Private Eye’s map of offshore land ownership makes a substantial contribution to the case for fully transparent land data in England by showing what it could look like in practice.
At the moment, England’s land data lies in purgatorial halfway house. In principle, information on who owns every single plot of land in the country is available for anyone to see. The only problem is that accessing information on either a) the boundaries of any individual plot of land or b) who owns it, costs £3 a throw.
That might not sound much, but given the Land Registry last year registered its 24 millionth title in England and Wales, getting coverage for the whole country would cost over £140 million. And it’s not only individuals who have to pay, but even other public sector organisations and agencies.
As a result, the practical amount of data that’s publically accessible is very small.
The overriding point of Private Eye’s map is to draw attention to how much of our land is owned offshore. In doing so, it could help to lift the lid on corruption and exposes how much foreign capital is flowing into England – particularly into some of our inner cities.
But transparent land data could do so much more to help to fix a variety of longstanding English housing problems.
A. It could make it easier to acquire and develop land
Not knowing who owns a piece of land makes it pretty difficult to buy it. You could browse the plots of land that people have advertised for sale, but if you’re trying to assemble a large site this is often not an option. Existing large developers are able to invest a lot in building up information on the land market and are in a good position to identify and option land, but for new entrants it is a major and unnecessary barrier. Making land data much more transparent could help to clear the way for a busier and more competitive development market.
B. It could give councils the tools to plan effectively and regulate their private rented sector
The fact that not even state bodies are able to access land data freely means that councils are forced to carry out a number of their duties in the dark.
While the English planning system is mostly reactive, councils do create local plans, set local planning policy and negotiate planning obligations. They’d be in a stronger position to do all of these if they had the wider context on who owns what, where and how much they paid.
Councils also have responsibility to regulate the private rented sector, but at the moment it is next to impossible for them to know exactly which homes in their local authority are privately rented. This fundamentally undermines their ability to regulate effectively. To properly empower them, we think that there should be a national register of landlords and their properties. But short of doing that, it would be possible to give them a pretty good idea of knowing which homes in their borough are privately rented by just giving them access to land ownership data, which they could cross-reference against council tax data. Where the owner differs from the person who pays the council tax, there’s a good chance that the occupier is a renter.
The benefits to councils of knowing who owns what within their borders are such that Manchester City Council last year decided to fork out over £230,000 to bulk buy Land Registry data. That’s obviously money that the council could otherwise have spent on local services if the information was freely available.
C. It could protect the public against investment scams.
Some unscrupulous firms have tried to take advantage of the huge amounts of money that can be made when land receives planning permission by developing new scams. These scams involve buying a plot of agricultural land for cheap, chopping it up and selling plots as land with ‘development potential’ at a considerable mark-up. The only problem is that there is very little potential that they will ever receive planning permission for development. Much of the land is in the green belt or another protected area. The Financial Conduct Authority estimate that this sort of scam has cost UK investors £200 million.
Private Eye’s map has a number of suspicious holdings in protected areas that look like they’re part of this kind of scam (lots of chopped up plots in green belt). If all of the data was available it would make it easier the authorities to spot scams and warn against investing in them.
The absent case against transparency
These benefits are only scratching the service. We’ll only understand the full potential in these data once they’re fully in the public domain for free. So there must be some clear reason that this hasn’t happened yet.
What could the reason be?
It’s not cost. At £37 million, the Land Registry’s surplus last year was over twice the amount of revenue that it made by charging for enquiries (£17 million). Enquiries account for only 6% of the Land Registry’s income. So it could stop charging and still make a healthy surplus.
It’s not privacy. As I wrote at the top: data on who owns what is already relatively accessible on a small scale, so the existing pay wall doesn’t protect individual’s privacy.
It’s not another point of principle. The government has a public commitment to data transparency. Companies House has blazed a trail by scrapping all of the fees that it used to charge to see their electronic data through their new beta service. This, incidentally, opens up an awful lot of data on land through company charge information (which lists company mortgages, etc.). For example, you can now see data on hundreds of sites owned by the country’s biggest builders.
And it isn’t a technical barrier. With the greatest possible respect to Private Eye, this is not their area of technical expertise. They managed to put together their map based on FOI data using open source software and the skills of one very talented software engineer. The Land Registry, in contrast, employs over 4,000 people who work with land data every day.
Land data transparency is not going to solve the housing shortage on its own. But given the clear benefits and the absence of any good case against tearing down the Land Registry’s pay wall, the argument in favour of entering a new era of land data transparency seems incontestable.