Reports have appeared on multiple news outlets over the weekend, suggesting that the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) is abandoning plans to privatise the Land Registry. As yet unconfirmed, a source has cited ‘staff issues’ and the need for new legislation as ‘just too complicated’ to let any of its privatisation proposals go ahead.
Plans for part or whole privatisation of the Registry were leaked in May, sparking an online campaign, petitions and a 48-hour strike of Land Registry civil servants. Moreover, at the launch of the Infrastructure Bill in June, proposals to transfer local land charge (LLC) powers from local government to the Registry seemed to indicate a ‘fattening up’ of Registry powers, making it more attractive for sale.
Uncertainty still surrounds this issue, with BIS refusing to confirm any changes to the Registry. Campaigners are continuing to take action, however, and a 38 Degrees petition to keep the Registry in public ownership is to be handed to BIS tomorrow, Wednesday 2nd June. You can sign the petition here.
From our perspective, the transferring of LLCs, combined with the leaked discussions about privatising the Registry, are changes in the wrong direction. The Land Registry is currently profitable, producing £98.7m for the Treasury last year, with a 98% customer satisfaction rate. As other examples demonstrate, privatisation can reduce transparency and worsen service quality, as well as its reliance on the logic of accountability to shareholders rather than to the public.
This does not necessarily mean the status quo must be preserved. As mentioned in our Social Economy consultation response, there is potential for improvement in the Registry. Adopting mutual, social enterprise or common ownership models could be considered, and there could be consideration given to making the Land Registry more transparent, removing the fee for registry searches and generating income from innovative uses of the data it holds, rather than charging for access. We believe the fact that it is so difficult to establish who owns land in the UK militates against an informed debate about its use, value and availability. Changes to the Land Registry might be appropriate, but takeover by a for-profit business would not be change in the right direction.