The Government has issued a consultation document containing options to move the Land Registry into the private sector. This is part of the Government's wider aim to raise £5 billion from sales of public sector assets between now and 2020.

The last date for responding to the consultation is 26 May 2016.

The Land Registry

The purpose of the Land Registry is to keep a register of ownership of land, and charges over land, in England and Wales. Scotland has its own land registration system. The Land Registry delivers two key benefits over the older system of unregistered conveyancing. These are:

  • registration simplifies proving ownership of property and so speeds up the conveyancing process: hard copy documents have been replaced by an online register; and
  • the Land Registry provides a state-backed guarantee, providing compensation in case of error or fraud.

Information on the land register is publicly available, including the price paid on the last sale.

For the Government, local authorities and individuals, knowing who owns land is valuable information. However, the register is not yet a complete record of ownership of the country's property. Land that has not changed hands over the past 30 years or so - more in some parts of the country - remains unregistered, but will be added to the register when ownership next changes.

The Government's proposals

The consultation document proposes a number of options. However, it emphasises that in all cases the land register, and the data within it, will continue to be owned by the Government.

The preferred option would involve the Government contracting for the continued operation of the Land Registry with a private sector operator, to be put in place no later than next year. While the register would remain owned by the Government, the Land Registry's employees and its assets would be transferred to the new operator, in exchange for a capital payment to the Government. A service contract would set out the arrangements between the operator and the Government. Effectively, the economic benefits and risks of ownership would be transferred to the private sector, but the Government would need to remain involved as 'an intelligent and responsible customer through actively supervising the contract'. The consultation document states that this model has been implemented successfully elsewhere, for example, in Canada.

Other less-favoured options are also put forward. These include a concession arrangement, under which the Government would retain more of the risk, and a more independent arrangement, with less control from the Government and protection being provided by an independent regulator.

The disadvantages are that these options would not be of interest to as many investors, so would be likely to generate a lower capital receipt. Also, the model involving an independent regulator would take much longer to set up.

One option that is not being considered is retaining the status quo. This would fail to meet the Government objective of taking the Land Registry out of the public sector and would not deliver the desired culture change and 'incentivisation to drive transformation'. It would also not produce the large capital receipt that the Government is clearly hoping to attract.

Commentary

Privatisation of the Land Registry has been considered in the past, and been dropped after opposition from many directions. However, it seems likely that the Government is serious on this occasion. Put simply, the public finances demand it, and press reports suggest that buyers are already queuing up.

The consultation document makes it clear that, under the preferred option, the Government is not proposing to walk away from its responsibilities, but will remain 'an intelligent and responsible customer'. It is good to hear this, as the success of the UK economy depends upon the continuing availability, every day of the year, of the Land Registry and the data within it. However, there are too many examples of private operators taking over public functions and reducing headcount and expenditure before fully understanding the dynamics of the organisation. The Government needs to make sure that such risks are properly managed in this instance.