisation to increase its profits is through “efficiencies” (job cuts or branch closures), or by exploiting the data by other commercial means. Either way, it’s bad news for the public.

At this stage, no final decisions have been made: the government still has a chance to listen to the concerns voiced by the general public and leading experts alike. Here’s hoping it’s brave enough to recognise when it has made a mistake, and arrive at the right decision.The Conversation

Nigel Hudson is Senior Lecturer in Law at Nottingham Trent University

This article was originally published on The Conversation

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