White Paper signals a genuine shift towards greater land data transparency

Measures to improve transparency over land ownership, control and use in yesterday’s Housing White Paper are extremely welcome – and not a moment too soon. Before Christmas, Shelter set out our case for greater land market transparency – so how do the government’s proposals measure up?

Overall, there was a marked shift in tone in yesterday’s White Paper, towards opening up information on our land and development markets for the benefit of local authorities, communities, and new entrants. The White Paper announced concrete, positive steps towards improving the transparency of information on the ownership and control of land, and on increasing the accessibility of planning data. Not only will these measures help bring land to market more easily and get homes built faster, they will also improve local understanding and trust in the planning and housebuilding process. As new polling on attitudes to housebuilding shows, NIMBYism is on the decline and support for new homes is growing. Helping local people understand who owns and controls land in their area, and who is seeing the financial gain from development, will surely help to sustain this change in attitudes.

Land Registry

We were extremely heartened to see the Government’s confirmation, following an announcement in November’s Autumn Statement, that the Land Registry will remain in the public sector. The ambition to complete the Land Register by 2030 is a clear commitment to improving understanding of land ownership in this country, and the recognition that the public sector needs to spearhead this is welcome. It isn’t currently possible to compel landowners to register their land – registration is only required if transacting land – but at the very least, kickstarting the completion of the register by requiring all public sector land to be registered is a solid start.

But ownership information alone can often raise more questions than it answers, particularly where land is owned by shell companies. So it’s extremely positive that the new measures seek to establish a ‘clear line of sight’ across each piece of land. At the moment, much of housebuilders’ strategic landbanks isn’t actually owned by them, but rather controlled using ‘option to purchase’ agreements. This means that ownership information alone won’t tell you who exactly might be controlling and promoting a site. So including information on options and other contractual agreements in the registration will help to paint a much clearer picture of the players in the land market.

Finally, the commitment to make the Land Registry’s commercial and corporate ownership dataset, and its overseas ownership dataset, available free of charge* is fantastic news. This will mean that information on ownership of all land except that owned by private individuals and charities will be free to access. This will be a massive step forward for SMEs looking to break into the development market, self and custom builders searching for appropriate small sites, and local people hoping to better understand their area. Particularly when combined with data on who controls or has interests in land, this will start to dismantle one of the key barriers to entry in our housebuilding system.

Modernisation and digitisation

There were also positive measures announced around modernising and digitising the way we access information on land. These fall into two categories:

  • Looking at ways in which the Land Registry and Ordnance Survey can work more closely together to provide a more effective and open digital land and property data service. This is a vital link to be forged, because while the Land Registry holds much of the information on ownership and boundaries of pieces of land, Ordnance Survey hold the key to showing where this is on a map. Which, after all, is far more useful to someone trying to understand the location of a site than a vague description such as ‘Land north of Station Road’.
  • Making planning data more available and accessible for individuals, community groups, local businesses, and more. Following on from recommendations by the Local Plans Expert Group, the aim is to make Local Plans more accessible and interactive. This will fit well with a government-sponsored pilot programme that’s seeking to identify opportunities for clearer data standards in local development documents, which will support better plan-making and, again, help people to identify and understand the land around them and what it can be used for.

What’s still to do

All in all, today was definitely a major step in the right direction towards improving transparency in the land market. There’s still further to go, for instance we would have liked to see all ownership data being freely released, including ownership by individuals – but the release of corporate, commercial and overseas company data will certainly be a significant improvement to the current situation. We will be responding to upcoming consultations in this area, including on transparency of contractual agreements, as well as continuing to work to identify opportunities for greater understanding of the market.

These changes alone will certainly not solve the housing crisis. But they are a key piece of the puzzle, and demonstrate a refreshing willingness on behalf of government to tackle the barriers that stop us building the homes we need.

*This post was amended on 9th February to reflect that the Land Registry’s commercial and corporate ownership dataset, and the overseas ownership dataset will be free but not open. There will be some restrictions on usage due to the IPR of others.