Independence Minutiae: The Land Registry

(Title Image: The Land Registry)

The latest in my series of indescribably boring and technical posts looking at overlooked and minor issues of Welsh independence considers registration of land ownership (titles, deeds etc.). At the moment it’s the responsibility of the Land Registry.

What is the Land Registry?

The Land Registry is a non-ministerial department (currently under the auspices of the UK’s Department of Business, Innovation & Skills) that registers titles and deeds of land ownership in EnglandandWales. It acts as a single depository and safeguard of land ownership records so everyone can know for certain that a person or body who says they own a piece of land really does own the land – guaranteed by the UK Government under the crown.

In addition to registering and guaranteeing title, its role includes:

  • Helping to settle boundary disputes between neighbours (including deferring to tribunal if necessary).
  • Monitoring and publishing land values, price paid and house prices (UK House Price Index).
  • Map data showing land ownership (National Polygon).
  • Collecting data about land in EnglandandWales that is owned by foreign companies.
  • Flood risk reports.
  • Specialist services for mortgage lenders and property portfolios (i.e. discharge of charges/notification that someone’s paid off a mortgage).

The Land Registry has 14 offices around EnglandandWales, with a regional office for Wales based at Llansamlet, Swansea. It’s entirely funded by fees it raises and some commercial activity, which raised £297.1million in 2014-15. Taking away the £260.5million annual costs produces a surplus of £36.6million. Around £19.1million of this surplus is paid as a dividend to the UK Treasury, as well as a £100million “special dividend” from cash reserves (pdf – p69).

Scotland has its own land registry – the Registers of Scotland (which is also responsible for the registration of certain other legal documents) – while Northern Ireland’s land registration scheme is run as an executive agency of the Northern Irish executive’s Department of Finance.

What is its future?

The UK Government were pressing forward with plans to privatise the Land Registry, however the process has stalled since the change in government and there are rumblings the idea could be dropped. A public consultation was held between March and May 2016 (pdf).

The UK Government don’t believe there’s “any compelling case” to keep the Land Registry in public ownership and believe privatisation could lead to greater innovation as the Land Registry’s functions go increasingly digital-only.

Should privatisation still proceed, the preferred option is for the UK Government to enter into a contract with a private company to provide the service, with the Land Registry sold off as a going concern. The UK Government would then keep the proceeds of the sale. It’s unclear how much it would raise though there have been ballpark figures of £1.22billion.

The PCS union, which represents the Land Registry workforce and – unsurprisingly – opposes the privatisation, held strikes in May 2014. They point to high levels of satisfaction with the Land Registry’s work and the fact the body continuously returns a profit to the Treasury as a public body.

What could an independent Wales do?

Wales doesn’t necessarily need independence here as it’s somewhat inevitable that, at some point in the future, when planning and land laws diverge between Wales and England the functions of the Land Registry will be devolved. In the spirit of devolution – and in line with Scotland and Northern Ireland – it should’ve been devolved anyway.

As for the options:

  • (Re)Nationalisation – Land registration would become a public-run service again, presumably under the auspices of the Welsh Government department dealing with planning and/or the environment. Whether it would be spun out as an executive agency (like Natural Resources Wales) or be absorbed into a government department would be up for debate. Keeping it in public ownership would provide some measure of assurance on guarantees and compensation.
  • A government-owned company – A part-privatisation where the government remains majority shareholder and it would presumably be run as a not-for-dividend. As an arms-length body, it would give the new company room to innovate and commercialise their offer, but with some level of government guarantee (like Network Rail).
  • Maintain a public-private contract – No change post-privatisation (if it happens).
  • Other options – These include scrapping land registration all together and allowing the market to self-regulate (what could possibly go wrong?), devolving responsibility to local authorities, or making the state the sole leaseholder of all land in the country (comrades!). None of these is really practical for different reasons.

In any case it would make sense to continue to base services at the current Land Registry offices in Swansea.

You would assume all titles and deeds for land owned in Wales prior to independence/further devolution would become the responsibility of the Welsh replacement agency. As this information is relatively easily retrieved there shouldn’t be any practical problems. The real issue is making sure all current services provided by the Land Registry can be provided on a Wales-only basis….and they probably could.

In terms of costs, you would assume that (proportionally) a Welsh land registration agency would still raise enough to cover its running costs and produce a moderate surplus/profit – but this depends on levels of activity in the property market.

Based on figures the latest annual report from the Registers of Scotland (pdf p70), Wales should be aiming for (proportional) figures in the region of £34million annual turnover and operating surplus of ~£5million – though anything that produces a surplus would work.

One of the main concerns surrounding independence and big UK government departments is downsizing and job losses. That may well certainly be the case with the likes of the DVLA and Office of National Statistics, but there’s no reason why any Land Registry jobs in Wales would be lost. If anything a few extra jobs would be created as senior positions and functions currently based in London would have to be replicated at a Welsh level. In the specific case of Swansea, it also has a strong case to be the base of a Welsh naval service.