Why should the Government improve land market transparency?

Published: by Catharine Banks

The lack of transparency in the land market is a serious barrier to building more homes in England. Shelter is calling on the Government to open up all land data held by the public sector, to let innovation flourish, allow the market to work more efficiently, and get more homes built.

All markets need good quality information to work efficiently. Without this, buyers don’t know what to bid for goods or services, and sellers don’t know what to ask. Poor transparency means insiders with access to information can exploit their position and make excess profits at the expense of everyone else – and attracts investment from dubious sources that want to remain secret.

The land market is absolutely central to the economy – and of course to the housing system – but amazingly, there is almost no publicly available, comparable and usable data on land ownership, prices, uses and values. This is a huge weakness in our system, one that hinders house building and allows insiders to profit from market inefficiencies.

Happily, in the era of big data, smart mapping and rapidly developing digital tools, it’s a relatively easy problem to solve. Plenty of land market data exists, but it is held in several different formats by various different agencies. Some of it is free to access, some can be paid for with varying restrictions on its use, while much remains inaccessible to the public. This data could be released in comparable, usable formats immediately, at almost no cost to the public and with potentially huge benefits.

The implications of opening up land data would be enormous for house building – as well as hugely beneficial for wide range of issues facing the country today, from food production and flood management, to growing local businesses and the new digital economy. That’s why we’ve joined with a coalition of like-minded organisations to call on the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to scrap the £3 fee for title deeds and open up the Land Registry.

But this move would be just the beginning of a real revolution in open data.  The Land Registry isn’t the only source of data on land. Local authorities hold information on planning applications and consents; DCLG hold records of the square meterage of homes through the Energy Performance Certificate regime; Natural England holds geographic information from across the country. Currently, all of these datasets, and more, are held separately and in different formats. Some are freely accessible, some are available for a price, others are completely hidden.

Shelter is calling on the Government to bring together and open up all land data held by the public sector. Some of the potential benefits of open land data for housing delivery include:

  • Making it easier to acquire and develop land: both finding and negotiating a price for land would be much more straightforward for new entrants and smaller companies, improving market efficiency.
  • Improving the efficiency of interactions between development firms and public authorities: if all developers, land traders and companies had to register their interests in land, it would level the playing field. This in turn would improve Local Authorities’ ability to negotiate good Section 106 agreements swiftly and consistently.
  • Giving Local Planning Authorities and Neighbourhood Forums stronger tools to plan effectively: understanding who owns and controls land in their area would allow councils and communities to plan proactively based on what the area needs, rather than reactively in response to planning applications.
  • Enabling ordinary people to understand more about their local area: people would be better equipped to find out who owns the land around them, helping to overcome local suspicion of development.
  • Improving the efficiency and consumer experience of the housing market: it would improve clarity of pricing for both new build and existing homes, reduce opportunities for fraud, and limit the power of intermediaries in the homebuying process.
  • Helping policymakers better understand important market trends: full land market transparency would allow much easier monitoring of trends, both on a national and local level, and free access to data would reduce public spending on proprietary datasets.

Achieving these outcomes will require greater coordination and cooperation between several different agencies, which will require Government oversight in the short term.  But if the UK builds on its world-leading land data assets and takes a strategic approach to collating and coordinating data release, it could spark a boom in innovation and products for export – and be a massive step forward towards building the homes the country so desperately needs.